Higher education offers an excellent opportunity to broaden your horizons and acquire the credentials needed to pursue job opportunities. Because of this, no one should let a learning disability stand in their way of attending college. Online learning, specifically, offers an excellent opportunity for people with learning disabilities. Notably, online education gives you the ability to attend college when you might be unable to otherwise participate due to family or work-related responsibilities.
Additionally, online learning allows you to attend institutions and access resources that might otherwise be out of reach. This is especially true in the 21st century when many institutions have increasingly offered new college resources and opportunities to students with learning disabilities. Online learning also provides young people and adults with learning disabilities the ability to pursue a degree program at their own pace and use technologies or tools that might be difficult to bring into the classroom.
Understanding Your Learning Disabilities
What is a learning disability? According to Miriam Webster, a learning disability is ''a condition that makes learning difficult.'' Learning disabilities are quite common among the general population and in college students. According to the U.S. Department of Education, almost 20% of undergraduate students have some sort of disability. This figure includes intellectual and physical disabilities. This means that nearly one in five students on a college campus may have a disability.
There are many types of learning disabilities that young people and adults experience. Some examples of common learning disabilities include:
- Attention-Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), which makes it difficult to focus on a lesson or task and pay attention for sustained periods of time
- Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), whereby those affected have trouble processing sounds or difficulty telling sounds apart
- Dyscalculia, which makes it harder to learn math
- Dysgraphia, a learning disability that impacts fine motor skills (As a result, individuals with dysgraphia may not be able to write clearly and easily. They may also be unable to convey ideas in writing.)
- Dyslexia, which undermines the ability of a person to comprehend what they read
- Dyspraxia, a disability that undermines an individual's ability to master language and speech
- Language Processing Disorder (LPD), which is more specific than APD in that people who suffer from LPD have trouble processing sounds associated with language
The above are just some common learning disabilities. The list of identified and diagnosable disabilities is always growing as specialists learn more about how the human brain works and processes information. If you think you have a learning disability that is not listed here, contact a learning disability professional.
Documenting Your Learning Disability
To document your learning disability, you'll have to contact a qualified professional outside your college or institution of higher education, like a licensed psychologist, a literacy expert, or even a licensed social worker. When documenting your learning disability, the professional may:
- Conduct testing relevant to your disability. This may include testing your ability to read, solve math problems, and more. Ultimately, the qualified professional assessing your learning disability will recommend testing.
- Analyze your academic history for evidence of a disability, if applicable. In addition to completing testing with a qualified professional, you should provide the learning disability professional with prior test scores. Also, if you've ever had an IQ test or aptitude test, you should give them that information, too.
- Ask you about the intellectual challenges you face in academic and non-academic settings. Be prepared to spend substantial time with a qualified professional explaining the challenges you face learning in both academic and non-academic settings; this can help the professional make a better judgment about your learning disability.
Ultimately, a professional will assess your aptitude and your ability to process information. The goal of this assessment is for the professional to certify that you have a learning disability, which you can present to the college where you're taking online classes.
Understanding Your Choices for Online College
When deciding which online college you should enroll at, you'll need to consider a wide variety of factors. You should start this process by making a list of institutions that might work for you in terms of finances and location. It's important to remember that, while you can choose online colleges almost anywhere in the country, it may help to pick one with a nearby physical location. This way, you'll be able to access on-campus resources if you need them.
It's also important to remember that while many colleges offer substantial resources to students with learning disabilities, others do not. One college that does offer significant help to students with learning disabilities is Landmark College. Located in Vermont, the college caters exclusively to students with diagnosed learning disabilities. It also offers a variety of online programs, including online professional certification programs. Landmark College is not the only school for students with learning disabilities, however.
Evaluating Online Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities
As you undoubtedly know, you have many choices for online degree programs. There are many choices, depending on if you want to enroll at a community college or top-ranking research university. While it may seem like an overwhelming task to choose an online college that supports students with disabilities, many resources can aid you in making your decision. When deciding on an online college, you should:
- Read reviews and rankings of online colleges. You may want to visit websites and news sites that provide school rankings and check out their rankings of accredited online colleges. This list will provide you with critical facts, such as average student age and cost per credit hour. Remember, though, many local institutions, such as small, 4-year colleges and community colleges, also have robust online degree programs.
