The right to learn: Students with disabilities in online university programs

There is an increasing number of university students with disabilities. Access to post-secondary education for students with disabilities is seen as a human right issue. Online university programs have created new educational opportunities for students with disabilities. In my doctoral research I looked at their experiences in undergraduate and graduate online programs. Although students with disabilities have the right to learn and technologies provided more opportunities for flexible learning, their experiences of studying online range from very positive to very negative. Almost all students in my study reported at least one negative experience that pushed them to the brink of leaving the program. In my study I amplified their voices by describing the nature of students’ experiences of online learning.

Having access, working harder, being supported, and being connected were constituents that had a high intra-constituent variability in which experiences of students were not described as a singularity but as a continuum that ranged from a lack of or a limited presence of the constituent to fully present constituent in participants’ descriptions.

High intra-constituent variability indicates that there was an institutional capacity to support students with disabilities in online higher education; however, this capacity was not present consistently within programs and across different departments pointing to the areas of potential changes at instructional, administrative, service, and policy levels.

When describing their interactions with instructors, students with disabilities characterized their experiences from being adversarial to being fully supportive, and everything in between.  Megan eloquently described this range:

So, they’ve ranged from really awful to really, really amazing… at one end I’ve had really critical instructors who make me justify every accommodation and why I might use it in an accusatory way that feels like they’re accusing me of not being organized or being lazy or procrastinating.  And at the other end, I have had instructors who trust me to be able to manage my own situation through the course.  And there’s been a lot of middle areas.  It’s been a full spectrum.

The fact that individually students with disabilities (whose disabilities have not changed during their study) have a range of experiences tells us that it is not about students and their disabilities but about the learning environment and interactions that disable them. To ensure the right to learn for all students with disabilities we should re-examine the accessibility of online learning environments both technology and curriculum, look at inclusiveness of policies, procedures, teaching and learning, and understand our legal responsibilities to remove barriers.

Dissertation is available

My dissertation “Experiences of interaction for students with disabilities in online university programs” is available online. I am very grateful to participants in my study who generously shared their stories of studying online. I hope that deepening our understanding about their experiences will help us improve the way we design and facilitate digital learning experiences, we develop university policies, and we think about pedagogy, technology, and accessibility.

The experiences of studying online for students with disabilities had five constituents: having access, working harder, being supported, being connected, and becoming. Experiences represent a complex interplay of various factors described on a continuum, rather than be reduced to one aspect of it, or singularity in a binary terms of absence or presence of the key constituents. Experiences were mostly positive, except for students who did not register with the office of disability services. However, almost all students described at least one negative experience of interactions that had profound impact on them, for some to the point that they considered dropping out of the program.

These findings illuminate the institutional capacity and the potential of flexible online learning to provide a barrier-free learning environment for students with disabilities, as described in their positive experiences of interactions. At the same time, the findings reveal inconsistencies in ensuring equal access for students with disabilities to participate without barriers in courses across university programs.

Recognizing personal and individual factors, the findings of this study point out environmental, attitudinal, and policy factors that also shape experiences of students with disabilities in the online learning environment. Students with disabilities saw the responsibility for ensuring inclusion as a shared responsibility of instructors, disability support service providers, and administrators for accessibility and accommodation.


This website is dedicated to my doctoral research study on experiences of interaction for students with disabilities in online university programs. The purpose of my research was to describe experiences of interaction for undergraduate and graduate students with disabilities studying in online university programs.  I used descriptive phenomenology that is a qualitative method used to study a structure of the experience (Giorgi, 2009). Few studies in the research literature illuminate experiences of students with disabilities in online learning environments.  Research on students with disabilities and higher education in general, and online higher education in particular, is mostly focused on technology and support services, while pedagogy and theories of learning and disability are somewhat neglected.  The research is diverse to compare, often small to generalize, and lacks theoretical and conceptual underpinning, making it difficult to establish an evidence base.  Research evidence is skewed towards the quantitative methods that dominate the research in the field.

There are few qualitative studies describing the experience of students with disabilities but these are few in numbers.  The voices of students with disabilities that could be captured in qualitative studies are mostly absent from the research literature.  As the number of students with disabilities at universities is growing, and as more online learning opportunities are provided for them, there is a need to better understand commonalities and structures that underline their experiences as they describe them. My study contributes to the growing body of knowledge about students with disabilities in online learning environments.

Giorgi, A. (2009). The descriptive phenomenological method in psychology: A modified Husserlian approach. Duquesne University Press.