Is It Possible To Earn An Online Degree If You Have A Disability?

Published on: January 07, 2022

Thanks to advances in technology, it is now possible for people with disabilities to embark on career paths that would have been impossible previously. However, post-secondary education is still essential to acquire the knowledge and skills needed for these types of jobs. Colleges and universities have made a lot of progress over the years to be more welcoming to students with disabilities, but it is an ongoing process.

As online learning becomes more popular, it also presents a new set of challenges to both students with disabilities as well as the institutions providing the degree programs. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 14 percent of all public school students between the ages of 3 - 21 received special education services in 2019-20 (https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cgg). This number is likely to be even higher for students enrolling in post-secondary education.

What Are Some of The Most Common Disabilities Among Students?

When most people hear the word "disability," they associate it with something like being blind, deaf, or confined to a wheelchair. However, there are other less visible disabilities that students have to deal with too. These can range from medical disabilities such as diabetes, cancer, and chronic fatigue syndrome to autism spectrum disorders that can make it difficult to complete online studies in the traditional manner.

ADD / ADHD

Students who have ADD or ADHD can find themselves easily distracted and unable to concentrate during classes. As a student with this condition, it is important to try and minimize the number of distractions in your environment as well as on your computer while taking part in an online class. Lecturers can assist students with ADD/ADHD by providing them with downloadable material, which can be done in their own time under less distracting conditions.

Hearing Disabilities

Students with hearing disabilities will have a hard time engaging with any online learning materials that feature audio elements. Therefore, online course materials featuring audio components must include subtitles or closed captions to assist these students. In addition, providing students who have hearing disabilities with transcripts of any lessons containing online audio elements is also a must.

Dyslexia and Other Learning Disabilities

Online learners who have dyslexia or other related learning disabilities could find themselves struggling with predominantly text-based learning material. In such a case, audio-based resources can be a big help. Text-to-speech readers can also aid students with dyslexia with reading as these can convert any text documents into audio files. Companies such as Kurzweil (https://www.kurzweiledu.com/about-kurzweil/dyslexia-and-kurzweil-3000.html) offer software that can assist students with dyslexia, but there are also plenty of free alternatives available online.

Vision Loss or Impairments

Online learners who are blind or have visual impairments will struggle with text-based materials. As with students who have dyslexia, text to speech software can assist such readers. However, lecturers should be aware of any technical jargon that could prove problematic for these types of software to interpret.

What Are Some Of The Most Common Issues Facing Online Learners With Disabilities?

There are a lot of elements of online learning that students without disabilities take for granted, but which can be a considerable challenge for those who are not so fortunate. For example, if lecturers refer to something displayed onscreen without describing what it is, it can confuse students with visual impairments and put them at a disadvantage. The same goes for video content without any audio descriptions. Some students also benefit from knowing in advance what will be covered so that they can prepare adequately for live sessions. Knowing when breaks will be offered to attendees can also help students who struggle to concentrate for extended periods and allow them to be better prepared.

What Can Be Done To Make Online Learning More Accessible?

Although improvements have been made due to the increase in online learning, there is still a lot that can be done to assist learners with disabilities. The Web Accessibility Initiative has released strategies, standards, and resources to make the Web accessible to people with disabilities. For example, they have a list of easy checks on their website to help access the accessibility of a web page and find out if this issue is even addressed in the most basic way (https://www.w3.org/WAI/test-evaluate/preliminary/). They also provide a list of web accessibility evaluation tools for students with disabilities (https://www.w3.org/WAI/test-evaluate/tools/). Potential issues, such as adaptive technology struggling with online exams, should also be identified beforehand to make alternative arrangements.

Tips For Choosing An Online Degree Program If You Have A Disability

Although federal and, in some cases, local laws require higher learning institutions to accommodate students with disabilities, this is not always clear-cut when dealing with online degrees. When choosing an online degree program, make sure to check their website for a disability services page. You might also need to contact the institution and disclose the nature of your disability to verify that their program will be able to accommodate you. Getting in touch with students who have similar disabilities to find out their experiences can also be very helpful. Social media sites and student clubs or organizations can be beneficial resources in this regard.

Conclusion

Completing a degree is challenging enough without having any form of disability, so it is vital to choose an online institution that won't make it harder for you to do so if you have one. Although not as common, some colleges deal exclusively with students who have learning disabilities. At the end of the day, accessibility features can benefit all students and not just ones with documented disabilities, so it is crucial to address these challenges.

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