- Review the degree programs at online colleges that you're interested in attending. Before deciding on a college, review the list of 2-year degree, 4-year degree, and certification programs each institution offers. If you know which program you want to complete, focus on institutions that offer as many relevant programs as possible. For example, if you want to pursue an early childhood education job, choose a school that offers that specific type of program. If you plan on transferring to another college after completing some online courses, make sure that your credits will be accepted at other institutions.
- After narrowing your search, call the admissions offices at the institutions you're interested in attending. Ask about their admissions process and requirements. Also, it would help to inquire about the disability support services that they offer. You may want to ask, for example, what benefits the disability resource center at the college offers and if they have free online tutoring.
Understanding Online College Classes
Not all online college classes are created equal - online course formats vary. Some types of online classes include in-class components; these are often called 'hybrid' courses.' However, many online courses are offered fully online and do not require students to attend class. When deciding on a class, determine if you'll be taking all of your classes online, or if you're planning on visiting campus periodically.
Institutions also use different learning management systems (LMS). Learning management systems are the platforms on which online courses operate. Some LMSs include Blackboard, Brightspace by D2L, and Canvas. While, in general, LMSs perform the same role, each system does have its own unique functions and appearances, so it may be worth your time to investigate the LMSs of those institutions you're considering attending. To give you an example, the Blackboard LMS has received a Gold Certification from the National Federation of the Blind for its accessibility options. If you're already familiar with a specific LMS, you may want to choose a course or institution that uses that system.
In addition, you'll need to work with your academic advisor when selecting online classes. Keep in mind that smaller institutions may not offer all of their online courses every semester. This is especially true of upper-level courses (3000-level and 4000-level) required for specific degrees. As a result, you'll need to map out your online college career in advance, particularly if a disability, family responsibilities, or your work schedule will limit you to taking only a few classes a semester.
Understanding Asynchronous Courses
After choosing a specific online class, you may have some options when it comes to the format of the class. This, though, will depend on the course offerings at your institution. In general, though, there are two main types of online courses. One type of class is an asynchronous course.
Asynchronous classes are online courses that do not have a real-time component. These courses do not require you to be online at specific times to interact with the instructor and other students. Most asynchronous courses, though, do have hard due dates and deadlines. In most cases, an instructor will not waive due dates and deadlines for disability-related accommodations. However, in some cases, your instructor may extend due dates. This means that the instructor will upload all of the course content onto an LMS and allow you to complete that material based on their due dates and your schedule.
Asynchronous online courses may be beneficial to young learners and adult learners with disabilities because they allow them to complete assignments independently. They also allow students with disabilities to use assistive learning technology hardware and software on their own time and with privacy.
Understanding Synchronous Courses
While asynchronous classes have their benefits, they're not a good fit for everyone. This brings us to the second type of online courses: synchronous classes.
Synchronous online courses have a real-time component. These courses require you to be online at specific times to engage with the instructor and other students. Real-time features can vary based on the course and instructor. For example, some synchronous courses have scheduled Zoom or Skype meetings. These meetings may be weekly or biweekly. Other synchronous courses will require that you work with peers by way of a chat system, over the phone, or via video conferencing.
Synchronous online courses may be beneficial to young learners and adult learners with disabilities because they allow students to engage in real time with the instructor. If you have a question, you'll most likely be able to ask your instructor. Additionally, students with disabilities who learn best through hands-on activities will benefit by engaging with other students on real-time projects and more.
Selecting an Instructor for Your Online Class
Just like asynchronous and synchronous formats are not the same, not all instructors are the same. For example, some instructors have more experience teaching online than other instructors. Or, some instructors may have more experience working with students with disabilities, or be more accommodating of, or more comfortable working with, students with disabilities. As a result, you'll need to be more attentive to the instructor you choose for a course. It's important to note, though, that depending on the institution and course, you may not have many choices when it comes to instructors. However, when and where you do have choices, there are several resources you can use to help you narrow down your choice of instructors for a specific course.
These resources include:
- Advisors and counselors at your institution, who are probably the best equipped to help you choose a specific instructor. Advisors may also communicate with instructors about your learning disability so they'll be prepared to have you in their online classrooms.
- Fellow students, who are a great resource when it comes to determining which instructors are mindful of the challenges that different students face at college. You may want to reach out to acquaintances and friends at your college for feedback on specific instructors. If you don't know anyone yet, ask your advisor or counselor if you can be paired with a student mentor. Student mentors may be able to provide you with information about specific instructors than faculty and staff members.
- RateMyProfessors.com or Koofers.com has reviews of thousands of college instructors around the United States. While the reviews are not specifically geared toward students with learning disabilities, they can provide valuable information about instructors' styles.
