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Technical Brief: Students With Disabilities and Online Learning

Students with Disabilities and Online Learning

Technical Brief # 04

Please cite as:

UDI Online Project. (2010). Students with disabilities and online learning (Technical Brief # 04). Storrs: University of Connecticut, Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability. http://www.udi.uconn.edu



Students with disabilities require unique support in the online learning environment. Many higher education instructors assume that all materials available online are accessible to all students (Cook, 2002). In fact, a recent survey of online instructors found that 80% did not consider the needs of students with disabilities, and 12% only partially consider the needs of students with disabilities when designing online courses (Bissonnette, 2006). This lack of awareness for students with disabilities in course design is especially pronounced given that approximately 11% of all college and university students have a disability (National Center on Education Statistics, 2009). Considering the needs of students with disabilities when designing online course content benefits these students, but will also benefit all students (Burgstahler, Anderson, Slatin, & Lewis, 2008; Dukes, Koorland, & Scott, 2009). This brief examines issues faced by students with disabilities in online/blended courses and strategies to address these issues as stated in the literature.


Issues Faced by Students with Disabilities in Online Courses

  • Students with learning disabilities (LD) or other “invisible” disabilities (e.g., Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), traumatic brain injury, or psychological disabilities) may be less likely to self-disclose their disability to the instructor due to the impersonal nature of the online environment. As a result, these students may be less likely to receive needed accommodations in an online course (Barnard-Brak & Sulak, 2010; Bricout, 2001).
  • Due to the speed of reply required, synchronous discussions do not fairly assess the knowledge or skills of students with a disability (Bricout, 2001; Burgstahler, 2002; Dukes et al., 2009).
  • Graphics or visual media may not be accessible to students who are visually impaired, whereas text-heavy environments are challenging for students with reading disabilities and other types of LD or AD/HD (Burgstahler, 2002; Dukes et al., 2009).


Strategies that Can Help

The following suggestions and strategies are offered in the literature to assist students with disabilities to fully access and participate in online courses.

  • Allow students to disclose their disability in a way that ensures privacy and encourages them to seek the accommodations they need to engage the course material (Bricout, 2001).
  • Design online learning environments in ways that are “amenable to accommodations” such as building in flexibility and choice of assignments for students to demonstrate the knowledge they have acquired and skills they have developed (Bissonnette, 2006; Dukes et al., 2009).
  • Cue important information on course web sites to meet the needs of students who are visually impaired, physically disabled, or have LD (Bricout, 2001). For example, a brief introduction to a web site could be provided that might include a written explanation of the site’s layout in conjunction with a video with audio narration demonstrating the layout.
  • Incorporate asynchronous discussion boards which are more accessible to all students since they do not include speed of reply as a factor in assessment in comparison to synchronous discussions (Bricout, 2001; Dukes et al., 2009).
  • Ensure that web sites and resources can be utilized with assistive technologies. Many students with disabilities use assistive technology such as alternative keyboards, text-to-speech software, and screen magnifiers (Burgstahler et al., 2008).
  • Offer alternative media such as audio-taped books, Braille printouts, and oral and written captions of visual information to meet the needs of students with disabilities (Burgstahler, 2002; Dukes et al., 2009).


Common Modifications

The following suggestions should be considered by course designers to ensure the accessibility of web sites:

  • Avoid blinking or flashing items that might distract students with LD (Cook, 2002; Crow, 2008).
  • Use forms and tags that screen reading software can access (Cook, 2002).
  • Avoid special plug-in applications that require users to leave the web site and obtain software before viewing or listening to media (Cook, 2002).
  • Incorporate consistent and easy-to-use navigation links (Cook, 2002; Crow, 2008; Dukes et al., 2009).
  • Include warnings of timed responses so that students are aware if they are going to be disconnected from an exam (Cook, 2002).
  • Provide alternative labels for graphic elements for speech output programs (Cook, 2002).
  • Design web pages to be clear and free from unnecessary clutter (Crow, 2008; Dukes et al., 2009).
  • Avoid learning materials that rely exclusively on recognition of color by the student (Crow, 2008).
  • Use page titles and headings (Crow, 2008; Dukes et al., 2009).
  • Limit unnecessary graphics or pop-ups (Crow, 2008).
  • Provide detailed notes embedded in posted online PowerPoints (Dukes et al., 2009).
  • Offer opportunities for students to give each other feedback before submitting assignments (Dukes et al., 2009).

It is also important to note that many accommodations used in traditional courses, such as extra time on tests, can also be used in the online learning environment (Cook, 2002).

