One of the most frequent questions submitted to the “Ask Our Advisor” link at BestCollegesOnline.com is: Can students with a disability take online classes? The answer is, “Yes, of course.” Here is some more information that may help.
ADA and E-Learning
The U.S. Department of Justice provides the most comprehensive information and updates on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which does apply to online learning. Although the laws are complicated, the bottom line is that online educational institutions must meet the reasonable accommodations of students with disabilities, even through virtual delivery. Beyond that, the news is a mixture of bad and good.
The main difficulty with meeting the ADA is that technology is moving more quickly than most can keep up with, and this includes both educational institutions and their human constituents. There may be a lack of knowledge in terms of what accommodations a student may need until the student is actually in a course, what technology may provide a solution, and/or what training may be available for students, faculty, or other constituents to establish it.
The good news is that e-learning naturally lends itself to meeting a wide variety of student needs in a way that is non-invasive in terms of a student’s privacy. For instance, many online classes include audio and video files with closed captioning; transcripts are often available as well. Course Learning Management Systems (LMS) lend themselves nicely to other types of support, such as voice recognition software. Here is a sample demonstration of Dragon II Naturally Speaking:
Note that voice recognition software allows users to have a document read back to them to ensure accuracy. Many of these augmentations are already built into an online course or readily available for online download, which lessens the worry and frustration about access for students with disabilities.
Although ground campuses are also required to be ADA compliant, getting to and from school, navigating campus, and getting any necessary physical or technological accommodations can sometimes remain difficult. Some students with disabilities also do not like to draw attention to themselves with such accommodations. Therefore, online learning may have some additional benefits in that as a student, you can set up a home office or study space to meet your needs and personal preferences. You will then have this space available to you for your work and home life as well.
If you’re thinking that some of this is true for any student, you are correct. Another reason students with disabilities can take online classes is because, in reality, they are no different than other postsecondary students who arrive at college with specific needs.
Students Are Students
All students should ask similar questions to discover if e-learning is right for them. In the BestCollegesOnline.com guide, Finding the Best Online College for You, I wrote in detail about what questions prospective online students should ask. I’ll summarize the three steps here:
Step 1: Start with yourself:
• Consider your own needs, wants, and goals.
• Think about shorter-term online learning options (e.g., one-year certificates).
• Explore traditional degree plans, but ignore their traditional time-sensitive labels, such as a “two-year” degree. You may want or need to take longer, and that’s fine.
• Look into other helpful online learning options (e.g., courses only and credit for prior learning experience).
• Think in terms of a ladder to success: classes; certificate; associate, bachelor’s, then graduate degree(s) as you move up through your chosen career.
• Focus on your true interests rather than what others are recommending.
• Check out all available student support services, such as academic learning centers.
• Weigh your course delivery preferences: synchronous vs. asynchronous, self-paced, etc.
• Create an online college checklist of your preferences and needs; then compare colleges that interest you to see which one(s) meet your criteria most closely. (There’s a sample available for download at the above link.)
Step 2: Match your goals to an online college
• Search for the best online colleges via online databases, college websites, social networking, etc.
• Explore your options. You don’t need to settle for the first school you find or the one that others recommend.
• Check for accreditation, admissions requirements, rankings, reputation, experience with e-learning, job placement rates, and any other criteria that are important to you.
• Make sure the online colleges of choice have a LMS that is compatible with any assistive technology you may need.
Step 3: Pursue your goals
If you do decide to attend college online, make a commitment to follow through and take full advantage of the opportunity. You also bring your unique experiences and perspectives to the classroom, so be willing to share them with others.
Before signing up for online learning, do check carefully with your college or university of choice to see what support they offer students with disabilities. Meet with someone from the Disabilities Services Office, and don’t be hesitant about discussing your needs, goals, and concerns. Although most postsecondary institutions are required by law to be fully ADA compliant, some may just meet the minimum requirements of the law while others may greatly exceed expectations. Within these institutions, some programs may also go above and beyond for students with disabilities.
You may also want to consult some lists like BCO’s “20 Incredible Colleges
for Special Needs Students,” (21 September, 2011). Even if you are not interested in attending one of these particular schools, the assistance they offer may give you some idea of what to look for in an online school.
The real secret to finding the right school and program for you really doesn’t lie in answering the question: Can students with disabilities take online classes? Rather, you should consider first what is right for you within all of the options available to you today. E-learning is certainly one of those.
Please free to share your own tips, advice, and experiences with online learning as a student with disabilities in the comments area below.
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