Volume VIII Number 1, January 2002

A Survey Of Online Instructional Issues And Strategies For Postsecondary Students With Learning Disabilities

Robin A. Cook, Ph.D., C.R.C.
Marsha A. Gladhart, Ph.D.
Wichita State University


This paper addresses a gap in the education literature concerning issues and considerations relevant to engaging in online instruction with adult learners who have learning disabilities. Contained within are a brief background survey of the context in which online instruction has become popular; a comparison of online versus traditional pedagogy techniques, and a discussion of some of the popular technology used in postsecondary institutions to deliver online learning. Finally, the authors describe how aspects of online learning impact students with learning disabilities, and offer suggestions for instructional strategies and appropriate accommodations and modifications.


The recent push towards Web-based distance learning has brought with it a promise of "anywhere" and "anytime," and often includes a companion promise -- stated or implicit -- of being "for anyone." However, the fast-paced usage and implementation of the Web has the potential to exclude persons with disabilities who may benefit from Web-based distance learning (herein also referred to as "online learning") (Hinn, 1999). Regardless of the challenges, both state and federal law require institutions of higher education to operate all programs and activities in a manner that is accessible to students with disabilities (Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990; California Community Colleges, 1999). Further, it is not uncommon to find that when we encourage the use of adaptive technology in accommodating the needs of learners with disabilities, we also serendipitously make positive strides in addressing the diverse learning styles of students without disabilities as well (Jay & Blackerby, 1998).

Of the 10-15% of the total student population on any given campus acknowledging a disability (Lissner, 1995), roughly 29% of those individuals report having a learning disability (Horn, Berktold, & Bobbitt,1999; Lewis & Farris, 1999; National Center for Educational Statistics, 2000). This continues to be the fastest growing group of persons with disabilities on college campuses (Day & Edwards, 1996). Further, this trend is expected to continue upward, since persons entering the workforce require higher levels of education to succeed in the new knowledge-based economy. Today, 85% of jobs require at least some education beyond high school, as compared to 61% in 1991 (Web-Based Education Commission, 2000). Lastly, changes in job requirements within the workplace influence the need for technology skills. This situation influenced the need for information (i.e., technology) literacy skills - particularly with respect to computers and their applications - in the schools (U.S. Dept. of Labor, 1999). In the rapidly changing economy, there is a corresponding shift in the skills and abilities that students will need to thrive as future employees (U.S. Dept. of Labor, 1991). These 21st century skills include digital literacy, inventive thinking, effective communication, teamwork, and the ability to create high quality products (CEO Forum, 2001).

Thus, given all the above elements (i.e., the proliferation of online learning; the number of students with disabilities participating in higher education, and the respective responsibilities of both institutions and students), it seems logical that significant attention should be accorded to the needs of this population within the educational context. However, there is minimal information specifically addressing the needs of this group within the literature. This was found to be true despite an extensive search using half a dozen keyword combinations with major databases including ERIC, PsychInfo, Dissertations Abstracts International, the Social Science Index, LUIS, MedLine, SilverPlatter, various Web sites, and software training manuals. There were few publications found which offered recommendations for accommodations and modifications for the electronic classroom, and certainly none that offered an overview of these considerations along with discussion of pedagogical techniques.


In order to participate fully in campus life and academic offerings, students with learning disabilities need full access to information technology. The Campus Computing Project conducts a large, continuing study of how 600 two-and four-year public and private colleges and universities in the United States use information technology. Their findings for the 2000 Survey showed that more colleges and universities than ever are using technology resources for instruction. (Green, 2000). Fifty-four percent of these institutions communicate with students through Email, 42% use Web pages as a course component, 30% provide a course Web page, 23% post an instructor's Web page, and over half offer at least one online course through the Web (Blackboard Knowledge Base, 2001, Educational benefits of online learning, para.1; Green, 2000, More technology in the classroom, para.1). Additionally, institutions are conducting more of their administrative functions through the Web. A majority of the institutions reported offering online undergraduate application forms and online course catalogs. The survey also concluded that the growing number of institutions (57%) that have chosen a single product for online course management indicates the importance of online instruction (Green). In many respects, these services provide increased access for all students, but access can be limited by the institution's lack of experience in how to use these resources to meet the needs of students, particularly students with disabilities.

