During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the shutdowns caused most education and courses to shift completely online. During this time, much of the media focus was on the disadvantages of online learning. The conversation homed in on barriers to learning, including inequity caused by the digital divide1, lack of continuity2, and the challenges of regulating academic dishonesty3.
In higher education, many were concerned that college students would not receive the experience4 they hoped for or expected when they opted for an on-campus program. Over the past two years, however, many studies have recognized the benefits of online learning for various populations of students, including those with full-time jobs, family obligations, or limited access to on-campus programs due to their location. Another important population who can benefit from flexible online learning is students with disabilities.
“Students with ADHD have been drawn to [online] programs ,” says Manal White, the student intake manager at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). “However, success in these types of programs depends on where the students are in their academic journey.”5
Every student brings diverse life and learning experiences to college, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to education. Online learning provides accessibility for a variety of students and can be an excellent inclusive option. Additionally, as White points out, students’ progress along their academic path affects their desire and ability to take advantage of the unique benefits of online programs.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 4 adults live with one or more disabilities that may affect vision, mobility, cognition (thinking, remembering, or learning), communication, hearing, mental health, or social relationships (2020)6 The same type of disability can affect individuals differently; thus, “students with disabilities” is a diverse population, and students’ strengths and needs vary widely. It is important to keep this diversity in mind as we analyze the benefits of online learning for students with disabilities. While two students may receive the same curriculum, they may have completely different approaches or experiences in the course.
Some aspects of online learning can present barriers for students with disabilities, including self-consciousness about participating in an online environment and anxiety about how their writing might be perceived by their instructors and classmates.7 When accessibility is not a priority to an institution, inaccessible content can also be a major concern. However, research has shown that when universities proactively consider accessibility in their online courses, many students with disabilities benefit from online learning.
Some of the more obvious benefits of online learning are related to removing physical barriers. In an online learning environment, the frustration of encountering classrooms that are inaccessible for wheelchairs or walkers and the need to find a suitable distraction-free testing facility are eliminated.8 Some individuals with "health or physical conditions (e.g., nerve/spinal damage, lupus, paralysis, multiple sclerosis)” felt that virtual learning provided “more time to complete assignments, allowing them to sit, rest, or walk when needed."9
The flexible design of online courses and instruction can also be beneficial for students with disabilities. Students have more autonomy and control of their learning in the online setting when it comes to scheduling, pacing, and course navigation.10
Accessing learning content can also be less difficult in online courses for some students with disabilities. For students with vision disabilities, for example, online versions of textbooks that are accessible with screen readers remove the need for Braille textbooks.3 Screen readers can also benefit students with dyslexia, chronic migraines, and several other disabilities that create barriers to sustained reading.
Apart from screen readers, other assistive technology tools such as live captioning, dictation software, planning and organization tools, and grammar and spelling tools can support students with a wide variety of conditions. As more and more tools are developed, students are able to select assistive technology that they prefer and that is most suitable for their situation.11 Content can be more easily presented in multiple ways online and can cater to a variety of learning preferences.
Online learning may also be socially beneficial for students with disabilities in ways that are different from traditional classrooms. For instance, students may experience increased independence and social-emotional competency.12 They have more control over what they wish to reveal about themselves to their classmates and peers.13 Students with learning disabilities may experience increased attention, self-regulation, and engagement.14 While some research has indicated that online environments can increase barriers to communication, other studies have shown that, for students with disabilities who experience periods of incapacity, the ability to contact instructors at any time is appreciated.15
While there are benefits and disadvantages to every learning context, the flexibility of online learning in higher education can meet the needs of a wide variety of students with disabilities. At UMGC, we are proud to offer flexible programs, which allow us to serve members of the military and their families, transfer students, and many students who have decided to make a life change. The Accessibility Services team is here to work with disabled students and determine accommodations that remove barriers to learning. Check out our Accessibility Services website to learn about the registration process, access forms, and get answers to frequently asked questions. We are continuously striving to find innovative ways to meet student needs, and proactively addressing accessibility in the online platform is a top priority.