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.


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