Users with disabilities make up a significant segment of the online community. Nearly a tenth of online users in general have been identified as having disabilities (Low, 2000). Schmetzke (2001) estimated that a half-million students with disabilities are enrolled in higher education within the US. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, 2000) reported that students with disabilities are served by 98% of 2-year and 4-year public institutions, 63% of private 4-year institutions, and 47% of private 2-year institutions.

Significant legislative directives regarding services for students with disabilities have accompanied the growing number of students with disabilities in the schools. Major examples include the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (FirstGov, 2000; FirstGov, n.d.) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1990; U.S. Department of Justice, 2001) both of which mandate equal access for all students enrolled in postsecondary institutions. Both of these Acts focus on more traditional forms of access such as physical access to buildings, note-takers, large print books, and assistive technology (Lewis & Farris, 1999). The recent popularity of online instruction and communication for students require different types of accessibility.

In 1998, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was reauthorized and amended to provide the first significant federal standards related to information technology as contained in Title V, Section 508 of the Act. The standards specified by Section 508 required federal agencies to implement standards to ensure that "individuals with disabilities, who are members of the public seeking information or services from a federal agency, have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to that provided to the public who are not individuals with disabilities´┐Ż" (FirstGov, 2000). Section 508 provides standards for software applications, Web-based intranet and Internet systems, telecommunication products, multimedia, and computers. While Section 508 applies only to recipients of federal funding, other agencies/providers both public and private must comply with ADA guidelines to provide equal access.

In addition to increased access, new developments in technology resources continually challenge educators to adapt. The influx of new technologies in higher education has required instructors to modify the way they learn as well as the way they teach. More information is accessible through electronic means. Reading materials on reserve for student use are likely to be available online as well as in the library (Green, 2000). Supplemental materials provided by the instructor or the textbook publishers are often available in CD-ROM format. Televised courses and video conferencing are commonly used for distance learning. These developments in instructional media require post secondary instructors to learn not only how to use the technologies but how to adapt their instruction to make best use of the technologies.

Steeped in the pedagogy of lecture and discussion, instructors are continually challenged to develop new strategies for electronic learning. Many higher education faculty are experts in a specific field and do not have either the time or the inclination to learn new strategies for teaching with technology (Olsen, 1999; Queitzsch, 1997). The Campus Computer Survey (Green, 2000) reported that integration of technology by faculty was the primary concern of instructional technology leaders on college campuses, ranking above user support and budget. Even if faculty are willing to learn the technologies and how to teach with them, they may not have the experience or access to administrative and/or technical support necessary to use the technologies well.


While online learning offers some advantages for students with learning disabilities, it also poses special problems. More information than ever is available to students through online learning, but it is not always barrier free (Schmetzke, 2001). A lack of awareness on the part of instructors and institutions of how online resources are used by students with disabilities has contributed to increased resources without increased access. The technologies that should give students with disabilities greater access to learning have yet to fulfill their promise (Rowland, 2000). Web pages divided into segments or frames can confuse software programs that translate text to voice. Graphics that have not been labeled with text will be read only as "image" by the software reading the text on the screen and will deprive students of valuable content. Web pages with a long list of hyperlinks crowded together can confuse a student with visual, cognitive, or motor disabilities.

In spite of a mistaken perception by many that online learning is not text-based, the opposite is true. Lectures are converted into handouts and online discussions, group activities are almost entirely text-based, and class discussion takes the form of discussion groups and real-time chats that entail exchange of on-screen text messages. Students may, in fact, be exposed to an entire semester's worth of material (i.e., text) at once (Blackboard Knowledge Base, 2001). In addition, much of this interactivity occurs without the assistance of the teacher or teacher's aide. Students learn in the solitude of their own computers. This dependency on print requires new strategies to help students bridge the gap between the online content and the student.


