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Distance Learning for Students with Special Needs

Jun 18, 2010 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

Online schools can be ideal for students with disabilities. For example, if you have mobility problems, attending school from home makes all classrooms much more accessible. The fact that all class materials and lectures are available to review repeatedly can be a help to some And an online learning environment can be less high-pressure and distracting for some students with concentration issues.

Here are a few things to consider when attending an online college—or any college—as a student with disabilities.

Your Rights as a Student


As a student with disabilities, you have very different legal rights after graduating high school. Under the law, you are protected from discrimination no matter what level of school you attend—but there are significant differences in what’s considered discrimination.

In a public school district, you are entitled to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) as a high school, middle or elementary school student. The school district must determine your needs and provide any special education, aids and services that you need in order to get an education as good as your peers without disabilities.

Colleges aren’t required under law to provide free, appropriate public education. They are not allowed to deny you admission because of your disability, however, and they do have to provide academic adjustments that ensure they aren’t discriminating against you because of your disability. If the school provides housing to students without disabilities, they must also provide accessible and comparable housing to you—without charging more. However, the level of services they’re required to provide you under the law isn’t as exhaustive as it is when you’re in high school.

Academic adjustments

You don’t have to tell your school that you have a disability. You’ll need to, however, if you want them to provide any services to help you—including providing access to comparable housing. Unlike public school districts, colleges are not required under law to detect your learning disability and provide solutions. You may have to prove your claim with medical records and other documentation.

Schools will typically deliver academic adjustments based on what you need. These might take the form of allowing a reduced course load, eliminating time limits on tests, allowing someone to take notes for you, allowing you to record lectures, providing a sign language interpreter, or providing you with adaptive software or hardware.  Schools aren’t required to make changes to actual course content to accommodate someone with a disability, and most won’t. And no school has to provide personal attendance or help, individual devices, readers, tutoring or typing—as a secondary school might have to do. Most of the services you get will be at the school’s discretion.

If Your School Discriminates Against You

Schools are not allowed to discriminate against students with disabilities—by charging them more or refusing them admission to classes or programs solely because of their disability.

If you believe your school is discriminating against you, speak with your school’s disability services coordinator. Schools are required to have a staff member dedicated to liaising between disabled students and administrative leadership, and this person can help you figure out what you need to do to resolve the issue with your school.

Schools are also required to have procedures designed to deal with grievances. These are the same channels any student would use to file a complaint with the school. Your student handbook should contain a written process for filing grievances. Chances are you’ll be required to submit written documentation to support your claims.

If you get no results from going through the school’s grievance channels, try filing a discrimination complaint with the Office for Civil Rights against the school. In some states, the discrimination claim must be filed within 180 days of the date of the act of discrimination.

It’s not easy being a college student—especially if you have a disability. Schools should do all they can to make it possible for you not just to attend college, but to receive as good an education as those who are not disabled. Many schools will work with you to meet your individual needs, but it’s important to know your rights and what you are entitled to under the law. When choosing a school, be sure to talk to a school representative regarding the services and support they can offer you as a student.


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