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Distance Learning and the Disabled Student

Distance learning, is great for students with varying disabilities, from the hearing impaired, blind and those with limited mobility. If a person is disabled how do he or she decide if online colleges are right for them and what programs should they seek?
When a student with a disability seeks online courses they do so for the same reasons as everyone else with the added advantage of not having to cover up the disability.

Before taking an online course, students with disabilities need to consider several things. Is distance learning or online learning for me? Can my disability affect my learning style? Do I have the ability to learn on my own and stay focused? Will there be adaptive equipment available for me? What resources are accessible to me?
This article will work towards answering the questions posed above.

Personal Goals
Disabled students who participate in online education means being responsible for his or her learning process. Brush up on your study skills, making sure time-management skills are up to speed, know which method of learning is an effective approach to your learning process. Most importantly, get comfortable with the type of assistive technology that is required for the disability.

Some online degrees may appear to be lengthy and frustration can set in and the temptation to drop the class is very easy, however, an online education can be easy for a disabled student if consideration is established on a personal approach to education, and making sure it fits with the online format. Stay passionate about educational goals, determine what type of degree is accessible, and keep that goal firmly in your mind.

Equality and the Disabled Student
As online education classes become more popular, more schools are offering a diversed set of virtual classes. Students with disabilities have reaped the benefits. According to Richard Allegra (n.d.), the director of Professional Development for the Association on Higher Education and Disability, stated that “anecdotal information suggests that online education classes for students with disabilities are most beneficial simply by nature of being flexible. The classes meet people’s schedules. If someone is at home mostly or doesn’t keep regular working hours, then online classes seem to work well for them. Also, the amount of course material that is offered in alternative formats has increased greatly”.

Allegra (n.d.) also is wheelchair bound and wrote “On a personal level, as a wheelchair user, online classes have been beneficial to me. Several years ago a friend and I decided to take a class in travel writing. We both love to travel and thought writing about our adventures would be a good way to defray costs. The day the course was to begin we drove to the school, only to find that the building was not wheelchair accessible. Recognizing my plight, the administrators offered to let me take the course online, for free. Taking that class online held many advantages for me.

“Not only was physical access removed as an issue, but I was able to focus on learning
the material without the awkwardness I often felt when sitting in a classroom. I interacted with the instructor via email, which in some ways felt more personal than talking to her face-to-face. I was able to refer back to her lessons as often as I needed to. My fellow students and I exchanged notes and comments on assignments using both email and a virtual whiteboard. I have no idea whether any of the other students in that class had a disability, and it didn’t matter because the course was presented in a multitude of formats.”

Mr Allegra's plight reinforces disabled students need to access information in a format that is accommodating to their needs such as written, auditory, multimedia, etc. Schools should strive for a universal design in both course structure and material. Course designers must work towards communicating with students and instructors to meet everyone's interests.

Educational Needs
A big part of ensuring success as an online learner will be meeting educational requirements. The traditional colleges and universities have had more experience supporting on-campus students with disabilities, but are still learning how to be as successful with their online students. Students with disabilities should seek assistance from their advisors, department chair, but first seek out their instructors when accommodations are necessary in order to have a good educational experience.
Kim Donahue (n.d.) outlines questions a disabled learner should ask in order to determine whether an online program will work with your disability. Ms. Donahue recommends contacting the program director and not the recruitment person and ask the following questions:
• What experience does the program have with students who have [your type of disability?
• What accommodations have been made to support students like you, and does the program furnish any needed assistive technology? Is there any charge?
• What are the testing requirements? Is an exam proctor needed?
• Is there a disability services director who will be your go-to person if you are struggling with any class, instructor, or overall program issues?
• What flexibility does the program offer if your disability occasionally makes it difficult/impossible to meet course assignment deadlines?
• What, if any, other disability-support services does the school offer for you?