Many of the same software and hardware solutions used by other individuals with disabilities can be useful for students with learning disabilities. Table 1 lists a few examples of hardware and software designed to assist users with disabilities.

Table 1: Examples of Software and Hardware Options for Users with Disabilities

Category Type Name
Software/Media Speech output (These programs read text on the computer screen.) eReader
Easy Access
Write OutLoud
  Voice recognition software (Translates voice into text.) Dragon Dictate
  Graphic organizing software (Used to show concepts graphically.) Inspiration
  Scanning (Necessary for turning printed text into readable text for speech output software.) OpenBook
  Screen magnifiers ZoomText
  Self-voicing browsers WebSpeak
IBM Home Page Reader
  Compact disks with electronic text for screen readers  
Hardware Portable note-takers for video conferencing, reading assignments, or research VoiceNote
AlphaSmart portable computer companion
HandSpring with portable keyboard or Total Recall voice recorder
  Microphones for voice input  
  Scanners for text input  

As apparent from Table 1, there are a number of software options available that address various issues that students might face due to their disabilities. Although the examples noted are frequently employed for users with other types of disabilities (e.g., JAWS and Dragon Dictate for students with visual impairments or blindness), depending on the type of learning disability a student has, any of the above or a combination might be appropriate.


Many universities and colleges are working to make library resources and databases available to online students as well as students on campus. This access might include downloadable citations available in voice format or Web resources formatted for screen readers (McNulty, 1999). For those situations in which research resources are not available online, students need accessible libraries. The campus or public library may offer workstations equipped with large monitors, scanners, screen readers, and screen magnifiers, like ZoomText, to assist users with visual disabilities. The National Library Service provides recorded materials, such as Books on Tape, for patrons with visual impairments or blindness that can make text libraries more accessible for students with learning disabilities (McNulty). Librarians should be able to help students use the equipment, provide advice on searching databases, and offer suggestions on how to best use the library resources. Additionally, offices of Disability Services affiliated with either the "home" campus of the distance-learning consumer or that of a school in the local vicinity can assist learners in obtaining some of the resources for themselves.


For many online students, however, assistive technology must be installed and accessible at home. Kaye (2000) noted that people with disabilities are less likely to have home computers and often have incomes that make purchasing the equipment difficult. Finding assistive technology and matching the equipment with students' needs as well as hardware configurations can be a daunting task even for technology and rehabilitation experts. Disability services offices at higher education institutions may be able to assist parents and students in determining appropriate technologies and identifying accessible workstations on campus. Lending libraries are now available in some states to help users equip their home workstations for online learning. In addition, several organizations offer information on equipment and software through their Web sites, of which a sample list is provided in Appendix A.


Instructors who create their own Web sites to enhance or encompass their course materials need to be aware of accessibility guidelines for online instruction (Paciello, 2000). While most of the guidelines are a matter of basic design, few educators learning how to create their own Web pages are familiar enough with Web design or the myriad needs of students with disabilities to be able to meet the standards. The university may provide guidelines for accessibility of Web resources, but such guidelines are the exception rather than the rule (Schmetzke, 2001). WebAIM offers a Web accessibility checklist based on Section 508 standards, tutorials on how to meet the standards, and a simulation of what users with a cognitive impairment such as a learning disability might see on a Web page (WebAim, 2001). The Center for Applied Special Technology provides a Web service (Bobby) that helps authors identify and repair accessibility problems with their Web pages (Cast, 2000). Further, faculty can consult accessibility standards issued in December 2000 by the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, which are consistent with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, 2000). These standards identify electronic and information technology as covered by the above Act, as well as technical and functional performance criteria necessary for such technology to be rendered accessible (Adobe, 2001).


The increasing popularity of course management software in higher education exemplifies the complexity of providing accessibility to online resources. Course management software programs offer instructors a framework for offering their courses online. Such software programs typically include sections for announcements, uploaded documents, discussion forums, and assessment tools. Blackboard and WebCT, two of the most frequently used course management software programs, provide information at their Web sites on how their products meet ADA and Section 508 guidelines and comply with the Technology Related Assistance Act for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 (Schmetzke, 2001).

