A scene of people with various disabilities gathered around a blue lake, enjoying their home, community, the out-of-doors, health, recreation, housing, transportation and education with an accessible path for them to a high mountain and large yellow sun on the horizon.  New Horizons Un-Limited Inc.



Guide to Distance Learning for People with Disabilities

October 30, 2001 [Revised February 28, 2003]

The following is a Guide to Distance Learning for People with Disabilities. With computer technology becoming a predominant means of communication, educational opportunities have never been more accessible to people with disabilities. Those unable to attend traditional classroom instruction due to transportation or mobility barriers can now pursue an education from their homes.

The purpose of this guide is to provide information for people with disabilities who are 18 to 55 years of age, and does not necessarily offer information specifically for the elderly.

New Horizons Un-Limited assumes no responsibility in guaranteeing the services, programs or conditions as described. If you are interested in a resource listed below, call or contact the resource to verify the current situation. Carefully evaluate the information we provide and make your own decisions when using this guide.

Guide to Distance Learning for People with Disabilities

Obtaining an education, particularly a higher education, is becoming more of a reality everyday for the millions of individuals living with disabilities. As computer technology becomes more and more accessible, so are many opportunities in education that were previously reserved only for those individuals with the ability to commute on a daily basis.

Distance Learning, as defined by the United States Distance Learning Association, is "the acquisition of knowledge and skills through mediated information and instruction. Distance learning encompasses all technologies and supports the pursuit of life long learning for all." For students that find it difficult to attend traditional classes, satellites, audio and visual broadcasts and the Internet can bring the classroom to them, wherever they may be.

While distance learning can indeed present many opportunities, there still exists several issues you must consider before you can successfully pursue an education from a distance. Of course you must first determine if pursuing a distance education is for you. In doing this you must assess your work ethic and ability to work independently. Another issue is acquiring the necessary and most appropriate technology, including adaptive devices. Yet another issue is financial assistance. Pursuing an education can be very costly, especially if this involves the use of adaptive computer equipment; utilizing assistance can relieve this financial burden. Finally, choosing the best program and/ or the best educational institution requires great consideration, as not all will be equipped to meet your unique needs.

This guide will discuss each issue in detail, providing you with an opportunity to learn if distance learning is in deed something you would like to pursue. It will further serve as a guide to resources on distance learning programs in the United States, as well as on financial assistance available and technology acquisition.

Is Distance Learning for You?

The best way to determine if distance learning will, in fact, benefit you is through completing a self-assessment. Ask yourself:

How much time do I have to commit to studying each day? How well do I budget my time?

Distance learning courses will usually require the same if not more time than a traditional class. You should plan on scheduling at least 5 hours each week for studying. In determining how much time you have available each week, you may want to develop a tentative daily schedule of all the activities you are planning to accomplish, making certain you account for those activities related to daily living as well.

It may also be to your benefit to consider enrolling in a class that has a set time in which all students are required to attend, albeit from a distance. Perhaps your instructor will set a time each week in which students are expected to engage in on-line discussion or to perhaps view a live broadcast. A set time requirement may help you better budget your time around your class schedule rather than budgeting your time around other perhaps less important daily activities.

How well developed are my concentration skills? Am I easily distracted?

Typically, distance learning is reserved for those individuals that can commit themselves to completing a task without constant supervision or guidance. Learning is always more difficult in an environment that presents distractions, if you are easily distracted you may want to carefully consider your options before committing yourself to a distance learning program. Additionally, distance learning requires a great deal of self-discipline and self-direction.

How well developed are my reading skills? Can I easily comprehend written instructions?

Given the inherent structure of the program, you will rarely have an opportunity to speak with your instructor or fellow classmates face-to-face, much less over the phone. Rather, all communication will be completed via e-mail or another means of electronic communication. Furthermore, given the lack of an oral presentation of the class concepts, distance learning classes will require a great deal more reading than traditional classes. Given the degree to which you must research independently, it is essential that you have average or above average reading skills.

How advanced is my knowledge of computer, Internet and e-mail functions?

Many distance learning classes are taught via the Internet, using e-mail and personal websites. So that you may use your time as efficiently as possible, average to above average computer skills are needed. If your computer skills are not up to par you may want to consider a computer training class. Also keep in mind that many schools do offer alternative distance learning tools such as video and audio broadcasts and cassettes.

Do I learn better while working independently or with assistance?

Distance learning classes often require a great deal of independence and initiative. Many distance courses are very unstructured with voluntary on-line discussion times and assignments. If you lack initiative and / or enthusiasm to participate in the discussions or assignments you will find yourself at a disadvantage, given you have no other means to really learn the concepts. If you typically require a great deal of structure and guidance, distance learning may not be the most appropriate option.

If after completing a self-assessment you believe distance learning would be a good option for you, following is a discussion of the various modes of distance learning you may encounter at the college or university of your choice.

