Online Access for Students with Disabilities

Sixteen years ago, I met a blind professor who was an early adopter of what we now call the flipped classroom; students completed assignments online and class-time was reserved for collaborative projects and discussions. Early on in one of his flipped courses, he began receiving multiple emails from a student asking questions about everything from course content to his experiences as a historian. After a couple of weeks, he became curious about why she wasn’t talking with him during class. Her response was that she was deaf, and this was the first course in which she was able to communicate with the teacher without an interpreter. It took a minute for what he said to register with me: Email had eliminated a communication barrier between a blind professor and a deaf student. This was a defining moment for me as I realized that online learning can be a powerful equalizer for students with disabilities.

Because insight into our learners informs our teaching, understanding how students with disabilities access online learning is an extension of best instructional practices. In an online course, however, it is typically unknown whether a student has a disability unless you’ve received a “letter of accommodation” provided by UNE’s Disability Services. This letter will notify you of the academic accommodations that the student has been granted; but because the student has a legal right to privacy, they may choose not to disclose the nature of their disability to you. Being aware of the typical experiences of some students with disabilities in online courses can at least illuminate the purpose of the accommodations letter, which legally guarantees equal access to the learning opportunities of your course.

Needs for academic accommodations are as varied as our students, so it can be helpful to understand how students with disabilities access online courses and related electronic media. Most of us interact with our digital devices according to how they were designed to be used. We access our computer with the standard keyboard, mouse and monitor, and we don’t think twice about tapping and swiping our smartphone and tablet screens. But what if you didn’t have sight? Or voluntary movement of your hands? What if you had superior cognitive abilities but also a neurological condition characterized by difficulties with word recognition and decoding? Students who experience these conditions need one or more access modifications, as well as considerations related to academic accommodations, to compensate for the impact of their disability.

Fortunately, alternative access methods are widely available in the form of assistive technology. Devices known as switches allow users with fine or gross motor disabilities to control their computers using any voluntary movement they have, such as simply blinking an eye. Screen reader technology allows blind users to control their computers with keyboard shortcuts, and their tablets with specially designed finger gestures. Closed captioning of video brings audio content to deaf users. Other examples of assistive technology have found their way into the mainstream. Text to speech, once an expensive software program, is now built into virtually all devices and used for everything from reading support to multitasking. Along with text to speech, a growing number of people with and without disabilities are interacting with their devices by talking to them; the continuously improving reliability and responsiveness of this technology, known as speech recognition or dictation, has resulted in mainstream adoption.

Understanding how disability impacts student access to the online environment can provide insight on the need for accommodations. Although a student with a disability has the right to not disclose the reason for an accommodation through Disability Services, you can rest assured that its purpose is to provide equal access to learning through reasonable alterations and modifications, including those that support the use of assistive technology.

You may find this a helpful illustration, Real Connections: Making Distance Learning Accessible to Everyone.


– Written by Cynthia Curry, Instructional Designer and former member of the Instructional Design Services team at UNE Online. 

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