Common accommodations made by these software developers are:

  1. No blinking or flashing items that might distract students with learning disabilities
  2. Forms that screen reading software can read
  3. Little or no use of special plug-ins applications (which must be downloaded from another site before proceeding, such as with Adobe Acrobat to read PDF documents) that require users to leave the Web page and obtain software before viewing or listening to media
  4. Consistent and easy to use navigation links
  5. Warnings of timed responses so that students are warned if they are going to be disconnected on an exam
  6. Alternative labels for graphic elements for speech output programs

Blackboard also provides a section at their Web site with suggestions on how course developers can meet Section 508 guidelines (Blackboard Knowledge Base, 2001).

Most instructors or course builders have little idea how to accommodate their online material for students with learning disabilities. Poorly designed sites may require inordinate amounts of persistence and/or physical and mental effort to navigate (Rowland, 2000). Table 2 offers suggestions for solving some common problems in providing content through the Web.

Table 2: Adapting Web Content for Students with Learning Disabilities

Problem Solution
Using color to emphasize points and to add motivation Keep colors and fonts simple to avoid distracting users
Dark backgrounds with low contrast font color Use only high contrast background and text
Keep background graphics simple
Using frames to organize Web pages Use tables instead so screen readers can read from left to right
Long text documents in small print Provide graphic organizers to guide users through the text
Divide long documents into hyperlinked pages
Provide a table of contents or site map to show how information is organized
Complex tables and graphs Provide textual descriptions
Crowded hyperlinks Use graphic links or separate text links with line breaks
Media requiring special software Provide links to Web sites where software can be downloaded
Animation and flashing graphics Keep these minimal to avoid distracting users
Provide textual information to supplement content conveyed by animation
Changing navigation bars or buttons from page to page Develop one navigation scheme and stick to it
Graphic dense pages Provide link to text version and update both versions

Although some of the above recommendations may be especially helpful for students with certain types of learning disabilities (e.g., basic reading skills/dyslexia), the suggestions listed above are generally sound additions in working with students having any type of learning disability, as well as related disabilities (e.g., attention-deficit disorder).


A logical question in the minds of many faculty who are interested in online course delivery might be, "How will I need to modify the instructional techniques I have used in my traditional classroom?" A useful first step in answering that question might be to review what typical teaching strategies instructors often use in the "regular" setting:

  1. Conduct lecture
  2. Distribution of handouts/worksheets/case studies
  3. Schedule group and/or "hands-on" activities (problem-solving, lab, etc.)
  4. Assign outside readings
  5. Assign projects
  6. Require oral presentations to the class and/or invited others
  7. Enlist guest speakers
  8. Attend field trips
  9. Hold class discussion
  10. Show video or slideshow
  11. Use games
  12. Give tests
  13. Assign papers or critiques

With these in mind, the question now becomes twofold: (a) which of these techniques may be employed online in general, and (b) which are most or least helpful in working with students who have learning disabilities?

Insofar as Web delivery, the answer may be surprising. With few exceptions, most of the above techniques may be used in online course presentation (White & Weight, 2000). Students may hold "group meetings" via Email or real-time chats; students can "surf the Net" and take virtual field trips, even engaging in field experiences such as archaeological digs or observing surgery. Overheads may be presented via PowerPoint or the like and archived for later reference. Class discussion may be held in small groups or as an entire class, and may be done asynchronously (not at the same time) or in real time format. However, since the instructor is not physically present during the online learning process with attendant nonverbal cues, it is important to explain exactly WHAT materials are provided and WHY they are important in the scheme of the course. This indicates relationships between materials, which in turn help students develop bridges, see associations, and recognize the relevance of content elements (Blackboard Knowledge Base, 2001). This is especially important for students with learning disabilities, who have more difficulty generalizing information than other students (Hallahan & Kauffman, 2000).