Effective Online Education Strategies
Fix schedule classes (synchronous), or a lack of fixed schedules (asynchronous), evolving technology, students need to know their options that make the learning process easier. Online students need to be more proactive in their pursuit of educational goals. They need to actively search for information, ask questions, and discuss issues with both students and teachers. Online education requires that a student is responsible for learning whether the student is disabled or not. Self discipline and motivation is the key. Kim Donahue (n.d.) listed the following tips from other online learners which were helpful:

• Get organized early, before the class begins if possible.
• Create a process for every new class so you can easily get back in the groove: for example, create folders for assignments, reading materials, and research resources; assemble an online course notebook, if you use one; reviews course assignments so you can be thinking about them in advance; skim the reading so you’ll have a sense of the course coverage.
• Understand how your technology works before you start your class, including your word processing software (generally, Word), presentation software (such as PowerPoint), Internet browser (for example, Firefox or Internet Explorer), your e-mail system, and whatever assistive technology you will be using.
• Commit to a specific time each week to devote to your class – perhaps Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings from 7:00-10:00 p.m., or some variation of this. Make sure friends and family know this time is taken and is utilized as if you were sitting in a classroom on campus. Test-drive your schedule so you can see what sorts of obstacles/challenges might arise, and put together strategies for dealing with them before they occur.
• If you are employed outside your home, on the weekend, line out what class work you can do over your lunch hour to make use of this “found time” of an extra hour (or five) every week.
• Take control of your online education environment: no distractions, no phones. Go for quiet unless background or white noise helps you focus.
• Check or log-in to your course website frequently, so you won’t miss any announcements.
• Check the course calendar so you’re always aware of class deadlines and assignment due dates.
• Do the prep necessary to turn your assignments in on time; that means breaking your assignments into chunks of activity and scheduling those activities in on a consistent timeline.
• Let your instructor know about any problems or issues as soon as you’re aware of them so you can jointly work out acceptable solutions; even if you spend a week figuring out a solution, your instructor won’t know that unless you let him or her know!
• Use the online collaborative tools to build relationships with your fellow students, create study groups, and find colleagues with whom you can build long-term professional connections.
• Plan to submit your assignments a day early in case you run into technology glitches. Also, keep in mind your local public library offers internet access as well as e-mail access in a pinch, and the librarians are great sources of research and technology expertise.
• Experiment with study techniques to find the ones that work best for you, for example, using a variety of strategies to remember key concepts, testing yourself to see how well you understand chapter points, using visual aids (posted notes, highlighted text, graphical concept maps) to enhance learning.

According to Mary Beth Crum, Ed (2009), an online instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout conducted a seminar called Six Ways to Teach Students of All Abilities Online. Dr. Crum offered guidelines for recognizing a student with a learning disability, and discussed the best ways to approaching the online learning environment. Crum also stressed the importance of being proactive when it comes to identifying behaviors that may indicate a student is struggling due to a learning disability.
Crum’s six strategies for effective online teaching are:
1. Contact all students by phone before class begins. Use the introductory call to discuss the goals of the course. If a student has a learning disability, they might tell you at this time. If so, you can recommend they seek accommodations through your school’s department of student disabilities.
2. Facilitate throughout the entire class and course. Be visible on the discussion boards every day so your students know their posts are being read.
3. Divide large class into small groups and visit each group daily. A few groups of 10-12 students each will have much better discussions and be more manageable than one large group.
4. Use Web communication tools. Go beyond discussion boards with instant messaging and online meeting applications that are easy to use and readily accessible at most schools.
5. Make accommodations. Help struggling students succeed by making them aware of assistive technology, as well as providing such accommodations as extending deadlines, reinforcing directions verbally, or chunking information for better understanding.
6. Communicate. Encourage phone calls, post clarifications when something is unclear, answer email within 24 hours, and explain when you will or will not be available.

Accommodating Disability
There can be problems accommodating students with disability. Sometimes accommodations are not made for people who need them. Potential students have to watch out for an unintentional prejudice, states Robert Bennett (2011), course designers can’t anticipate the needs of each individual student, so universal design takes into account only the most frequently needed accommodations. Some percentage of students will always need a little extra help. Dale Brown, senior manager of the website, believes that lecture and study materials have to be made available in several different formats because people process information in many different ways. “Many people with learning disabilities have processing challenges that affect their ability to hear or see accurately. One of the biggest advantages of online learning, for students with learning disabilities at least, is that they can go over material on a website as many times as they want to get it straight in their minds.” Brown says that online courses also can reduce the need for additional support staff. If, for example, a class lecture is presented on a website in an auditory format, then the need for a blind student to have a note taker disappears.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Distance Learning

