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Students with Disabilities Meet Challenges in Online Courses

April 8, 2014
Source: U.S. News and World Report

Story by Devon Haynie - April 4, 2014

Online education can seem like a promising alternative for students with disabilities, but many still face challenges in accessing course materials.

In some ways, Shelesha Taylor is like many online students.

A single parent of two daughters, the 33-year-old is finishing her post-masters certificate in professional counseling [at] Virginia Commonwealth University, a blended program where half of her classes are online.

But unlike her classmates, she has an extra challenge: The Virginia resident has a degenerative eye condition, which means she depends on a magnifying screen reader to access her online course materials. And often it doesnt work with the documents her professors provide.

"Sometimes I feel angry and frustrated," says Taylor, who plans to graduate from her program in May. "My classmates can say, I did my homework in three hours, and I think, Lucky you. I had to obtain this document and find it in a usable format and struggle harder because of the added time."

Online education can seem like a promising alternative for students with physical and sensory disabilities, some of whom would struggle to navigate a physical campus. But even the most accessible online programs can still pose challenges for students like Taylor.

Since not all online programs are equal when it comes to their resources for students with disabilities, experts suggest students do their research before choosing a program and prepare to advocate for themselves once enrolled.

"Some places have let the drive to offer online instruction get ahead of thoughtful planning," says L. Scott Lissner, president of the Association on Higher Education And Disability. "I think there are a number of institutions that do it well whether it is offering captioning or print access or helping the quadriplegic student but there are enough places that are not doing it well."

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, online courses should be made accessible to students with disabilities, Lissner says. But since the ADA has not provided any specific accommodation standards, it is up to each school to decide to what extent it will serve its students with disabilities.

In a perfect world, online courses should be created using the concept of universal design the idea that all course material should be accessible in different ways, be it through audio or video or text, says Vickie S. Cook, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at University of Illinois - Springfield.

But since academia is not quite there yet, she suggests students with disabilities investigate a schools learning management system (LMS) the platform that allows them to consume materials, post assignments and engage with their virtual classroom before they enroll.

While some of the more popular, commercial systems, such as Moodle, Blackboard and Desire2Learn, are built in a way that makes them accessible, some of the platforms designed by schools are more limited.

Those systems can be particularly challenging for students like Taylor who have print disabilities - physical, visual, cognitive and other impairments that prevent them from effectively reading their course materials, she says. She suggests students do an Internet search to discover the strengths and the weaknesses of a potential LMS.

Once students with disabilities are accepted into an online program, they should prepare to be direct and open about what they need to succeed, experts say.

Even if a school uses a learning management system that is completely accessible to students with vision, hearing or other impairments, the odds are that at some point some students will hit a snag, says Lissner of the Association on Higher Education and Disability, who also works at Ohio State University.

"We still have 5,000 faculty posting content and Desire2Learn doesnt stop them from posting something inaccessible," he says. "It doesnt screen their content. It provides an accessible building but you might not be able to get into every room."

Disabled students who cant access their course materials can get behind fast, so experts suggest they make an effort to articulate their needs to instructors before class even starts.

"My experience has told me that most of the time students prefer to just start the course and figure out what they may need and then adjust accordingly," says Lisa Webb, an administrator who provides academic support and disability services to students at VCU Health Sciences.

"A lot of people with disabilities are very closed off and not willing to discuss their needs," she says. "But you cant be that way because people with disabilities in higher education is still a relatively new thing. You need to make people understand what you need."

Virginia Commonwealth University student Taylor says she learned over time that expressing her needs clearly and early was key to her success in class. Before the semester started, for example, she would reach out to instructors and explain the limitations of her screen reader and the problems she had with certain tests.

In addition to contacting faculty, experts suggest students with impairments contact their schools disability services office before class starts.

Lissner says disability services can be key to solving access problems that faculty may not be able to address. If a school makes it hard to find the office, students should look elsewhere to enroll, he says.

Taylor agrees. "They will help you find a way if you have a problem," she says of disability services. "A lot of time they will have software that you dont have at home."

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