Areas that are more difficult to translate into Web format include tests, games, and "hands-on" practica. This is true for several reasons. While tests may be given either timed or untimed (just as in class), computerized timed measures present challenges to all students with respect to the possibility of being "timed out" or saving work. This may be especially problematic for students with learning disabilities. Video may be shown in clips. A recommended pedagogical strategy is that videos in the traditional setting generally be kept to 20 minutes or less in order to maintain student focus; one would not be able, however, to employ video of nearly that length online. Rather, video clips would be the more likely possibility, which are useful but may not convey the deep impact of a particularly effective video.

Games present yet another problem. While online users can construct fairly rudimentary "games" such as crosswords, other types of contests that students often enjoy (such as those based on the board game "Trivial Pursuit" or the "Jeopardy" and "Millionaire" TV shows) would be very difficult to translate to an online course. An option might be having students work off-line using game format embedded onto a CD-ROM but, even so, this approach probably would be unwieldy and require more coordination and programming skills than the average instructor has either the time or expertise to execute (Rob Gibson, personal communication, September 12, 2001). Finally, "hands-on" practica which require actual student performance (e.g., nurses learning how to administer injections) are exceedingly difficult to negotiate online. To do so would likely require, at best, virtual reality software and hardware, which even now is still employed in vivo and not over the Internet.


Certainly a major concern in working with students with disabilities lies in the extent to which instructors are able to design curriculum and delivery such that effects of disabilit(ies) are ameliorated. Difficulties experienced by postsecondary students with learning disabilities (LD) include reading, organization, memory, listening, math and written language (Day & Edwards, 1996; Gay, 1996). As mentioned previously, given these issues, testing can be a concern (Grady Landrum, personal communication, September 13, 2001). A common accommodation for students with LD is to receive extra time (often 1 1/2 time or double time) on a timed test. Many testing features are set up such that students are "ejected" from the testing function at either a prescribed time, or after "x" amount of time has passed. Such an arrangement would then prevent students from completing a test for which they were allotted extra time, since most such features within online formats (e.g., WebCT or Blackboard) do not allow for override of this function. (Simply "retaking" the exam is not an acceptable solution.)

To overcome this problem, instructors could use formats (where available) so that time spent on an online test is recorded, but no shutoff exists. Students may be given a proscribed amount of time (adjusted accordingly for the student with the learning disability) that should be reflected as a maximum when the document is submitted. In this way, the instructor can see whether students complied with the instructions, and still carry out the needed accommodation. Another option is for the instructor to print or Email the test to a university Disability Services office local to the student's location. The student could then take the test under the timed conditions with the accommodation of extra time. The Disability Services staff would then type in the exact (verbatim) response of the student, which would then be sent to the instructor at the "home" institution (Grady Landrum, personal communication, September 13, 2001). Another possibility is the use of "power" rather than timed tests, such as would be equivalent to a traditional classroom "take home" test.

One positive aspect of online testing is the lack of transfer students employ in responding to test questions. In particular, students with processing difficulties in the area of visual-motor integration (i.e., who find it problematic to translate sensory information gained visually into an appropriate corresponding motor movement; Hallahan & Kauffman, 2000) find it difficult to take tests in the "regular" classroom where they must shift back and forth between an answer sheet and a test booklet or instruction sheet. Online testing with everything on-screen eliminates that potential problem. There are studies that indicate that for this and various reasons, students with learning disabilities have performed better on online tests than paper-and-pencil measures (Shiah, 1994).

Another difficulty lies in the aforementioned inability of students to engage in kinesthetic-tactile (i.e., "hands-on") activities on line. For many students with learning disabilities, this is either a preferred learning style or one that they need to have employed as part of a multisensory approach (i.e., visual, auditory, kinesthetic-tactile presentation and practice). At present, a good solution does not really exist for this problem with the current technology available to the typical faculty member. A partial solution might be to have students create a "hands-on" project at home, which they could then mail in to the instructor or "present" via video cam. However, where this is a preferred learning mode, instructors would ideally be able to employ this approach more frequently (i.e., as a frequent or constant component of instruction) rather than in the course of constructing just a given project.