Burgstahler (n.d.) wrote Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 requires that people with disabilities have equal access to public programs and services. The law outlines that an individual with a disability cannot be excluded from the participating in; be denied the benefits of; or be subjected to discrimination in these programs. The ADA accessibility requirement apply to internet programs just as they enforces elevators in buildings, reserved spaces in parking lots, and lifts on buses. The United States government states "Covered entities that use the internet for communications regarding their programs, goods, or services must be prepared to offer those communications through accessible means as well." Specifically, if a qualified person with a disability enrolls in a distance learning course offered via the internet, the course must be made available to him or her.

In order to assure that a distance learning class taught over the internet complies with the ADA? The ADA discuss access issues and present design guidelines for assuring that a distance learning course is accessible to potential instructors and students with a wide range of abilities and disabilities.

Ten Indicators of Distance Learning Program Accessibility
Ten indicators of distance learning accessibility were identified from creating distance learning courses and were shared with disabled students for feedback from sixteen post secondary institutions from a Project called DO- IT Admin. The project was funded by the department of education and directed by DO IT (Disability, Opportunities, Internet working, Technology) at the University of Washington. These indicators strive to reach the key players of distance learning. (1) students and potential students (2) distance learning designers (3) distance learning instructors (4)distance learning program evaluator. These indicators can be used as a checklist for documenting programmatic changes that lead to improved accessibility of the courses of any distance-learning program.

For students and potential students of the programs' commitment to accessible design, how to report inaccessible design features they discover, how to request accommodations, and how to obtain alternate formats of printed materials; the distance learning home page is accessible and all online and other course materials of distance learning courses are accessible to individuals with disabilities.
__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 1. The distance learning home page is accessible to individuals with disabilities (e.g., it adheres to Section 508, World Wide Web Consortium or institutional accessible-design guidelines/standards).
__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 2. A statement about the distance learning program's commitment to accessible design for all potential students, including those with disabilities, is included prominently in appropriate publications and websites along with contact information for reporting inaccessible design features.
__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 3. A statement about how distance learning students with disabilities can request accommodations is included in appropriate publications and web pages.
__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 4. A statement about how people can obtain alternate formats of printed materials is included in publications.
__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 5. The online and other course materials of distance learning courses are accessible to individuals with disabilities.
For Distance Learning Designers
Distance learning programs that are committed to accessibility assure that course
designers understand the program's commitment to accessibility, have access to guidelines and resources; and learn about accessibility in training provided to course designers.
__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 6. Publications and web pages for distance learning course designers include: a) a statement of the program's commitment to accessibility, b) guidelines/standards regarding accessibility, and c) resources.
__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 7. Accessibility issues are covered in regular course designer training.
For Distance Learning Instructors
In distance learning programs committed to accessibility, publications and web pages for distance learning instructors include a statement of the distance learning program's commitment to accessibility, guidelines regarding accessibility, and resources; and training for instructors includes accessibility content.
__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 8. Publications and web pages for distance learning instructors include: a) a statement of the distance learning program's commitment to accessibility, b) guidelines/standards regarding accessibility, and c) resources.
__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 9. Accessibility issues are covered in training sessions for instructors.
For Program Evaluators
Distance learning programs committed to accessibility have systems in place to monitor accessibility efforts and make adjustments based on evaluation results.
__ DLP Accessibility Indicator 10. A system is in place to monitor the accessibility of courses and, based on this evaluation, the program takes actions to improve the accessibility of specific courses as well as update information and training given to potential students, current students, and instructors.(Burgstahler, S. (n.d.). Equal Access: Universal Design of Distance Learning. Retrieved March 4, 2011 from htp/
Universal Design
The American Public University acknowledges that design of a distance learning class can impact the participation of students and instructors with visual, hearing, mobility, speech, and learning disabilities. The university recognizes planning for access as the course is being developed is much easier than creating accommodation strategies once a person with a disability enrolls in the course or applies to teach it. By following certain procedures, courses can be accessible to participants with a wide range of abilities and disabilities.
Burgstahler (n.d.) states that "universal design" is defined by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University as "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design." the design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities; the design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities; and the design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue. The following is a list which Burgstahler's universal design take into consideration when planning to design a distance learning program.

