There is growing interest in online learners with disabilities because of an increase in the number of students with disabilities enrolled in universities and colleges across North America, enabling human rights legislation, and opportunities presented by advances in use of information and communication technologies in education. The past decade has seen a significant number of publications covering this topic; however, the experience of students with disabilities engaged in online learning remains an under-researched area. To address this gap in the research literature, a descriptive phenomenological study was conducted to describe the experience of interaction for students with disabilities who study online in an institution of higher education.
The structure of the experience of interactions for students with disabilities in online programs had five constituents: having access, working harder, being supported, being connected, and becoming.
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. Students also described the following barriers: processes of accessing accommodations, inconsistencies in providing accommodations, a lack of awareness of disability, accommodations, rights and obligations among instructors, responsiveness of the system to students’ inquiries, and over-reliance on a single mode or an activity in the design of courses. Knowing themselves and flexibility were facilitators that helped students with disabilities learn in the online environment. Flexibility was a multidimensional concept including flexibility of time, people, processes, infrastructure, course design, and funding.
This research contributes to the current body of knowledge by capturing experiences of students with disabilities that are mostly absent from the literature. By describing the nature of students’ experiences of online learning, this study revealed 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.