Another significant issue in delivering online courses is the use of synchronous vs. asynchronous communication. Synchronous (such as in a "real time" chat) can be confusing for many students without disabilities, with different students typing in comments all at once and possibly multiple "conversations" going on at the same time. Distractibility is a common problem for students with learning disabilities (Hallahan & Kauffman, 2000) and can become a real barrier in this type of situation. One helpful strategy is to limit the number of participants who will be online at any given time by planning several small group discussions instead of one large group discussion. Small group discussions around a specific focus help keep the students on task.

Just as in the traditional classroom, structure becomes very important in online discussions. At times, the instructor may need to take control of real-time discussions to keep students on track. This can be done by limiting which student(s) have the floor during the discussion or by directing students' comments. The following example illustrates how an instruction can provide structure in a virtual chat (student names have been changed to ensure anonymity):

Instructor> A lot of us are here now so I'm going to take charge of the discussion. Okay? Let's talk about Anne first and then move to Rick and communication.
Anne> I think I am leaning toward having the kids research some of the people who were on board and doing a creative writing assignment with that-- [discussion on Anne's project continues for several minutes.]
Liz> Have you found any good sites?
Anne> Yes, Liz. There are some really neat sites.
Anne> I appreciate all of your ideas Thanks for the help!
Instructor> Anne, can we move on to Rick and communication now?

An effective method for teaching persons with learning disabilities is direct instruction, which typically is fast-paced, offers frequent feedback, is highly teacher-directed and sequential in nature (Engelmann & Carnine, 1982; Wissick & Gardner, 2000). These same elements are very important on line, especially in situations where users may be registering multiple inputs at once. An additional consideration is requirement of full participation by all students (Klemm, 1998) in online activities. Beyond the fact that this requirement will aid greatly in keeping students of all types engaged, students with learning disabilities tend to be poor risk takers due to previous academic failure and frustrations, and often will try to remain disengaged or anonymous unless specifically encouraged by the instructor to contribute in class. Instructors can encourage participation by posting positive feedback when students share their ideas and support each other and adapting the standard "wait time" so that students have the opportunity to think, reflect, and then answer each other.

On the other side of the coin, students who are uncomfortable in the social interaction of a traditional class sometimes find it easier to create an online presence (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). Communicating asynchronously allows time for reflection and clarification. Students who are busy processing the information are given the time to organize their thoughts and to participate in the discussion that is not available in the classroom. Online communication may encourage students to reveal more of themselves than they do face-to-face so that the students come to know their online classmates better than they do their peers in the traditional classroom.

Instructors also can create a more secure environment for online communication by a) establishing clear guidelines for online communication to include an acceptable code of conduct, b) stating clear expectations for participation in online discussions, and c) supporting and encouraging student comments and questions. The application of technology in education is actually a complex social process (Zhao, Englert, Chen, Jones, & Ferdig, 2000). Collison, Elbaum, Haavind, and Tinker (2000) described how tone, graphics and humor can be used to project personality in an online class and make the students feel less isolated. By providing the appropriate organization and support for student interaction, instructors can help all students communicate more effectively with each other.


Hanna, Glowacki-Dudka, and Conceocao-Runlee (2000) described classrooms as "spaces that have been organized to promote learning´┐Ż" Many of the same strategies used in the traditional classroom can be adapted to promote learning in the virtual classroom. Although some of the modifications listed below have been discussed in preceding sections of this paper, it is worth reviewing a list of common accommodations instructions are often requested to make for students with learning disabilities within their "regular" classrooms. These include:

