Navigating an Online Education for Students with Disabilities



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Why an Online Education?Types of Accommodations for Online StudentsWhat are Your Rights?Are Your College Choices Limited?What Actions are Discriminatory?Finding the Right School for YouWhat to Do if You Are Discriminated AgainstFinancial Aid, Grants and ScholarshipsHow to Inform Your School About Your DisabilityHow to Ensure a Quality College ExperienceDocumentation of Your DisabilitiesMore Resources


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Trying to find a college can be difficult regardless of who you are, however there can be some added stress for disabled students and their families. This resource guide will help teach you about your rights as a student with disabilities, give you information on how to navigate the sometimes difficult task of finding and contacting a school to see if they would be a good fit for you and to hopefully ensure that you have the college experience that you want and deserve.

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kennethKenneth Williams is an author and higher education researcher. His work has been featured on many blogs and websites involving college reviews and guides for parents and college students.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Kenneth spent much of his youth volunteering for FOCUS, an Atlanta-based group that works closely with special needs children. He has a passion for working with special needs individuals and still regularly volunteers in his spare time.

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Distance learning is a very flexible and relatively affordable alternative to an on-site education. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that in Fall of 2013, there were 5,522,194 students enrolled into a distance learning course offered by degree-granting postsecondary institutes. In another survey they conducted in 2012, the NCES found that 11.1% of all students enrolled into postsecondary schools reported some form of a disability. This shows that online courses are a very popular way to obtain a higher education among students with and without disabilities.

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Distance learning has a lot of benefits over on-campus learning. The fact that you take your courses online in the comfort of your own home means that the school of your choice has to make fewer accommodations for you — which allows you to have a larger selection of schools to choose from — and the accommodations that they do have to provide to you will be less likely to be considered an “undue burden” on the school. Another consideration of obtaining an online education is that it’s cheaper than attending classes on-site due to a better student-faculty ratio. With a better student-faculty ratio, professors are able to give more hands-on help to students that require extra assistance with learning the course material. Distance learning is also often less expensive than attending classes the traditional way. Not only is the degree itself less costly, you also save time and gas due to not having to commute to school and you save on living expenses by not having to live on-campus. Moving is never cheap, convenient or easy.


students with disability guide-16Did you know? Students involved in online learning outperform their peers.


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Knowing and understanding your rights as a person with a disability is an extremely important part of obtaining a postsecondary education, as there is a substantial difference between your rights and responsibilities as a college student and your rights and responsibilities as an elementary or secondary school student. Navigating laws can be tedious and confusing, so the main federal laws that will apply to you have been broken down here:


Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, also referred to as ADA, prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, State and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications. It also applies to the United States Congress.

To be protected under the ADA, a person must have a disability or have a relationship to or an association with a disabled person. The ADA defines a disabled person as someone who has a physical or mental impairment that greatly limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a record or a history of having such an impairment or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. However, the ADA does not specifically list all of the disabilities that are covered.

The main point of the ADA that applies in obtaining a postsecondary education is;

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act under the ADA states that, “no qualified individual with a disability in the United States shall be excluded from, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under” any activity or program that either receives Federal financial assistance or is conducted by any Executive agency or the United States Postal Service. Agencies that provide Federal financial assistance also have section 504 regulations covering entities that receive Federal aid, and have common requirements for these programs which usually include:

● Reasonable accommodation for persons with a disability;
● Effective communication for people with hearing or seeing impairment;
● And accessible new construction or alterations.

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Essentially, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 ensures that you can not be discriminated based on your disabilities and that agencies must be made accessible to you and other disabled persons, which can include implementing things such as handicap accessible ramps, information in braille and Teletype (TTY).

The main difference between Section 504 for example, a high school student and a college student, is your postsecondary institution doesn’t have to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), rather they just have to provide appropriate academic adjustments as necessary to ensure that it does not discriminate on the basis of disability. In addition, if your postsecondary school provides housing to nondisabled students, it must provide comparable, convenient, and accessible housing to students with disabilities at the same cost. However, for online college students, housing may not be an issue.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a 2006 piece of American legislation that has a set of safeguards to ensure that disabled students and their families are protected from having their rights infringed upon.

