"The proactively accessible online classroom reduces, and can even eliminate, the need to request accommodations."
Many colleges and universities now include courses that are conducted through an online learning platform, otherwise known as e-learning. The response and popularity of online education has increased because of the built-in features that many universities have had to include in this type of learning platform. As stated by Hollins & Foley (2013), as more students with disabilities enroll in college, "it is in the best interest of colleges and universities, from both a business and legal standpoint, to expand efforts at ensuring equality in the educational experience, including accessibility of the virtual campus" (p. 622). Therefore, accessibility is at the top of the list of beneficial aspects of online learning for students with disabilities.
The proactively accessible online classroom reduces, and can even eliminate, the need to request accommodations. Some of the most obvious benefits due to the flexibility inherent in e-learning are alleviating physical accessibility concerns, such as the need for wheelchair ramps or automatic doors. Additionally, private testing rooms are not needed for students who are easily distracted or anxious: when taking an online class, students choose their own location for schoolwork and study. Verdinelli & Kutner (2016) noted that "participants who reported suffering from health or physical conditions (e.g., nerve/spinal damage, lupus, paralysis, multiple sclerosis) expressed that the online environment allocated more time to complete assignments, allowing them to sit, rest, or walk when needed" (p. 358).
While online courses may, at first glance, seem like a purely visual medium, that is far from the case. Rather than visually-impaired students needing a refreshable Braille version of class content or someone to read aloud to them, they can use built-in text-to-speech screen reading capabilities, which are built into most online class materials. This same technology provides equal benefit to those with dyslexia or visual processing disorders. Screen readers are but one of a growing number of assistive technology created to target varied learning styles and aptitudes of students in online classes: "The choice of assistive technology combines personal preference, cost, and suitability, and these technologies are constantly improving and changing" (Taylor, 2016, p. 122).
When students with disabilities meet in a physical classroom, there are invariably times that the needs of individual students may conflict. When learning online, this potential difficulty becomes a moot point. Just as text-to-speech makes written materials easily accessible to all students, closed captioning and transcripts are equally useful to deaf and hard of hearing students as well as those who would rather not turn on audio while they study next to a sleeping baby or on a crowded train. Conversely, those students with auditory processing disorders can choose to read written directions in the classroom or even read along with video instructions. As stated by Barrett (2013), "technology today has provided a powerful infrastructure, the emerging technologies have allowed educational institutions, educators, and students to achieve education on a much higher playing field -- in a virtual learning environment" (p. 56).
One of the most common accommodations requested by students is extra time, yet as shown by Terras, Leggio, & Phillips (2015), the asynchronous aspect of online courses contributes greatly to the success of students with a variety of disabilities: "[The students studied] found online courses to be 'easier' because they could review the content multiple times, unlike a face-to-face course" (p. 335). Again, this is an example of a built-in aspect of online courses that benefits students with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), processing disabilities, bipolar disorder, and anxiety equally well. Even the note-taking services so often requested in the past are often no longer necessary due to the highlighting, searching, and copying functionalities within so many eBooks.
The ability to be able to "go to class" via the Internet makes it possible for anyone with access to a computer, tablet, phone, or other mobile device to attend college courses that are online. The technology involved in e-learning allows for auditory and visual aspects to be accessible to all learners. Asynchronous learning also removes time as an issue. Verdinelli & Kutner (2016) assert that "adult students with disabilities perceive the online environment to be more comfortable than traditional formats and found courses more adaptable to their disability and learning preference" (p. 353). Overall, the various forms of accessibility involved in e-learning are important traits and benefits that will continue to appeal to students with disabilities.
Barrett, B. (2013). Accessibility and human computing interaction: Engaging and motivating students with disabilities through more computer empowerment. Paper presented at the 54-VIII. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1380629740?accountid=458
Hollins, N., & Foley, A. R. (2013). The experiences of students with learning disabilities in a higher education virtual campus. Educational Technology, Research and Development, 61(4), 607-624. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11423-013-9302-9
Taylor, M. A. (2016). Improving accessibility for students with visual disabilities in the technology-rich classroom. PS, Political Science & Politics, 49(1), 122-127. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1049096515001134
Terras, K., Leggio, J., & Phillips, A. (2015). Disability accommodations in online courses: The graduate student experience. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 28(3), 329-340. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1083812.pdf
Verdinelli, S., & Kutner, D. (2016). Persistence factors among online graduate students with disabilities. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 9(4), 353-368. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/1715661961?accountid=35812
Laura Policar, Ed.D., is a full-time faculty member with the University of Phoenix. Mahopac, NY.
Tracy Crawford, M.A.Ed., is a full-time faculty member with the University of Phoenix. Chandler, AZ.
Vita Alligood, JD, is a full-time faculty member with the University of Phoenix. Greensboro, NC.
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