Distance Learning For Students With Disabilities

In the last decades, the emergence of distance learning has posed a new difficulty for disabled students. Online or distance learning is widely beneficial and can have a great impact if all services and accommodations are made for everyone. This article will provide an overview about distance learning for disabled students and how they can navigate this educational opportunity.

Completing higher education degrees is both a challenging and stressful experience. Students spend months researching universities and then planning their applications, essays, and collecting their documents.The challenge of earning a higher education degree only increases if you are a student who has a disability. Despite the fact that universities have made efforts to accommodate disabilities, students still struggle with the services.

According to recent statistics, the number of people with disabilities is increasing due to economic recessions as well as technology which can identify disabilities more easily. Also, students with disabilities take longer to complete their degrees.

Around 42% of those with a disability reported that they had a learning disability
23% said they had mobility impairments
20% were with ADD or ADHD
16% had psychological or psychiatric conditions
15% had health and
medical related impairments

What Is Distance Learning?

Distance learning is the process through which students complete their degrees without having to attend classes in person. The courses are held online using technology and students can access lectures and assignments through online lectures, teleconferences, online exams, and so on.

For more details about distance learning, we have articles about what distance learning is  and why getting a masters degree through this method is worth it.

What Qualifies As Disability?

Disabilities are broad and can encompass many physical and non-physical restrictions. Most developed countries have developed their legal frameworks to include and not discriminate people with disabilities. Many laws and regulations exist, which also define what qualifies and what does not qualify as disability.

In the United States, the most important regulations are the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 with Section 504 and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In these documents, a person has a disability if they:

  • Have a physical or mental restriction which limits one or more life activities (including seeing, speaking, hearing, walking, breathing, etc.)
  • Have a record of these restrictions
  • Are regarded as having this restriction or disability

Some of the most common forms of disability in today’s world are:

blindnessBlindness or low vision – which in a classroom setting limits students in their ability to read and view classroom materials, presentations, and videos. They also could have difficulties navigating campuses or finding other locations.

hearingDeaf or hard of hearing – which limits students in their ability to listen to lectures, presentations, and videos unless there is a person who knows sign language and accommodates the disabled people.

mobilityMobility impairments – means that students have difficulty in movements or are paralyzed. They will have challenges in moving around campus, classrooms, and other university facilities. They might also not be able to take notes, write essays, or take tests due to their disability.

healthChronic Health Impairments – which means that students have an invisible illness such as heart disease, back problems, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and other diseases. In classrooms, these students can have difficulties with focusing and attending classes due to pain or other causes which might require them to seek medical attention.

adhdAttention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – which means that the student has difficulty concentration thus leading to difficulties with completing classwork and succeeding academically.

learningLearning Disabilities – means that the student is unable to demonstrate their intelligence in many areas of academics due to their limitations in memory, auditory or visual functions, and other forms of learning disabilities.

thinkingDevelopmental Disabilities – refer to those disabilities where students have not developed their intellectual or physical capacities and face issues with analysis, reasoning, critical thinking and other functions.

psychologicalPsychological Disabilities – cover a variety of conditions such as anxiety, depression, panic or bipolar disorders amongst many others. For students this means that it will be difficult to attend classes, complete the required work, and acquire the necessary knowledge to succeed.

The above list does not include all forms of disability since there are many more and the definition of a disability is not strictly set but is reviewed case by case.

What does not qualify as a disability however, are temporary impairments such as having a cold, drug use, pregnancy, broken bones, etc.

NOTE: If you suspect that you have a disability, you need to file your claim with the responsible authorities, but as a student you do not need to report your disability with universities unless you need to make sure that the necessary accommodation exists.

Rights Of Students With Disabilities

Laws and regulations give students with disabilities rights which universities cannot override through whatever mode of study students choose to learn. So no matter if you are a student with a disability attending a graduate program on-campus or through distance learning, the university cannot:

  • Exclude students with disabilities from classes because of the disability
  • Limit the number of students with disabilities that can be admitted
  • Have rules which might affect the performance of a disabled student
  • Investigate whether the student has a disability to make a decision on whether to admit them or not
  • Limit the career choices of a student based solely on their disability

Besides these rights, universities are also required to accommodate disabled studentsto a reasonable extent.

Accommodation for disabled students

Such accommodations might include:

  • Modification or adaptation of courses
  • More time to complete coursework, exams, or graduate
  • Record classes
  • Modify the way tests are taken or how performance is evaluated
  • Adapt the physical facilities by installing additional disability entrances or removing barriers
  • Provide note takers, interpreters, transcription or listening devices, and any other methods which make it easier for disabled students to succeed academically

However, universities are not required to modify their programs in the sense of changing their curriculum or what is determined to be “undue burden” on the institution. In addition, although universities need to accommodate disabled students, it is up to the student to ensure that the requirements are met and that their needs are not being discriminated.

How To Choose A University?

If you are a student with a disability and have decided that you want to get your degree through distance learning, then you should take into consideration a few factors about how to choose a university. The fact is that the process is not much different from any student, but for disabilities, you need to make sure that you will be accommodated appropriately.

Start searching early

Distance learning for students with disabilities should be programs which give extensive information about how they accommodate their students. By giving yourself enough time to search for programs, you will also be able to contact different schools and require information for your specific disability.

You could also check school websites. Universities usually have a page in their websites where they explain their accommodation facilities and methods for online learning for students with disabilities.

