Online Courses for Students with Disabilities: 5 Considerations

  • Posted on: 14 April 2014
  • By: Tina McCoy

Online courses for students with disabilities are increasingly seen as a viable alternative to traditional instruction.  Although virtual courses can be useful tools, they should not be considered a panacea for students who struggle in more typical learning situations. Before you decide to place a student in an online course, or as you determine what types of support the student will need to be successful in that course, consider the following:

1. Readability - The readability of text in online courses can vary considerable from lesson to lesson.  This means that a student may be able to complete one lesson with a high level of independence (due to a very manageable reading level) but struggle significantly with the next lesson (due to a reading level that makes the material much less accessible).  The student, parents or those who work with the student may not realize this and misunderstand the reason why the student is having difficulty.  For example, they may believe that the student is disinterested or 'not trying' hard enough. Variability in reading level, without proper support and strategies to address such discrepancies, may result in frustration or students 'giving up' on a course.  Also, in terms of readability, the 'links to resources' (when followed) will have significantly higher reading levels.  All this is not to say that students should not be exposed to higher-level texts, but that this type of variability must be taken into account when decisions are made about online courses and the types of assistance students will require to be successful in an online learning environment.

2. Vocabulary - Vocabulary can be a major barrier for the learning of some students, particularly those with educational disabilities. However, support of vocabulary is typically minimal in online courses. Highly content-specific vocabulary will usually be introduced.  For example, the term 'meiosis' is very likely to have a definition and explanation accompanying it when it arises in a biology course. However, online courses (much like the textbooks used in traditional classrooms) assume that students already understand the meaning of essential underlying academic vocabulary words such as justify, interpret, negate or validate.  These types of vocabulary words, often referred to as Tier II Vocabulary Words, cut across subject areas.  Students must understand them in order to fully comprehend online (or any) text. Don't make the mistake of assuming that all necessary vocabulary words are embedded into online courses. Many students with disabilities will need strategies and additional instruction related to vocabulary as they navigate online courses.  This should be taken into account when decisions about course placement and supports are made.  

 3. Visuals - We often tend to think of online courses having 'built-in' visuals that will naturally enhance learning. However, the visuals embedded into online courses cannot always be relied upon to enhance student learning. For example, illustrations may be difficult to decipher, convey extraneous information (in addition to relevant information), or not align adequately with the text.  This may cause confusion and actually diminish comprehension of the material to be learned. Obviously, illustrations in traditional books can have these flaws as well. The caution is this: Don't be lulled into thinking that students with disabilities will be able to independently complete online courses without any additional support or assistance in interpreting charts, graphs or other visual aides that are used to convey information in online courses. 

4. Study and Organizational Skills - Many students with disabilities are challenged when it comes to breaking down assignments, setting manageable goals or timelines, and following through on tasks required for success in an academic environment. Although we like to think that the computer would guide the student sufficiently through a course, the truth is that study and organizational challenges will persist regardless of the venue for learning. The danger of a student getting 'off track' does not lie in the online course itself, but in the assumption of educators or parents that because the course is online, the student will be able to complete it independently.  If a student needs strategies or instruction for organization and study skills in a typical (traditional) course, it should be considered that he would also need such supports as he engages in an online course. 

5. Universal Design for Learning - To what extend are principles of UDL present in an online course that you are considering for a student with a disability?  Whenever possible, choose courses that are designed in a manner that makes them as accessible as possible to a very wide range of learners.  Is the material represented in multiple ways, and can students demonstrate their understanding in more than one way?  Does the online course engage the students through a variety of mechanisms?  Don't assume that just because the course is online that it will be accessible, engaging and flexible for a student with a disability. When making this determination, there is no substitute for directly reviewing the course. If you don't feel you are 'expert' enough in UDL to evaluate the coursework, then look for a new tool that will soon be issued by the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities (website below). This checklist will assist you in assessing an online course in terms of accessibility through Universal Design for Learning. 

Conclusion - Online courses are here to stay and can be a valuable part of a student's overall learning experience.  However, as with any course, careful consideration and planning must take place if students with disabilities are to be properly placed and supported in a virtual course. Before placing a student in a specific online course, examine the material to ensure it is appropriate to meet his or her needs and to help determine what types of supports will be needed for the student to succeed.  Consider factors such as readability, vocabulary, visual supports, the need for organizational skills, and principles of Universal Design for Learning.  If you invest the time and attention to these matters up front, your students are likely to thrive in an online learning environment. 

Special thanks to the folks from the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities, who gave a fantastic presentation at the CEC Conference in Philadelphia, and prompted me to write this blog.  Please visit their website for free information and resources at