by Vita Alligood, Marcus Anderson, Lynetter Favors, Christina Godard, Kathryn Kelly, and Wendy Schweitzer

professional-researching-with-laptopToday, students have numerous opportunities for achieving their educational goals.  One method of receiving instruction at the college level, online education, has exploded.   As students head back to or start college it is important to understand the rights and responsibilities for receiving accommodations at the college level.  Laws are in place to help students with disabilities achieve success, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments (ADAA) of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504). The ADAA and Section 504 guarantee reasonable accommodations for college students with disabilities to ensure equitable access to coursework and enable success.  Each year, more students with disabilities are pursuing post-secondary education opportunities, whether at four-year institutions, two-year institutions, or technical programs (Bruder & Mogro-Wilson, 2010).  Students with learning disabilities are a large part of this population. 

Online education can be a beneficial path for students with learning disabilities.  For many post-secondary schools, online learning has increasingly become an alternative to traditional, face-to-face education. Online education continues to improve as technology changes and advances.  Online education provides additional opportunities for success for students with disabilities (Barrett, 2011).   In fact, evidence shows that students with disabilities prefer online learning over face-to-face classrooms (Coronel, 2008).  In addition, Barnard-Brak and Sulak (2010) found that students who report having visible disabilities appear to have more positive attitudes toward requesting accommodations in the online environment versus the face-to-face learning environment than students who report having non-visible disabilities.

DaDeppo (2009) determined that many colleges find that providing accommodations for students with disabilities enhances graduation rates.  The actual accommodations used for students with disabilities can be important to student success.  Research indicates that students with disabilities are more successful when provided with accommodations in the online classroom (DaDeppo, 2009). However, the current body of research is narrow and does not focus on many types of accommodations across a large sample of students (Cox, Herner, Demczyk, & Nieberding, 2006).  Specific accommodations vary by college.  It is also important to note that students must self-advocate for any accommodations requested.  Post-secondary institutions are not legally required to offer accommodations proactively.  Accommodations are granted to provide equitable access to course materials and content; accommodations requested are typically not approved if viewed as providing “an edge” to students without disabilities.  The definitions and interpretations vary by institution.  It is important for students to be in contact with the college’s disability coordinator to best understand available accommodations.

While online courses may be more beneficial for some specific areas of disability than traditional classes, barriers remain. Two thirds (67%) of students with disabilities reported unresolved problems with technology.  One such problem mentioned was “time limits on online exams” (Fichten, Ferraro, Asuncion, Chwojka, Barile, Nguyen, Klomp, & Wolforth, 2009, p. 247).  In addition, not all online classes are designed with accessibility issues in mind.  This makes it more difficult to provide accommodations as they occur after the fact and not in a proactive manner.  While a course cannot be made accessible for every type of disability, accommodations can be made on an individual basis (Case & Davidson, 2011).  Unfortunately, little systematic research has been conducted on different types of accommodations with regard to specific areas of disability or areas of weakness. It is also unclear which accommodations are most successful.

In summary, online education offers an exciting alternative for students with learning disabilities.  Accommodations will vary by school and little research has been conducted to determine which online accommodations are most effective for specific areas of disability.  Current research shows that students with disabilities can be more successful with online education, but further research is needed to determine which online accommodations are most effective for which disability areas.  As you head back to college or begin your college journey, consider what accommodations best benefit your learning.  Reach out to the college and find what is available by contacting your school’s ADA office.

For additional information contact Christina Godard, Ed.D.


ADA: Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, Pub. L. No. 101-336, § 1, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 (1990).
ADA Amendments Act of 2008, Pub. L. No. 110-325, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 (2008).
Barnard-Brak, L., & Sulak, T. (2010). Online versus face-to-face accommodations among college students with disabilities. American Journal of Distance Education, 24(2), 81-91. doi:10.1080/08923641003604251
Barrett, B. G. (2011, September).  Strategic tools for students with disabilities:  Creating and implementing virtual learning environments without barriers. Journal of College Teaching and Learning, 8(9), 35-40.
Bruder, M., & Mogro-Wilson, C. (2010). Student and faculty awareness and attitudes about students with disabilities. Review of Disability Studies: An International Journal, 6(2), 3-13.
Case, D. E. & Davidson, R. C.  (2011). Accessible online learning.  New Directions for Student Services, (134), 47-58. doi: 10.1002/ss
Coronel, R. (2008). Disabled online learners: Benefits and drawbacks of online education and learning platforms when pursuing higher education. (Doctoral dissertation). Capella University. (UMI No. 3307913)
Cox, M. L., Herner, J. G., Demczyk, M. J., & Nieberding, J. J. (2006). Provision of testing accommodations for students with disabilities on statewide assessments: Statistical links with participation and discipline rates. Remedial and Special Education, 27(6), 346-354. Retrieved from
DaDeppo, L. M. W. (2009). Integration factors related to the academic success and intent to persist of college students with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 24(3) 122-131.
Fichten, C. S., Ferraro, V., Asuncion, J. V., Chwojka, C., Barile, M., Nguyen, M. N., Klomp, R., & Wolforth, J. (2009). Disabilities and e-learning problems and solutions: An exploratory study. Educational Technology & Society, 12(4), 241–256.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Pub. L. No. 93-112, 29 U.S.C. § 794(a) (1973).  


Vita Alligood, JD, is a full-time faculty member with the University of Phoenix. Greensboro, NC
Marcus Anderson, MBA, is an adjunct faculty member with the University of Phoenix. Chino, CA
Lynette Favors, MAOM/M.ED, is an adjunct faculty member with the University of Phoenix. Palmdale, CA
Christina Godard, EdD, is an adjunct faculty member with the University of Phoenix and Bay Path University. Fairfield, PA
Kathryn Gibson Kelly, PhD, MBA, MA, is an adjunct faculty member with the University of Phoenix. Laguna Beach, CA
Wendy Schweitzer, MOB, is an adjunct faculty member with the University of Phoenix. Woodridge, IL
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