Finding Assistive Technology for Learning Disabilities
Today, college students with disabilities benefit from various assistive technologies that help them manage their learning disabilities. Assistive technologies are those devices that aid students who have intellectual, hearing, physical, or vision handicaps. Some technologies act as an aid, whereas others provide a service to students with disabilities.
When preparing for your online class, consider those assistive technologies that are appropriate for your learning disability. Start by consulting your institution's disabilities resource center, a counselor, or your advisor. Since there are most likely other students at your institution with similar disabilities, the disability resource center may have a list of helpful technologies. They may also have access to assistive technologies that you can take advantage of when enrolled in an online class. Additionally, they may help you offset the cost of those assistive technologies that you cannot afford.
Using Assistive Hardware Online
There are a wide variety of assistive technology devices available for college students with learning disabilities. Devices range from small and inexpensive to large and expensive devices. Ultimately, though, the devices you'll need will depend on your learning disability and on the accommodations granted by your institution. Some examples of assistive hardware include:
- Customizable/Alternative keyboards that allow for substantial customization for learners who have trouble with traditional keyboards. Alternative keyboards may have color-coded letters, graphics, and letter groupings to enable students with learning disabilities to better use a keyboard.
- Talking calculators that repeat inputted numbers and the results of calculations. These calculators are beneficial for students who learn best through speech.
- Variable-speed tape recorders that slow down or speed up audio files without creating sound distortion. Variable-speed tape records are designed to aid students who have disabilities related to audio or language processing.
Using Assistive Software Online
Over the last two decades, there has been a significant increase in the number of software programs. Software-based assistive technologies can be used on personal computers or smartphones, or other portable devices. Due to the amount of software-based assistive technology being developed, useful devices are most likely available for every disability. Some software-based assistive technologies include:
- Electronic math worksheets, available through software programs, allow you to better visualize and work through math problem and organize data.
- Language and grammar checkers, add-on checkers that offer increased capabilities when compared to standard word processing programs. One popular language and grammar checker is Grammarly. Grammarly offers free and for-pay add-ons to word processing software, search engines, and email programs. Language and grammar checking programs are especially helpful for online college students with learning disabilities who need to communicate frequently through email.
- Optical character recognition software (OCR), which transforms scanned documents into a searchable format that can then be read by text-to-voice devices or software. While popular programs like Adobe Acrobat feature OCR technology, there are many more specialized OCR programs on the market.
- Smartphone and device applications, like Gotit Real Writer and Proloquo2Go. Gotit Real Writer is geared toward people with dyslexia and dysgraphia, while Proloquo2Go is targeted toward people who are challenged when it comes to language and verbal communication skills.
Strategizing About Your Online Work
Whether you're enrolled in an asynchronous or a synchronous or course, it's essential to be a pro-active online college learner. To succeed, you'll need to take a variety of steps. You'll also need to strategize to succeed. Some of the most important steps you can take include:
- Reviewing the syllabus at the start of the semester - Your syllabus will likely be located under a 'syllabus,' 'overview,' or 'start' module on your course site. When reviewing your syllabus, be sure to pay attention to the instructor's virtual attendance policy. In addition, check the late assignment policy. You should also review any statements related to disabilities or accommodations. Save a copy in a folder on your computer, and print off a hard copy to keep in your course notebook. This will make it easy to revisit the syllabus throughout the semester.
- Communicating regularly with your instructor - You should begin your semester by emailing your instructor and introducing yourself. Provide him or her with some interesting facts relevant to your life and studies. This way, you can differentiate yourself from other students in the online course. After introducing yourself, email your instructor whenever you have a question or problem. Remember, the instructor is there to help you. So do not hesitate to contact the instructor if you have an issue related to your learning disability or your accommodations.
- Reviewing the online grade center weekly - An essential part of being pro-active in an online class is making sure you know where you stand grade-wise at any given moment. Check your grades a couple of days after a due date to see how you did on an assignment. While virtual grade centers vary, all LMSs have accessible grade centers that should be accessible from the course site's main tab or main page. Do not hesitate to contact your instructor if you have a question about your grades.
While being proactive is extremely important to succeeding as a student with a disability in an online course, you'll also want to take advantage of your institution's resources and use the best practices for student success.
