Why Are Disabilities Overlooked In Online Learning

Online learning systems aren’t tackling learning disability much. Charles McArthur shares details.

We know that 7.6 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 are estimated to be living with a disability. While federal law ensures some opportunity for disability awareness in education, class time often feels disconnected from the lives of non-disabled students. It can be comforting for those with disabilities to hear from those around them that they are not alone, but they have one thing in common—their lives affect those around them. What is missing from education, however, is how that affects the lives of non-disabled students.

Naderev Sanati was born with a mental disability, auditory processing difficulties. He is currently enrolled in two online courses, one of which he began last fall. He admits, “The school has become an extension of home.” Through these two courses, as well as in one other online course, Naderev’s teacher would send him notes. He could not read or write but could listen in on lessons, key word searches, and follow along in exercises. He could hear a teacher throughout, and he felt a sense of closeness, because he had a teacher.

In a classroom situation, a learning manager could help by providing data, offering resources, and helping facilitate the process of learning. With this ability, students and instructors can work together towards the same goal of having a learning environment that is conducive to helping student achieve their educational goals.

Naderev does not feel isolated as he attends online courses. He is frequently interviewed by the media, and in that light, he says, “People think [the jobs he wants to have] are difficult to obtain. But in this way, a person lives out a personal belief, believing that he can do whatever he wants.”

Since online courses operate in different time zones, in-person classrooms require preparing for a few additional days of learning each semester, or having to arrange with a professor to arrive in one time zone to start on time, and transfer in the next. “The disruption is unbearable, and the schedule is extended beyond natural limits. Why is this significant? Why have the resources to keep the school open in real time?” asked Naderev.

Besides the time lines, students need to sit in an awkward environment of an unfamiliar chair, small desks, and fluorescent lighting. Sanati describes one class he attended where his room looked like “an elementary school.”

Robert Amoris, another student with a disability, is in his second year in an online certificate program. With an autism spectrum disorder, Amoris recognizes that by the time he completes his education, his skills will have advanced considerably. Like Naderev, he would like to be a science writer.

“Without any training or connections, it is difficult to compose and present information. My journal writing skill is low,” he said.

Unfortunately, Amoris’s online courses have remained available only in the American School of the Royal Egyptian Military Academy (ASEM), the school he attended prior to his time at Arizona State University. Based in Cairo, his classes were then sent to a private start-up. ASEM offers online courses in first grade to sixth grade. Amoris feels frustrated because he feels that the academics of his courses have not gone according to plan.

His original motivation to continue studying at ASEM is to obtain his bachelor’s degree in biology. What he is trying to do here is the same as what he would have done in a classroom at ASU, but as of yet, he has not begun his coursework.

In both Sanati and Amoris’s online studies, they agree that a variety of changes need to be made. While computer technology improved education for those who could not learn at all, students with disabilities still lack access to resources. Amoris expects to continue his studies at ASEM, but he would also like ASEM to offer alternative online courses for students with disabilities.

As more countries implement blended learning environments, questions will arise regarding the effectiveness of online classes and blended learning methods. According to one report by the Aspen Institute, “Researchers say the question is not if blended learning is bad for disabled students, but rather how to design a blended learning model that helps all students learn.”

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