In conclusion, students with disabilities comprise a significant proportion of postsecondary student enrollment. These students can face unique challenges in online learning environments, such as difficulties accessing information if it is not presented in formats that facilitate access to materials. Simple course design strategies can make information more accessible to all students. For example, during the design process, focus should be on presenting information in ways that are intuitive to navigate in the online environment, offering text alternatives for graphic information, and providing choices in how students access and present information.


Works Cited

Barnard-Brak, L., & Sulak, T. (2010). Online versus face-to-face accommodations among college students with disabilities. American Journal of Distance Education, 24 (2), 81-91.

Bissonnette, L. (2006). Meeting the evolving education needs of faculty in providing access for university students with disabilities. Retrieved from http://www.profetic.org/IMG/pdf/0605-leo.pdf

Bricout, J. C. (2001). Making computer-mediated education responsive to the accommodation needs of students with disabilities. Journal of Social Work Education, 37(2), 267-281. Retrieved from http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/detail?accno=EJ631112

Burgstahler, S. (2002). Bridging the digital divide in postsecondary education: Technology access for youth with disabilities. Addressing Trends and Development in Secondary Education and Transition, 1(2). Retrieved from http://www.ncset.org/publications/viewdesc.asp?id=718

Burgstahler, S., Slatin, J., Anderson, A., & Lewis, K. (2008). Accessible IT: Lessons learned from three universities. Information Technology and Disability, 12(1). Retrieved from http://people.rit.edu/easi/itd/itdv12n1/burgstahler.htm

Cook, R. A., & Gladhart, M. A. (2002). A survey of online instructional issues and strategies for postsecondary students with learning disabilities. Information Technology and Disabilities, 8(1). Retrieved from http://people.rit.edu/easi/itd/itdv08n1/gladhart.htm

Crow, K. L. (2008). Four types of disabilities: Their impact on online learning. TechTrends, 52(1), 51-55. Retrieved from http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/detail?accno=EJ798639

Dukes III, L. L, Koorland, M. A., & Scott, S. S. (2009). Making blended instruction better: Integrating universal design for instruction principles in course design and delivery. Action in Teacher Education, 31(1), 38-48.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2009). Number and percentage distribution of students enrolled in postsecondary institutions, by level, disability status, and selected student and characteristics: 2003-04 and 2007-08. Digest of Education Statistics. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d09/tables/dt09_231.asp


Other Suggested Readings

Badge, J. L., Dawson, E., Cann, A. J., & Scott, J. (2008) Assessing the accessibility of online learning. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 45, 103-113. doi: 10.1080/14703290801948959

Burgstahler, S. (2002). Universal design of distance learning. Information Technology and Disability, 8(1).

Burgstahler, S. (2003). The role of technology in preparing youth with disabilities for postsecondary education and employment. Journal of Special Education Technology, 18(4).

Edmonds, C. D. (2004). Providing access to students with disabilities in online distance education: Legal and technical concerns for higher education. The American Journal of Distance Education, 18(1), 51-62. Retrieved from http://www.ajde.com/

Keeler, C. G., & Horney, M. (2007). Online course designs: Are special needs being met? American Journal of Distance Education, 21, 61-75. doi: 10.1080/08923640701298985

Lewis, K., Yoder, D., Riley, E., So, Y., & Yusufali, S. (2007). Accessibility of instructional web sites in higher education. EDUCAUSE Quarterly, 30(3). Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/eqm0734.pdf

Marchetta, N. D. J., Hurks, P. M., DeSonneville, L. M. J., Krabbendam, L., & Jolles, J. (2007). Sustained and focused attention deficits in adult ADHD. Journal of Attention Disorders, 11(6), 664-676. doi: 10.1177/1087054707305108

Mather, D. S. (2003). Dyslexia and dysgraphia: More than written language difficulties in common. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 36(4), 307-317. doi: 10.1177/00222194030360040301

Moisey, S. D. (2004). Students with disabilities in distance education: Characteristics, course enrollment and completion, and support services. Journal of Distance Education, 19(1), 73-91. Retrieved from http://www.jofde.ca/index.php/jde/article/view/106

Sapp, W. (2009). Universal design: Online educational media for students with disabilities. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 103(8), 495-500. Retrieved from http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/detail?accno=EJ858193

Simoncelli, A. (2008). College students’ with learning disabilities personal reactions to online learning. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 38(2), 49-63.

Weir, L. (2005). Raising awareness of online accessibility, THE Journal, 32(10), 30-35. Retrieved from http://thejournal.com/articles/2005/05/01/raising-the-awareness-of-onlin...