Visual Impairments
A student or instructor who is blind may use a computer equipped with text-to-speech software and a speech synthesizer. Basically, this system reads with a synthesized voice whatever text appears on the screen. If the student has limited vision, special software special software to enlarge the screen images maybe required. A visually impaired student may become confused when web pages are cluttered and when layout changes. This type of student may only be able to view small portions at a time. Printed materials, videotapes, and other visual materials also create access challenges for him.

Specific Learning Disabilities
Some specific learning disabilities impact the ability to read, write and process information. Students with learning disabilities often use audiotaped books. For some, speech output or screen enlargement systems similar to those used by people with visual impairments help them read text. People with learning disabilities often have difficulty understanding web sites when the information is cluttered and when the screen layout changes from one page to the next.

Mobility Impairments
Students with a wide range of mobility impairments may enroll in a distance learning course. Some have no functional hand use at all. They use alternative keyboards, speech input, and other input devices that provide access to all of the Internet-based course materials and navigational tools. Some options use keyboard commands to replace mouse functions and thus cannot fully operate software that requires the use of the mouse. Some students with mobility impairments do not have the fine motor skills required to select small buttons on the screen. Those whose input method is slow cannot effectively participate in real-time "chat" communications.

Hearing Impairments
Most internet resources are accessible to people with hearing impairments because they do not require the ability to hear. However, when web sites include audio output without providing text captioning or transcription, this group of students is denied access to the information. Course videotapes that are not captioned are also inaccessible to individuals who are deaf. Deaf students also cannot participate in teleconferencing sessions that might be part of a distance learning course.

Hardware and Software
As technology changes adaptive technology makes it possible for disabled students to access computing resources. Adaptive technology is made available to students with disabilities through schools. Learners will have to identify what technology meets their specific need. Check with the program that you will be participating to see if the equipment is available. Internet-based communication devices, web pages, teleconferences, video presentations, and printed materials all impact how the disabled learner will embrace the distant learning course.

Internet-based Communication
Some distance learning programs employ real-time chat communication in their courses. In this case, students communicate synchronously, as compared to asynchronously. Besides providing scheduling challenges, synchronous communication is difficult or impossible for someone who cannot communicate quickly. For example, someone with a learning disability who takes a long time to compose her thoughts or someone whose input method is slow may not be fully included in the discussion. In addition, some chat software erects barriers for individuals who are blind. Instructors who choose to use chat for small group interaction should select chat software that is accessible to those using screen readers and plan for an alternate method of communication (e.g., email) when not all students in a group can fully participate using chat.
Text-based, asynchronous resources such as electronic mail, bulletin boards, and listserv distribution lists generally erect no special barriers for students with disabilities. If a prerequisite to a course is for students to have access to electronic mail, the instructor can assume that participants with disabilities already have an accessible email program to use. E-mail communication between individual students, course administration staff, the instructor, guest speakers, and other students is accessible to all parties, regardless of disability.

Web Pages
Applying universal design principles make web pages accessible to individuals with a wide range of disabilities. In 1999, guidelines for making web pages accessible were developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). W3C, an industry group that was founded in 1994 to develop common protocols that enhance interoperability and guide the evolution of the web, is committed to assuring that the World Wide Web is fully accessible to people with disabilities. More recently, the United States Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) developed accessibility standards for web pages of Federal agencies, as mandated by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998. The standards provide a model for other organizations working to make their web pages accessible to the broadest audience. Web pages for a distance learning class should be tested with a variety of monitors, computer platforms, and web browsers, including a text-only browser, such as Lynx, or a standard browser with the graphics and sound-loading features turned off (to simulate the experiences of people with sensory impairments). Testing to see if all functions at a website can be accessed using a keyboard alone is also a good accessibility test. Online programs (e.g., A-Prompt, Bobby, WAVE) are available to test web pages for accessibility.
Course designers using development tools, such as Blackboard™ or WebCT™, can employ product accessibility tools to create accessible courses.

Printed Materials
Students who are blind or who have specific learning disabilities that affect their ability to read may require that printed materials be converted into Braille, large print, audiotape, or electronic formats. Making the content of printed materials available in an accessible web-based format may provide the best solution for students who cannot read standard printed materials.

