Three Reasons for Students With Learning Disabilities to Consider Online College Classes


The pursuit of a college degree is meant to be an exciting journey full of learning, exploring, socializing, and preparing for the future. Unfortunately, this is not always the reality, especially for individuals with learning disabilities. Connor (2012) points out that the transition to a postsecondary education environment “can make students with disabilities feel even more anxious and overwhelmed” (p. 17). Online learning can help with this.
The popularity and demand for online education has grown exponentially over the past few years, and one reason is the attributes inherent with the online learning modality. Online learning often involves flexibility for students to attend class when convenient for them. Also, students in online classes are able to connect with their faculty member and classmates. The overall regulations for online learning platforms often include accessible material for all students, and then further accommodations are also available. All of these aspects make online classes an effective modality for students with learning disabilities.

Autonomy, Empowerment, and Increased Independence
Many online education options enable learners to communicate asynchronously. For students with disabilities, this means they can have access to education at anytime from anywhere. Flexibility in location as well as time creates further benefits for the learner, such as the ability to be more autonomous in his or her learning. Human motivation is largely intrinsic (Pink, 2009). One major component of intrinsic motivation is autonomy, which is the desire to be self-directed. As such, autonomy increases students’ engagement in completing tasks, such school work.
The more learners are engaged in their education, the more likely they will experience a sense of empowerment. The ability to access education through online technology gives students with disabilities a greater sense of independence and self-determination because they can take advantage of online support from the comfort of their homes (Dobransky & Hargittai as cited in Kent, 2015). When students do not need to rely on others for support, this self-reliance builds their self-confidence.

Social Inclusion
Online courses with instructors who proactively provide a welcoming, accessible, and usable classroom for students with disabilities promote social inclusion (Burgstahler, 2015). The elements needed for social inclusion in online learning include “(1) valued recognition, (2) human development, (3) involvement and engagement, (4) proximity, and (5) material well-being” (Donnelly & Coakley as cited in Burgstahler, 2015, p. 69). Respecting “individual and group characteristics” (valued recognition); encouraging “diverse capabilities, skills, and perspectives” (human development); ensuring students receive “support to be fully engaged” (involvement and engagement); providing opportunities for students with diverse abilities to interact (proximity); and providing the resources needed for students to participate (material well-being) can be applied in an online setting (Burgstahler, 2015, p. 70). Online programs that are committed to making classrooms accessible to all students encourage these elements.
Social inclusion is promoted by taking the needs of students with disabilities into account, such as by including information on how to request accommodations in the syllabus, making course elements clear, and ensuring the course is accessible when using links, color, alternative text, captions, and transcripts (Burgstahler, 2015). The goal is to design courses that enhance social inclusion: “Improving access and usability for people with disabilities also improves usability for others, thus creating a platform for the social inclusion of all students (Burgstahler, 2015, p. 77).

Success without Seeking Accommodations
Many students with learning disabilities can succeed in the online classroom without having to self-disclose their disabilities or seek accommodations. The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination by online colleges on the basis of disability, but students must self-disclose their disability to receive accommodations (Barnard-Brak, Sulak, Tate, & Lechtenberger, 2010). Students who are reluctant to self-disclose their learning disabilities might benefit from the industry-wide push toward greater accessibility of online classrooms for all students.
Because no federal legislation specifically addresses the technical requirements of websites that comply with federal accessibility law (Crow, 2008), lawsuits against private businesses are shaping those requirements (Solovieva & Bock, 2014). As a result, ensuring that online classrooms are accessible to students with disabilities is a high priority for colleges (Glazatov, 2012; Betts, 2013). As online classrooms become more accessible, such as by including captioning with videos and ensuring text can be read by screen readers (Pittman & Heiselt, 2014), many learning disabilities are already accommodated within the online classroom as designed, reducing or even negating the need to request accommodations (Kent, 2015).

Attending college can be difficult, especially for students with learning disabilities, but the benefits of an online classroom make attending and succeeding in college possible. Only 28% of students with learning disabilities are successful enough to graduate, “which is approximately half of the graduation rate for students without disabilities” (Gregg as cited in Connor, 2012, p.17). Flexibility, social interaction, and built-in accessibility are all benefits of an online learning environment that can help turn this statistic around.

By Vita Alligood, Susan Buckley, Tracy Crawford, & Danielle Pela

ADA: Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. (2009).
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Burgstahler, S. (2015). Opening doors or slamming them shut?: Online learning practices and students with disabilities. Social Inclusion, 3(6), 69-79. doi:
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Crow, K. L. (2008). The legal environment of accessible postsecondary online learning. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 9(2), 169-179.
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Kent, M. (2015). Disability and eLearning: Opportunities and barriers. Disability Studies Quarterly, 35(1), 4. Retrieved from
Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books.
Pittman, C. N., & Heiselt, A. K. (2014). Increasing accessibility: Using Universal Design principles to address disability impairments in the online learning environment. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 17(3), 1-9.
Solovieva, T. I., & Bock, J. M. (2014). Monitoring for accessibility and university websites: Meeting the needs of people with disabilities. Journal of Postsecondary Education & Disability, 27(2), 113-127.

Vita Alligood, JD, is a full-time faculty member with the University of Phoenix. Greensboro, NC.
Susan Buckley, MS, RD, LD/N, is a full-time faculty member with the University of Phoenix. Deland, FL.
Tracy Crawford, M.A.Ed., is a full-time faculty member with the University of Phoenix. Chandler, AZ.
Danielle Pela, MBA, is an associate faculty member with the University of Phoenix. Fountain Hills, AZ.

Posted on March 7, 2017 in ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, Student Success

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