Using Your Institution's Resources
Even though you're attending college online, your institution will have many resources that can help you manage your disability and excel in class. However, you'll first need to discover the resources available to you. You can do this by asking your instructor, contacting your advisor, or reviewing your college's website. In general, most institutions have resources that include:
- A student success center, on-campus offices that provide tutors, tutorials, study halls, and more. As an online student, you can visit the student success center online, call the center, or physically visit the center to find out what resources are available to you.
- A student disability resource center, available at medium-sized and large-sized institutions, that are specifically designed to meet the needs of students with intellectual and physical disabilities. These centers often have assistive technologies you can use and counselors and tutors to help students with disabilities.
- Online librarians, available to students who cannot attend campus or are pursuing their studies online. Call your institution's library early in the semester to see if they have librarians who can work with you over the phone or via chat.
In addition to the resources discussed above, your institution may have other online resources. Review your college's website and ask your advisor if there are other online resources that may be of benefit to you.
One of the significant challenges of online courses is that they're very often self-paced. This owes to the fact that many types of online courses are designed without regular meetings between students and instructors. As a result, you'll need to invest substantial effort in setting goals and keeping pace with online courses. Here are some suggestions:
- Use the calendar embedded in your LMS, which may list due dates for the assignments in your course. Keep track of this calendar and print it out for easy reference.
- Purchase a planner or use planning software. In addition to the LMS calendar, you should input due dates and exam dates into your planner or smartphone.
- Review daily announcements. Your instructor may release announcements every day or every week. Announcements may vary. They may include reminders about approaching due dates, or they may include tips and value-added information. If you need these announcements read to you, use the assistive technology discussed above.
- Complete assignments early. Rather than waiting until assignments are due, begin them well in advance. This will enable you to contact the disabilities resource center or a tutor if you need help.
Understanding Accommodations for Learning Disabilities
Accommodations are ways that your college or instructor can revise the completion criteria of assignments to allow students with learning disabilities to have an opportunity to excel academically. Today, colleges offer a wide variety of accommodations for students with learning disabilities. These accommodations vary from student to student and depend on an individual's specific disability. Some accommodations that students with disabilities in an online course may be given include:
- Extra time, like time-and-a-half or double time to complete quizzes and exams. Your instructor should be able to input your extra time into the LMS after you present accommodations paperwork.
- Breaks during timed assessments, like quizzes or exams. As some LMSs may not have a setting for this, you may need to work with your instructor to make sure you'll be given breaks.
- Written lecture material, such as a transcript of a lecture or lesson, or notes from a fellow student notetaker. This is especially important with synchronous online courses where the instructor lectures or discusses material during a Zoom or Skype meeting. It's also relevant for asynchronous classes where the instructor uploads video lectures or lessons.
- Designated readers for assessments, like someone to read quiz or exam questions. Designated readers are essential for students who have learning disabilities that are related to reading or visual problems.
- Recorded directions or material, such as audio recordings of directions or other written material. Recorded directions are important to students with a variety of learning disabilities.
Securing Accommodations for Learning Disabilities
To secure accommodations for your learning disability, you'll have to meet with a counselor or a representative from your college's student disabilities resource center, or a similar resource center. You'll likely be able to make an appointment for a virtual meeting via Skype, Zoom, or a similar platform. Some institutions may hold meetings with online students over the phone. When meeting with a counselor, you will:
- Present documentation of your disability provided by a physician or learning disabilities specialist.
- Provide relevant test scores, such as testing conducted by the professional who certified your disability. You may need to submit ACT or SAT scores, too, if you've taken those exams.
- Explain accommodations other institutions have provided you with in the past. If you received accommodations at another institution of higher education, or in the K-12 environment, you should present relevant documents.
- Discuss the accommodations you think will work for you, and explain the challenges you face when learning. It's best to describe your challenges with as much specificity as possible, so the counselor will fully understand what accommodations may be appropriate for you.
- Receive official paperwork from the college stating that they're granting you accommodations. After presenting your paperwork and discussing your challenges, the counselor at the disabilities resource center at your institution will issue you with official paperwork listing the accommodations you've been granted.
While it may seem time-consuming to meet with a counselor to present your paperwork, most institutions require it before they issue accommodations. You'll find that, ultimately, it's well worth the time.
Using Your Institution's Resources and Accommodations
Once you've secured your accommodations and understand what them, you'll need to take some steps to make sure that you take full advantage of them. It's essential to be proactive when using your accommodations. Ultimately, accommodations are merely that - concessions an institution grants you to facilitate your success. Some steps you need to take include:
- Presenting your accommodations to your instructors as soon as possible. If you enroll in an asynchronous online class, email your instructor on the first day of the semester. Introduce yourself and explain that you have a documented disability and that the college has provided you with accommodations.