  1. Allowing students to tape record lectures (aids with distractibility, auditory processing difficulties)
  2. Taking more frequent breaks (helps with distractibility, need for motor movement)
  3. "Chunk" info into digestible bits (not as difficult to process)
  4. Use of advance organizers/study guides (congruent with learning strategies approach; helps with organizational issues, acts as scaffolding for new learning)
  5. Allow extra time on tests, assignments (aids in processing; poor visual motor integration or fine motor skills such as occurs in dysgraphia)
  6. Allow calculators, formulas; provide graph paper to align numbers (for sequencing problems; students with a math-related learning disability)
  7. Create an assignment "menu" (addressed multisensory learning needs, bypasses weaker modalities, processing capabilities as needed)
  8. Use "Books on Tape" along with text (aids reading comprehension)
  9. Use of note takers or scribes on tests (for problems w/written expression)
  10. Use of dictionaries, computers with spell/grammar check (written expression)
  11. Use guides on "bubble" answers sheets or respond on test booklet
  12. Have persons repeat question before answering to check understanding; use a cue to alert student before calling on him/her (aids in processing, helps maintain focus)

The vast majority of these modifications again may be used online, or are obviated by the format online learning takes. For example, if material is presented in PowerPoint presentation and then downloaded, students who might normally need a note taker in a typical classroom setting may be fine. Others may be easily employable (i.e., stopping in the middle of a chat or using asynchronous communication such that the learner with LD can take a needed break to refocus or continue processing information which has been presented).


A final, but very important note concerns instructor provision of accommodations. As mentioned earlier, careful consideration of course design can aid all learners and make a number of accommodations unnecessary. However, there still may be occasions where a student's needs are such that accommodations and modifications must be provided. Determination of a given student's needs - or indeed disability status - should not be undertaken by the instructor. Rather, any student presenting with needs related to a disability (any disability) should be referred to the Disability Services office or responsible campus official for the "home" institution (i.e., the one that is offering the online course). The student should get in touch with that office. He/she will be required to submit documentation verifying his/her disability and that office will use that documentation in determining appropriate accommodations. That information will then be communicated to the instructor.

Faculty should not attempt to determine appropriate accommodations on their own (such as allotting extra time). This is because of the potential in either under-accommodating the student due to lack of information on the student's needs, (or how to translate that into modifications) or in giving the student an unfair advantage. Some instructors may see this as an unnecessary step, but it is wise to remember that accommodations and modifications are a legal requirement when requested and justified. If not employed or incorrectly utilized, this lack could lead to legal action against the institution and the instructor. Ensuring that distance learning courses, materials and resources are accessible to students with disabilities is a shared college responsibility (California Community Colleges, 1999), and so we should not hesitate to pull in appropriate institutional resources when addressing such issues.


Online learning may be seen as beneficial for our students in a number of ways - providing a more hospitable learning environment and simultaneously allowing the student to practice and perfect important technology skills needed by today's employers. Accessibility to education and specific courses through distance learning may provide opportunity to obtain an education that may not have otherwise been available due to geographical distances or physical limitations (Brown-Chidsey & Boscardin, 1999; Flottemensch, 2000; Hegarty, Bostock & Collins, 2000). Though computer technology has the potential to act as an equalizer by freeing many students from their disabilities, the barriers of inadequate training and cost must first be overcome before more widespread use can become a reality (Hasselbring & Glaser, 2000).

The road to effective online learning is one with many potential pitfalls and information to consider. Educators must prepare both a special environment and class material in a form accessible to each student with a disability (Uhran, Beery & Wilkerson, 1998). However, by adding a little imagination, computer skill and the necessary assistive technology, working with individuals with disabilities can produce very satisfying results (Perkins, 1995). Careful consideration of student needs and consultation with appropriate disability and technology professionals can help ensure a productive learning experience for all involved.


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ABLEDATA Sponsored by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, U.S. Department of Education

Alliance for Technology Access

Apple Computer Corporation: Special Needs Resources

CAST: Center for Applied Special Technology

Closing the Gap

Education World Assistive Technology

Illinois Assistive Technology Project Demonstration & Loan Center

Resource Guide for People With Cognitive/Language Impairments

Trace Research and Development Center - "Designing More Usable Web Sites"

Washington Assistive Technology Alliance: Selected AT Resources

Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)

The Web Accessibility "How-To" Site

Cook, R. A. & Gladhart, M. A.(2002). A survey of online instructional issues and strategies for postsecondary students with learning disabilities. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 8(1).