Online Education Is a Disability Rights Issue

It is time to destigmatize and expand online learning opportunities for college students with disabilities, Brittany Collins argues.

How could I continue to learn and grow in an academic environment if my body did not allow me to return to campus? How could I forge a path to self-sufficiency? As an education major, could I still contribute to the field even if my standing at the front of a classroom was precluded?

Though isolated, I knew that I was not alone in my predicament. One in 5 Americans lives with a disability, and one in 10 has a severe condition. As an American studies professor once told me and a lecture hall of classmates, we are fragile; despite what mainstream culture leads us to believe, young people are no exception — even if our prefrontal cortices tell us otherwise.

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 added breadth to the educational opportunities afforded students with disabilities: 2007-08 and 2011-12 studies conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics show that 11 percent of college students reported having a disabling condition, which is not an insignificant fraction of the general student body.

Higher education therefore presents a catch-22 for students with disabilities. Enrolling may seem tenuous, physically strenuous (if at all possible) and even irresponsible given that many people with disabilities are poor or low income, and a pile of student loans adds burden to an already tilted probability of independence.

The National Council on Disability interviewed students with disabilities and found that the majority of subjects “were worried about student loans because of their disability-related needs … will not take out loans because of their concerns about being able to work and repay them … [or] were concerned that they might not be able to work enough hours to repay their student loans, but did not specifically state that they would not take out loans in the future.”

So what are the solutions? While many colleges have part-time programs, online courses or blended learning options, my liberal arts campus was not one of them. In 2012, 89 percent of public institutions offered online courses, compared to just 60 percent of private. Far fewer offer online undergraduate programs, and this poses a complicated problem: Is it reasonable for students whose disabilities impede campus attendance to request technological accommodations that would catalyze their remote participation in an otherwise in-person program? Must their educational opportunities be narrowed to those available at online schools?

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