- Reminding your instructor of your accommodations at relevant times during the semester as they often have many students and classes. While you may have provided your accommodations paperwork via email, your instructor may still forget to add them to the LMS. As a result, you should be proactive and verify that they have entered your accommodations into the system. For example, if you have been allotted extra time for a midterm or final exam, email your instructor in advance to verify that you'll receive that time.
- Acting as an advocate for yourself. Even though you may have submitted your accommodations, you'll still need to serve as your own advocate. If your instructor does not provide the proper accommodations, discuss this with him or her before escalating the discussion to the staff at the disabilities resource center.
Looking for Learning Disability Scholarships and Financial Aid
There are a wide variety of scholarships geared toward college students with disabilities. To learn about scholarships, ask a learning disability professional. You can also discuss possible scholarships with a college counselor, advisor, or someone from the disabilities resource center at your institution of higher learning.
In addition to scholarships geared toward students with learning disabilities, there are a broad range of discipline-specific and institution-specific awards. After deciding upon your major or specific undergraduate program, you can begin searching for discipline-related or institution-related awards.
You may also be eligible for state or federal aid. The federal government offers financial aid for college in a variety of different forms. Some examples include subsidized and unsubsidized loans, federal work-study, and more. You'll need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form to be eligible for many public and private scholarships.
Reviewing Possible Scholarships
Some available scholarships include:
- The Allegra Ford Thomas Scholarship offers a total of $5,000 distributed over two years to students who plan to enroll at a 2-year institution or a technical school. High school seniors with a documented learning disability may apply.
- The Anne Ford Scholarship offers $2,500 a year for four years to students enrolled in a full-time, 4-year program. High school seniors with a documented learning disability or ADHD may apply.
- The Dyslexia/Auditory Processing Disorder Scholarship, offered by Gemm Learning, is geared toward college students with dyslexia or auditory processing disorders. The scholarship provides $1,000 toward the cost of tuition for students attending college.
- The Google Lime Scholarship is restricted to students with a documented disability who are committed to the field of computer science. Winners of the $10,000 award will be invited to attend the annual Google Scholars' Retreat.
- The John Lepping Memorial Scholarship is restricted to students with documented physical and intellectual disabilities. The scholarship is restricted to residents of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and provides $5,000 toward the cost of college.
- The Joseph James Morelli Legacy Foundation Scholarship (see here) is reserved for undergraduates and technical school students. The scholarship provides between $500 and $2,500 a year to students who have a documented disability, such as dyslexia or a language disability.
- The Karina Eide Memorial College Scholarships for Students with Dyslexia (see here) is available to undergraduate students diagnosed with dyslexia. There is no minimum GPA for the scholarship, which totals $1,000.
- The Margaret Howard Hamilton Scholarship is restricted to students with a learning disability. It is only available to students who have been invited to attend the Harvey and Bernice Jones Learning Center at the University of the Ozarks and totals $4,000.
- The Marion Huber Learning through Listening Award (see here) is awarded by the Learning Ally organization to its members. The scholarship is geared toward students with dyslexia and reading-related disabilities and provides up to $6,000.
- The Michael Yasick ADHD Scholarship is available to undergraduates and graduate students diagnosed with ADHD. The scholarship offers $2,000 to individual students.
- The P. Buckley Moss Endowment Scholarship is available to students with language or speech disabilities. The scholarship is in the amount of $1,000 and is available for up to three years.
- The Pine Cone Foundation Scholarship is restricted to students with a documented learning disability who reside in the state of California. It focuses on students who plan to attend a community college or technical school. Students must have a grade point average of 2.5 or higher to qualify. The scholarship awards $3,500.
- The Ralph G. Norman Scholarship is restricted to students who reside in the state of Arkansas. It provides $2,500 for students with a documented learning disability who plan to attend a college, university, or technical school.
- The Tommy Tranchin Award provides aid to students with intellectual and physical disabilities. The award is restricted to students who attend high school in North Texas and is in the amount of $1,500.
- The Wells Fargo Scholarship Program for People with Disabilities (see here) is restricted to undergraduate students who have a minimum of a 3.0 grade point average (GPA). Applicants must have a documented disability.
For more scholarship, college, and career information, please check out our guide for students with disabilities.