As of today, 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.