The main part of IDEA that pertains to students looking to attend college is the transition services it provides with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) team that will help the student transition from school to post-school activities, such as postsecondary education and vocational training. IDEA also requires schools to provide what’s known as a Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to obtain an education, meaning a school can’t radically restrict a student’s education options.

Assistive Technologies Act

The Assistive Technologies Act of 1998 is a government fund that provides grants to state-run organizations to purchase assistive technology (AT) for a number of environments, including college campuses. These ATs include things such as voice amplifiers, special software and hardware. You can find out more about AT-funded organizations in your state by visiting the Association of Assistive Technologies Act Programs (ATAP) database.


students with disability guide-16Did you know? Nearly 1 in 5 Americans have a disability.


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students with disability guide-17Some examples of discrimination that you could unlawfully face are as follows, but not limited to:

● Being denied admission based on your disability;
● Being excluded from a course of study, part of an educational program or activities;
● Being counseled towards a more restrictive career option than other students.

Being discriminated against due to a disability is known as ableism. In 2010 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that 25,165 charges of disability discrimination were filed, so, unfortunately, there are still cases ableism to this day.

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If you believe you’ve been discriminated against, or are currently being discriminated against due to your disability, the first course of action is to file an ADA complaint with the Disability Rights Section (DRS) of the Department of Justice for review. You can do this online (en Español), via mail or fax.

The address to send your complaint to is:

US Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Civil Rights Division
Disability Rights Section – 1425 NYAV
Washington D.C. 20530

And their fax number is:


Make sure that you keep a copy of your complaint and the original documentation for your personal records.

Your complaint should include all of the following to ensure your case is quickly and fully investigated:

● Your full name, address, your telephone numbers they can reach you at during the day and evening, and the name of the party discriminated against;
● The name and address of the business, organization, institution or person that you believe has committed the discrimination;
● A brief description of the act of discrimination, the date it occurred and the names of the individuals involved;
● Other information you believe to be relevant to support your claim, including copies (not originals) of any relevant documents, and;
● Information about how they can communicate with you effectively, such as whether or not you wish them to write to you in a specific format, (e.g. large print, Braille, electronic documents) or if you require communications via video phone or TTY.

You can also file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR).


students with disability guide-16Did you know? $128.7m was paid out in merit resolutions for ADA complaints received in 2015.


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Informing your school about any disabilities you may have is completely voluntary, however, if you’re expecting them to provide any accommodations, it’s obviously a requirement. You will need to inform the head of the school department that is over students with disabilities within a reasonable time to allow them to make any possible accommodations you may require. The department you will need to speak to will be different from school to school, but you can inquire with your school’s student services or admissions office to find out specifically who you should speak with.


students with disability guide-16Did you know? A 1996-97 and 1997-98 survey indicated that 98% of postsecondary institutions that enrolled students with disabilities provided at least one support service or accommodation to a student with a disability.


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If you have a disability and are planning on seeking accommodation under Section 504, then you will likely have to provide, at your own expense, documentation that you are disabled. The required documentation will, again, vary from school to school. Be sure to contact your school as early as possible so that your required accommodations are not denied or delayed.

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Even though the required documentation for each school can be different, and can be very specific, documentation is usually required to meet seven points:

● The diagnosis is clearly stated;
● The information is up-to-date;
● Educational, developmental, and medical history is presented;
● The diagnosis is supported;
● The functional limitation is fully described;
● Recommended accommodations are provided and justified;
● And the evaluator’s professional credentials are fully established.

You should find out your school’s specific requirements and allow yourself ample time to get them together so they have time to discuss and provide the accommodations you will require.


students with disability guide-16Did you know? Around 10% of the world’s population, or 650 million people, live with a disability. They are the world’s largest minority.


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students with disablitiy guide-21Under Section 504, a school must provide accommodations for a student with disabilities. These can vary depending on the disability you have, however when seeking an online education, the most common accommodations are:

● Additional time to complete tests, coursework or for graduation;
● Adaptation of, or modification to, course instructions;
● Providing qualified interpreters, computer-aided transcription devices, TTY or other hardware

However, keep in mind that a school is not required to provide accommodation that it deems to be causing a fundamental change to the nature of the program, or to be an “undue burden” on the school, so you should start searching for a school that is willing to provide the accommodations that you require early to allow enough time to find a school that meets your unique needs.



students with disability guide-16Did you know? Public colleges report a greater commitment to online learning.


