While enrolled in elementary, middle, and high school, a student with identified learning disabilities may be entitled to accommodations to help them succeed in the classroom. In order to receive these accommodations, however, the student must first be formally evaluated, with their parents' permission, for a learning disability. If the testing demonstrates that the student has a learning disability and would benefit from additional services, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) may be created through the collaboration of parents, administrators, and educators. The IEP outlines a system of supports and services - including accommodations - that the student may receive in order to help them succeed in classes.
If you have received accommodations based on an IEP while in elementary, middle or high school and are still in need of accommodations such as assistive technology, know that your IEP does not transition with you to your postsecondary institution. This does not mean, however, that you may not be able to receive accommodations from your college or university.
How Students with Learning Disabilities Qualify for Accommodations
While in primary and secondary school a student with identified learning disabilities is protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This changes when you move onto a college or university, where the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the primary law that offers protections against discrimination and ensures you equal rights and opportunities. In order to qualify for accommodations in college which might include assistive technologies, you will need to disclose that you have a learning disability. School administrators will most likely ask for documentation that you have a learning disability. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) documentation can include:
- Information about past evaluations that is not older than 3 years
- The most recent IEP you received from your high school
- A Section 504 plan
- A Summary of Performance (SOP)
With all of this documentation in place, colleges and universities are required by law to provide reasonable accommodations for students with learning disabilities.
List of Common Accommodations
Accommodations for college students typically include:
- e-Readers, Braille texts, large-print books
- Extra time to complete tests
- More access to instructors
- Listening devices
- Audio recordings or simplified versions of lecture notes
- Software that reads web pages out loud
- Speech recognition software to translate spoken words to text
Accessibility of Online Degree Programs
The merging of assistive technology and online learning can be a good thing for students with learning disabilities. It allows these students to participate in multiple forms of learning while receiving the assistance they need to remain successful, and also brings schools closer to making every course accessible to all students.
In a 2008 paper, "Making Distance Learning Courses Accessible to Students with Learning Disabilities," Adam Tanners and Kavita Rao state: "[A]s online courses become an increasingly popular way to provide access to higher education, it is necessary for course developers to consider issues of 'accessibility' of courses for people with disabilities." Their paper points out the legal and ethical importance of ensuring that all students can take advantage of online classes and degree programs.
To this end, a number of schools that offer online classes have taken great care to spell out how their courses offer accommodations for students with learning disabilities. Here are two such examples:
- Gallaudet University's Office for Students with Disabilities (OSWD) has released policy guidelines for providing accessibility and accommodations for distance learners. Gallaudet students seeking accommodations for online courses need to follow the same procedures as they would when enrolling in traditional classes held on campus. Gallaudet is working to implement accommodations in their online courses, including offering students with learning disabilities extra time to complete assignments; eBooks, Braille texts, or large-print books for ease of reading; and assistive hardware such as talking calculators, reading machines, and speech recognition systems. Because distance learners do not necessarily live close to the school they are attending, some of the technologies may have to be requested from an Assistive Hardware Lending Library.
- Ball State University also has guidelines that they have put in place to offer a number of accommodations for students with learning disabilities who enroll in online classes. Ball State reports the most common accommodation is extra time for test-taking. Ball State offers students with learning disabilities anywhere from 50-100 percent more time to take a test through their online platform. They also ask instructors to make themselves available by phone or email during specifically denoted office hours. Different versions of course texts may also be available.
How Students with Learning Disabilities Can Support Themselves
Some students may be wary of disclosing that they have a learning disability for any number of reasons. While this can disqualify them from receiving any assistance or assistive technologies from their school, it does not stop them from searching out some of these technologies for themselves. Here are a few ways that students can find adaptive technologies for themselves.
- E-readers can be ordered from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, or they can turn a tablet into an e-reader. This can allow students with learning disabilities to change the text font, and some e-readers even have text-to-speech capabilities for students who want to hear the text as they read along.
- Bookshare is a company that creates digital copies of print books for students who have trouble reading and digesting print editions of school texts. The digital copy can also be used in conjunction with text-to-speech software that will read the book aloud. Braille versions of books can also be purchased through Bookshare.
- Learning Ally is another company that specializes in reading technology for students, with a particular focus on students who have dyslexia. The company provides audiobooks for members of their website. They also provide information and support to parents who may not understand how to help a child who has dyslexia.
Building Accessibility into Online Courses
As the paper by Tanner and Rao intimated, online classes are gaining in popularity. Different colleges and universities may have differing levels of accessibility and accommodations, but they are working to rectify that situation.
The guidelines that Gallaudet has put together also contain a section for students with learning disabilities called "Is Distance Learning Right for You?" In this section the school calls out the fact that online learning may offer some solutions to accommodation issues for students with learning disabilities while creating new problems. It is important that you carefully consider how enrolling in an online class or degree program may affect your ability to follow along, complete coursework, and even receive many of the accommodations that you will need for success. Please be sure to contact any school you are interested in attending and inquire about their guidelines for how online courses accommodate students with learning disabilities.