"Limitations only go so far." — Robert M. Hensel
Although every student should carefully weigh the benefits and considerations of online learning, web-based courses can offer disabled students some additional perks, most notably the convenience and flexibility to accommodate individual needs.
Disabled students comprise a larger percentage of the U.S. population that most people realize. According to a recent study conducted by the Disability and Information Technologies (Dis-IT) Research Alliance, 49 million Americans (or 16% of the overall population) identify themselves as disabled; the most commonly reported disabilities included learning disabilities (42% of respondents), mobility impairments (23%), ADD or ADHD (20%), psychological or psychiatric conditions (16%), and health- and medical-related impairments (15%). And based on data from the Social Security Administration, CNN Money reports the number of disabled U.S. citizens is continuing to rise. The number of Americans with little or no previous employment who filed disability claims has risen nearly 30% over the last decade, while the number of disability claimants who have held steady careers rose 44% during the same period. There are several reasons for this steady climb, including the recent economic recession, an aging baby boomer population, and advances in technology that can identify disabilities more easily.
As Justin O’Sullivan, Associate Director of Disability Services at Kaplan University Online stated in a personal interview, "Because online learning provides convenient access for distance learners and is typically more flexible than your traditional brick-and-mortar institution, students with disabilities who may have required accommodations at fixed-facility schools may, in turn, find an online learning format permits them the opportunity to study without special arrangements." But exactly how is e-learning more convenient than traditional learning?
For starters, online university students do not have to manage travel and transportation issues because online classes may be taken from the convenience of one’s own home. Physical facilities, on the other hand, can be tricky. Although colleges and universities typically meet the requirement to provide fully accessible facilities and necessary accommodations, it can still be awkward for some disabled students to navigate between buildings, down hallways, and through classroom doorways. Even schools with the best intentions may not make certain physical accommodations immediately available. For example, if a student needs an oversized monitor or keyboard, the disability and accommodation must be documented with the school’s Disability Services Office; this process may involve a lot of paperwork and red tape. The timeframe for this to happen also depends on the prioritization of needs, budgets, and personnel; the accommodation may not happen as quickly as the student or the institution would like.
On the other hand, disabled students taking classes online can set up their own home office area to match individual needs and preferences. This will serve them well as they progress along their education and career ladder; online learning via the home office can save money in the long run with regard to transportation costs, and the student will likely be able to use the home office throughout his or her career. Likewise, other daily incidental costs like food and clothing may be reduced; tax deductions may be available that can offset the cost of any needed home accommodations.
In addition to the convenience, online learning offers students with disabilities some benefits in terms of flexibility that may not be as readily available in a F2F delivery format. Online courses are increasingly developed with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) standards. This means the information for the course will be presented in multiple ways. In an online class, for example, a reading assignment may already be available in regular text (e.g., as a .pdf file) and as an audio file (e.g., MP3). This automatically gives all students the flexibility of reading or hearing the information, saving it for use with assistive learning software like ZoomText, reviewing the file as often as needed, and converting it into study notes. Generally, online courses are much less dependent on lectures than F2F classes and increasingly involve more interaction with media like visuals, graphics, and closed-captioned videos.
Similarly, online students often have the flexibility to be engaged in the course, to express themselves, and to interact with classmates and/or the professor using a variety of means. For instance, if it is more feasible for you to reply to your professor or classmates with an audio file than a typed response, this is usually possible in an online course. Additionally, online classes typically make more use of assignments and activities built upon one another to result in a large project by the end of the term/semester (a system known as "scaffolding), which provides more flexibility and freedom for managing your time to work on the big project. They also enable adaptive learning techniques, which allow students to complete activities and meet course objectives largely at their own pace and ability level. For example, in a composition class, students may be required to complete a grammar diagnostic by the end of the term. After students take it for the first time, the test may automatically direct students to additional practice sites to address any weaknesses that are identified. Students will be able to take as much time as they need to reach the required level of competency. This is especially helpful for students who may require additional time to complete assignments.
In a personal interview, Nancy Dimitri, a retired federal government employee who is hearing impaired, shared that she enjoyed the UDL options computer-based training gave her during her employment. She mentioned the class contained captions and a test that allowed her to measure her progress. She added that she also enjoyed the "ability to print out what was taught and said online." Prior to this, disabled employees had to rely on reading handbooks and the kindness of others for learning.
