• Sue Zientara

    By Sue Zientara, PhD, Faculty Member, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences 

    Learning disabilities are defined as a neurological condition that interferes with an individual’s ability to store, process, or produce information. A learning disability can impact reading, writing, speaking, spelling, computing math, and reasoning, as well as effect attention, memory, coordination, social skills, and even emotional maturity (Johnson & Clohessy, 2014). For the elementary through high school student, this type of disability is usually dealt with by a coordinated  team of educators involving the classroom teacher, reading and/or speech specialist, psychologist, social worker, and any other professional who can support student learning (Johnson & Clohessy, 2014). This diagnosis also follows a student into postsecondary education under the guidelines of a 504 accommodation with many support groups still in place to support the college student as long as the student discloses a disability and desires accommodations (Thomas, 2000). This same type of academic support holds true for online students with learning disabilities, but here the task becomes a bit more challenging for the student. Although there are many supports in place for online students with learning disabilities, online students are less likely to seek support because of certain fears associated with learning disabilities, such of fear of acceptance and fear of the unknown.

    Fear of Acceptance 

    Students with learning disabilities must disclose their disability in order to receive accommodations. Faced with the decision of disclosing or fearing acceptance by the instructor, many students fail to disclose and therefore do not receive the support necessary for success. This could be one of the reasons why the dropout rate for students with learning disabilities is higher than those students who are abled (Hollins & Foley, 2013). This fear can be reduced through the use of audio and visual technology.

    Audio introductions included at the beginning of the course are helpful in supporting all students in creating a universal learning experience. Audio information should also be included throughout the course in an attempt to support all students in a more welcoming atmosphere. Students can also benefit with proper visual support in the online classroom. Any visual that adds depth to the course and understanding of the material is considered helpful to both abled and disabled students. English as second language (ESL) learners also benefit from both audio and video enhancement of course materials (Case & Davidson, 2011).

    Fear of the Unknown 

    Disclosure of a learning disability can determine the success or failure for an online student; therefore it must be abundantly clear that the online classroom atmosphere supports all students through universal design. Creating a universal design for online courses reduces the fear of the unknown for students with disabilities.

    Online instructors who design courses that fill the needs of all learning preferences and diverse abilities of students are more likely to meet the educational needs of all students enrolled in class. Educational models stemming from universal design (UD) principles provide frameworks for designers of online courses who seek to create accessible learning environments (Rao & Tanner, 2011). To assist in creating a welcoming class as well as reducing the fear of the unknown, the following checklist will assist instructors in creating a welcoming atmosphere for all students:

    • Creating welcoming classrooms 
    • Determining essential components of the course 
    • Communicating clear expectations 
    • Providing timely and contructive feedback 
    • Exploring use of natural supports for learning 
    • Including technology 
    • Designing methods to consider diverse learning styles, abilities, ways of knowing, previous experience, and background knowledge 
    • Creating multiple ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge 
    • Promoting interaction among and between students and faculty (Roe & Tanner, 2011

    In considering this checklist and considering the fear many students with disabilities face when entering an online university, concentration and exploration of numbers six through nine could positively impact students with learning disabilities.


    With more and more students with disabilities entering online colleges and universities and with less and less of that student population completing college degrees, it is abundantly clear that online colleges and universities need to readdress the needs of this population. Focusing on the aforementioned checklist with determination to improve (a) including technology; (b) designing methods to consider diverse learning styles, abilities, ways of knowing, previous experience, and background knowledge; (c) creating multiple ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge; and (d) promoting interaction among and between students and faculty could be the first steps in creating more of a universal design for all students. As instructors, we need to be more purposeful and vigilant in creating a welcoming atmosphere for all of our students.




    Case, D. E., & Davidson, R. C. (2011). Accessible Online Learning. New Directions For Student Services, (134), 47-58.

    Hollins, N., & Foley, A. R. (2013). The experiences of students with learning disabilities in a higher education virtual campus. Educational Technology, Research and Development, 61(4), 607-624. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11423-013-9302-9

    Johnson, E.S. & Clohessy, A. B. (2014). Identification and evaluation of learning disabilities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin: A Sage Company.

    Rao, K. & Tanners, A. (2011) Curb cuts in cyberspace: Universal instructional design for online courses. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 24(3), 211-229.

    Thomas, S. B. (2000). College students and disability law. LD Online. Retrieved from http://www.ldonline.org/article/6082/

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