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Not At All!

Title II of the ADA covers state-funded schools such as universities, community colleges and vocational schools, whereas Title III of the ADA covers private colleges and vocational schools. If a school receives federal dollars, regardless of whether it is public or private, it is also covered by the regulations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act requiring schools to make their programs accessible to qualified students with disabilities. Basically, no school can deny your admission application based on your disability even if they are not a state-funded school. What this means for you is you have the same number of schools to choose from as a non-disabled student does.


students with disability guide-16Did you know? Most reputable colleges offer online courses.


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Finding the right school can be a daunting task for anyone. The first thing you need to do is to ask yourself a very fundamental question: “What do I want to do for a living?” It might seem like a silly question to ask this far into your life, but so many students go into a postsecondary education without knowing what it is they want to do. Narrowing down the career you want to do will narrow down the schools you should be looking at. There are a lot of excellent online schools out there, but the most important thing you should check is if a school is actually accredited. Once you find a school that is both accredited and offers a program for the degree that you would like to obtain, reach out to them about what accommodations they can provide for you. Open up a line of communication with their student services staff or their admissions staff, let them know as much as possible about your disability, yourself and the accommodations you will require. This will ensure that you don’t waste your time or theirs if it’s something they are unable to help you with.

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The next step after you find a school that you would like to attend is to apply for grants or student loans. To be considered for any federally funded financial aid, you must first fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) application. FAFSA is utilized to determine how much aid you’re eligible to receive from the government.


students with disability guide-16Did you know? 74% of first-time, full-time degree/certificate-seeking undergraduate students received federal grants at 4-year institutions.



Grants are something else that you can apply for. The most utilized grant is known as the Federal Pell Grant. This grant provides need-based funds to low-income students. By law, grants awarded under this program can not discriminate against students with disabilities. Other government grants can be found on this government site.

There are also private scholarships that are geared toward students with disabilities that you can apply for. There’s no guarantee that you will be awarded any of these, however, it never hurts to try. Some of these have additional requirements such as having to write an essay about why you should be awarded the scholarship. These scholarships include scholarships for a wide range of disabilities and situations. Some of the more well-known scholarships are:

American Council for the Blind Scholarship
Disabled Students Pursuing a Career in Law Scholarship
Google Lime Scholarship for Students with Disabilities
LEAD Foundation Dottie R. Walker Scholarship
National Help America Hear Scholarship
Scholarship for People with Disabilities
AAHD Scholarship Program


students with disability guide-16Did you know? Only 13% of people with a disability above the age of 25 had a bachelor’s degree.


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Having a quality college experience isn’t based purely on what your school does for you, it’s also based on what you do for yourself. You will want to do all that you can to make sure that you succeed in obtaining your desired degree. Even though you will be attending online classes, you should still try and find study groups to help you learn any coursework that you might be struggling with. Hiring a special needs-experienced tutor might also be something that you will want to look into if you’re struggling in any class. Asking your professor for more one-on-one time or to explain why an answer is correct is something else you can do. You should never be afraid to ask for help or to utilize the help that is offered to you in order to have a successful college experience.


students with disability guide-16Did you know? 90% of children with disabilities in developing nations do not attend school.

(Source: United Nations Website)

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We hope you found this resource guide to be helpful and informative. Just remember, there’s a lot more information and help out there, and it’s all available to you with the power of the Internet. This is why online classes are so great; their impact and flexibility is just another tool that you can utilize to learn and better your quality of life. Please see the quick link resources below for further reading and information.

● General Information
US Department of Education

● Useful Apps:
Talkitt for students with a speech disorder
Be My Eyes for blind students
Stepping Stones for autistic students
HearYouNow for students with hearing impairment
RogerVoice for deaf students
Prizmo for students with a print disability
Visuwords for students with learning disabilities
Dragon NaturallySpeaking for students with a motor skill disability / students who have an issue typing
Tech finder

● Student Rights and Responsibilities
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
US Department of Education FAQ

● Finding a School
Best College Reviews

● Loans, Grants and Scholarships
Pell Grant
Federal Student Aid
Listings listings
Financial Aid Guides

● Online Resources
Study Blue

● Filing ADA Compliance Complaints
ADA complaints
OCR complaints (Office for Civil Rights)