In addition, online courses are known as a great "leveler," meaning typically no one sees anyone else or knows anything about them other than what participants choose to share. This allows disabled learners to succesfully remain anonymous about any disability they may have if they so choose. Also, because online courses are naturally and increasingly developed with the concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), many accommodations are already met for the benefit of all learners. Therefore, there is rarely a need for a disabled student to feel compelled to disclose to classmates. Instead the focus is on building an online community of learners who work together toward a common goal.
Keep in mind that online learning provides the above benefits for a lifetime of learning that can lead to personal and professional advancement. As Dr. B.G. Barrett pointed out, the unemployment rate among persons with disabilities continues to remain at more than four times that of the general population in spite of the fact that the majority want to work. "However," Barrett said, "one way of changing these employment figures may be the use of technology and how it is offered and facilitated with people with disabilities."
Online education helps to alleviate this discrepancy by increasing technical fluency, which is one of the top skills employers look for in job candidates. In fact, online learning allows students to leave college with documentation that they have many of the top soft skills employers desire. Experience with learning online could also lead to telecommuting and remote work opportunities as potential employers will feel more confident that you can work this way because you’ve already been doing it successfully as a student.
To fund your education, check first with the Financial Aid and Disability Services Offices at your university of choice. Ask not only about tuition assistance, but also about financial aid for any necessary accommodations for educational use. If you are employed, check with your employer for educational assistance programs, especially if your educational goals or the assistive/adaptive technology is directly related to your job. Ask for deals on software, equipment, and furniture locally and online. For example, Adaptech Research Network offers a "Database of Free & Inexpensive Computer Technologies" and a list of links to free video demonstrations under the "Downloads" link. Other sites offer discounted technology for those in education.
Debra Hart at the Institute for Community Inclusion suggested that students explore these additional sources for funding:
- Vocational Rehabilitation (VR). If a student’s coursework is directly related to accessing employment, state VR funds might be used. Additionally, some VR agencies may offer a tuition waiver for eligible students.
- Family funds. College options can be paid for by students’ families. Students without a standard high school diploma are not eligible to apply for financial aid, nor can their families use college savings or 529 plans to pay tuition and fees.
- Other rehabilitation organizations. State developmental disability departments may provide funding to assist a student with intellectual disabilities to access post secondary education.
- Scholarships. Foundations or organizations can give scholarships to students enrolling in university regardless of their financial or disability status, providing that the student meets other requirements. Individual universities also award annual scholarships based on demonstrated financial need.
- AmeriCorps programs. Funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service, these programs provide an education award or stipend to participants who volunteer for one or two years [with the organization].
- Plans for Achieving Self-Support (PASS Plans). PASS Plans were developed by the Social Security Administration as an incentive to encourage individuals who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Supplemental Security Disability Income (SSDI) to enter the workforce. This plan allows an individual to work and save money without being penalized with a deduction from their SSI or SSDI check. There are restrictions on how the saved money can be used, but university tuition and fees would be permissible if they are shown to relate to a career goal.
- Check out what other students with disabilities are saying about post secondary education and e-learning and build a support system for yourself and others with disabilities.
- Although some schools are seeing a decrease in disclosure, students with disabilities should not hesitate to disclose and apply for any needed accommodations. Universities abide by strict guidelines and laws on the sharing of such information. Other students in the class don’t need to know about any disability you may have, but don’t lose out on possible resources by not disclosing to Disability Services.
- Reach out to Technical Support at your chosen school to discuss needs and available support. You should ask about the latest assistive/adaptive technology that you will require.
- Similarly to Technical Support, reach out to your professor before the start of each class. If you have a documented disability or you wish to disclose this to your instructor, faculty members can be very helpful in assisting you. Technology is moving so quickly that sometimes the educational technology moves forward faster than the assistive/adaptive technology to accommodate students. If this situation arises, make your professor and Disability Services aware of the situation so they can rectify it as soon as possible. Be patient in these unforeseen circumstances, as sometimes it’s not realized that there is a need until someone points it out. Universities will work with students to find solutions, and students will not be penalized in such situations.
Online education is a viable option for disabled students, and it has benefits reaching far beyond the classroom. As Barrett stated, "With the use of e-learning, more and more students (of all abilities) are now able to participate in learning. Further, e-learning has provided many unique and creative opportunities for instructors and learners to learn and grow from each other’s personal and professional experiences." And isn’t that what education is all about, and shouldn’t that include everyone, including those with disabilities?