Contact previous students

The best way to know what challenges lie ahead of you is to talk to those who have had a similar experience. If you cannot decide what distance learning program to enroll in, contact their alumni and ask them about how the program was. They will be able to give you more detailed information and you will get a better sense of what awaits you.

Check their accreditation

Accreditation is the most important way to determine whether a program has any value at all. Many distance learning programs are unaccredited so you could end up spending time, effort, and money and not have any advantages at the end. So before you enroll in any kind of program, even if it accommodates all of you needs as a student with a disability, check whether it is accredited or not.

In addition, check what institutions have accredited it and whether they are trustworthy and have enough qualifications to become a recognized institution. If the program has no accreditation, your degree will not be recognized by any employers.

Distance Learning For Students With Disabilities

Universities which offer online degrees have a legal and ethical obligation to also develop distance learning for students with disabilities. Despite this, many institutions overlook this and their distance learning programs are not as accommodating as they should be. Because of this, students with disabilities should look for appropriate programs which will assist and accommodate them.

The best way which universities can make online learning for students with disabilities a pleasant experience is by using universal design. This means that they take into account all special needs of disabled students when they initially design the program. Universal design reduces the problems that both universities and students have later on when enrollment begins.

Universal design means that the program is equipped with all the hardware and software needed for the best learning experience for students with disabilities. The responsibilities of students are only in the fact that they need to inform the program about their specific disability so that their needs are taken into account.

The content of distance learning for students with disability can be difficult to access for many reasons that are related to that specific disability.

Below we will go over the most used type of content, how it affects students with disabilities, and the solutions to them.

Content Printed materials
Problem Students who have visual impairments such as blindness or low vision will be unable to read them.
Solution Provide audio recordings, Braille text, large text, or e-text
Content Online content
Problem This content might present problems for students who use assistive technology which might not be available in some websites.
Solution Universities should not design programs which use websites that have no options for disability accommodation.
Content Live or Prerecorded Video Conferences
Problem Students with disabilities might have difficulties accessing video content, especially if it is live due to:

·         Visual impairments so they won’t be able to see it

·         Difficulties with hearing

·         Speech impairments

·         Materials are inaccessible to some students

Solution To solve some of these issues, universities can provide:

·         Sign language interpreters (Hearing impairments)

·         Closed or open captions (Hearing impairments)

·         Audio recordings or descriptive captions (Visual impairments)

·         Descriptive narrations (Visual impairments)

·         Alternative methods to live chats such as written chats

Content Audio Conferences
Problem This type of content is problematic for those who have hearing impairments and might not be able to hear the conferences, as well as those with speech impairments if live audio conferences are needed.
Solution Programs can provide:

·         Live chats or programs with live transcription

·         Text Telephones (TTY)

·         Telephone Relay Systems (TRS)

·         Telecommunication devices for the deaf (TDD)

Benefits Of Online Learning For Students With Disabilities

Distance learning for students with disabilities is highly beneficial for both the university and the students. For universities it provides the opportunity to deliver learning content which is inclusive and does not discriminate based on disabilities.

As for students, online learning for students with disabilities has the following benefits.


There is a lot of convenience for students with disabilities who attend distance learning programs. This convenience comes in the form of:

  • Not having to require physical accommodation on campus
  • Not requiring travel and transportation and taking classes from home


Increasingly, distance learning programs are incorporating universal design, so students with disabilities have the chance to access the content whichever way is better suited for them. This gives them the flexibility to listen, watch, or read lecture content in different format.

In addition, flexibility is also present in the form of class participation, where students with disabilities have different chances to engage with classmates and professors without feeling discriminated or treated differently because of their disability.

Continued benefits

Having flexibility and convenience for distance learning for students with disabilities means that they will benefit from it their entire lives. These benefits come in the form of higher employment for disabled persons where unemployment rates are four times more than the general population. Providing equal educational opportunities means that everyone will have the same access to skills and employment opportunities.

Financial Aid For Students With Disabilities

Higher education is expensive and is difficult to finance by everyone, but specifically students with disabilities. Fortunately, most financing options do not exclude students with disabilities and there are also many disability scholarships which students can take advantage of.

Some of the most common scholarships for disabled students include:

Student Loans

Student Loans are loans for which students should apply using guidelines from their countries or institutions. Student loans are given to every student and are required to be paid back after the student completed their studies.


Grants are awarded to students from federal or state programs and are not required to be paid back. However, it is more challenging to get a grant since the competition is high and there are strict requirements. For more detailed information, check your federal or state programs and their requirements since they might differ.


Scholarships are similar to grants in the sense that they do not need to be paid back, but they are awarded based on different criteria such as merit. However, there are many universities or governmental institutions which offer scholarships to students with disabilities so check the websites of these agencies and institutions for more details.

However, scholarships are not awarded based on disability, but they take into account the skills and knowledge of the students.

Educational Assistance Programs

Educational Assistance Programs are programs funded by employers to fund their employee’s tuition. If you are employed, check with your employer to see whether they offer such programs and if not, you can start advocating for it.

Vocational Rehabilitation (VR)

Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) programs are mostly to find employment for students with disabilities but they also give disability funding. The agencies exist in each state so you should check with the center in your state.

AmeriCorps Programs

AmeriCorps Programs award stipends or educational awards to their volunteers who are with the organization for one or two years.

For more information on read our article on how to finance grad school and even attend it for free.