Video Presentations
Ideally, whenever a video or televised presentation is used in a distance learning course, captioning should be provided for those who have hearing impairments and audio description (that describes aurally the visual content) should be provided for those who are blind. If a video publisher does not make these options available, the distance learning program should have a system in place to accommodate students who have sensory impairments. For example, the institution could hire someone local to the student to describe the visual material to a blind student or to sign audio material for a student who is deaf. Real-time captioning (developed at the time of the presentation) or sign language interpreting should be provided for video conferences when requested by participants who are deaf.

Telephone Conferences
Sometimes, online courses include telephone conferencing opportunities for discussion in small groups. This mode of communication creates scheduling challenges for everyone. It is also inaccessible to a student who is deaf. Instructors who use telephone conferencing for small group discussions should allow alternative communication (e.g., email) that is accessible to everyone in a specific group. Or, a student who is deaf might be able to participate in a telephone conference by using the Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS), where an operator types what the speakers say for the deaf student to view on his text telephone (TTY) and translates his printed input into speech, however this system might be too slow to allow participation in lively conversations. Another accommodation approach involves setting up a private chat room on the web. A transcriptionist types the conversation for the deaf student to view. The student can also type his contributions into the chat room and they can be voiced by someone in the group who is monitoring the chat room. Various options should be discussed with the student who needs an accommodation.

Learning Styles are Key to Student Success and Online Education
Disabled students need to know what is most comfortable for learning about new ideas or skills or processes and apply this approach to coursework. Kim Donahue (n.d.) states knowing what type of style works bests will help the disabled student choose appropriate assistive tools/techniques and effectively adapt the learning setup to materials such as electronic books, computers, or print etc. The goal is to learn how to use it to make learning as easy and as effective as possible. Ms. Donahue provides some resources for learning more about your learning style below:
What’s Your Learning Style? - An online test to help determine preferred learning style.
How to Identify your Best Learning Styles - Brief guide to the different learning styles, from How to Be a Successful Student (1991) by Donald Martin.
Learning Styles: Tell Me About Learning Styles - Although written for tutors, this has great tips for adapting your learning style to your coursework. Donahue, K. (n.d.) Learning Styles are Key to Student Success and Online Education, Disaboom. Retrieved from

Online Learning Brings Opportunities for Students with Disabilities
Online education can offer an accessible, supportive environment in which to pursue a degree and ensure a successful experience. One such student who is a disabled political science student from the American Public University shared his story.
“I want my version of the American dream,” This student who has cerebral palsy is wheelchair bound and education is a central focus of his life. Since he could not play sports he replied on his intellect.
This student took classes at his local community college in Washington and intends to earn a bachelor’s degree in the future. A professor suggested online learning might be an option and sent him links to online universities.
“Online learning has exactly what he was looking for. Many schools offer both a bachelor’s and master’s program in political science. He could study from home and enjoy posting comments on the discussion board, as opposed to open discussions in class. He says the process of writing leads to more thoughtful responses. He also enjoys the concentrated eight-week course options, since he likes to completely focus on a subject. For his constitutional law class, for example, he completed the textbook before class began. This student says an online education has opened up a new future for him.
“I want to do some consulting work first and then I hope to build up enough finances to mount my own campaign for office someday,” he says. “My dream job would be to serve in the U.S. Senate and maybe make a run for president. Who knows? The possibilities are endless in politics.”
He admired how former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt overcame his own physical limitations. He wants to reach out to those with disabilities and tell them that you can get a degree states the student.

Distance learning is not for everyone and problems do exist. Problems with software packages, the internet, and course design can make online and distance learning difficult, but the rewards of achieving your dream through online learning far outweigh the challenges.

American Public University (n.d.). Online Learning Brings New Opportunities for Students with Disabilities. Retrieved March 4, 2011 from http//
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Burgstahler, S. (n.d.). Equal Access: Universal Design of Distance Learning. Retrieved March 4,2011 from

Donahue, K.(n.d.) Online Education Offers Accessibilities and Equality for Students With
Disabilities. Retrieved March 4, 2011.
Donahue, K. (n.d.). Study Skills For Students With Disabilities. Retrieved March 4, 2011 from
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