Modes of Distance Learning

Many different colleges and universities will offer many different options for student / instructor interaction. Such options can include the use of printed correspondence, audio conferencing, live and prerecorded video conferencing, as well as Internet and e-mail. Each option will of course have its advantages and disadvantages depending upon your disability and life circumstances. Choosing the best medium will depend upon your needs as an individual.

Printed Correspondence

Printed correspondence may include course books, outlines, syllabuses, articles and more. Such material may not be available electronically and therefore only available through mail or personal pick up. If you choose a class with this type of material, you need to address how you will acquire the class content. Will it be delivered to you or will you be responsible for obtaining the materials on your own? If you have issues pertaining to mobility and / or transportation, having responsibility for picking up the materials may pose a problem. If this is the case, you may want to ask the instructor to mail or deliver the materials to your home. If you do have access to a computer, the instructor may also make special arrangements for you to receive the materials in an electronic format via e-mail.

An additional issue arises for those who are blind or who have visual impairments. The materials will almost certainly have standard print and will not be accessible to those with visual impairments. If you are blind or visually impaired, you may want to request that you receive the materials in an alternative format, such as Braille, large-print or an audiotape. Such an accommodation is required under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), which will be discussed in detail later in this guide.

Audio Conferencing

Distance classes that use audio conferencing will make use of a traditional telephone through which the teacher and students will engage in discussion on class concepts. Use of a telephone may present problems to those who are deaf or hard of hearing. While use of a TTY device would be appropriate for one-on-one conversations with the instructor, it would not work well for participating in a class discussion. If you are deaf or hard of hearing and class discussions are only carried on over the phone, you may want to request the use of a real-time, online chat room, in which conversations can be transcribed as they occur. If you wish to respond to class comments you may type your comments which can be reviewed by the instructor and relayed onto the rest of the class.

Keep in mind, however, that the most efficient class structure would be one that is entirely carried on over the Internet. Such a structure will not require interpretations, resulting in a clearer delivery of class content. Therefore, if available, you may want to consider an Internet class above all other options.

Video Conferencing / Transmission

Use of video in distance learning classes can take two forms. The first is a real-time, live broadcast in which students can participate as they view. The second is a pre-recorded transmission in which students and instructors will not have an opportunity to interact.

Live broadcasts will often require the use of interconnected satellite sites. Therefore, in order for students to participate in the live class discussion they must be able to travel to one of the satellite sites. This implies that those with transportation issues or mobility impairments may not be able to attend class on a regular basis. If you have an issue with transportation or find that your mobility impairment inhibits you from attending class, you may want to request a videotape of the class. Again, however you must consider how you will acquire the video. Can the video be delivered to your home in a timely manner so not to disrupt your study progress?

An additional issue arises for those who are deaf or hard of hearing and unable to hear the broadcast. Such an issue can be easily remedied by requesting the use of real-time captioning. Most televisions are equipped with a captioning feature. If this option is unavailable to you, you may need to request the use of a sign language interpreter.

Pre-recorded transmissions may be broadcast over a local television channel. While the broadcast can be viewed from home or another convenient location, the same issues arise in terms of accommodating the needs of those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Such issues can be addressed again, through use of captioning and / or an interpreter.

Internet and E-mail

The use of the Internet and e-mail may be the most popular method of distance learning today. Classes using this technology will entirely take place over the Internet with communication made possible by the use of electronic mail. While most disabilities can be accommodated, it can take time to determine the correct adaptive technology and can be very costly to obtain such technology. The following section will discuss the issues pertaining to computer and adaptive technology.

Computer and Adaptive Technology Considerations

Computer Technology

Choosing the best computer technology will depend greatly upon your individual needs as a student and the requirements of the distance learning program. Therefore, you will first want to determine the type of technology the class will require. For example, if enrolled in an online distance learning class, you will need to have easy access to a computer equipped with a modem so that you may access the World Wide Web (Internet) and an e-mail account through an Internet Service Provider (ISP).

If you do not have easy access to a computer with a modem you may want to consider obtaining a personal computer for use in your home. A new, well-equipped computer can often be obtained for as little as $600. If this is beyond your budget however, you do have several options.

Your first option is to contact your local Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR). As a student with a disability, you may be entitled to a free computer. Income is typically not a factor in eligibility consideration so long as the computer is used for educational or employment pursuits. Your second option is to look into receiving a refurbished computer. Many organizations are now offering programs in which they distribute outdated, but functioning computers to people that are in need of computer access and unable to purchase a computer on their own.

While most refurbished computers are indeed older models they should have the power or capacity required for participating in a distance learning program. In addition, refurbished computers will almost certainly not come with any additional software or hardware, therefore the costs associated with obtaining a modem, word processing software or other necessary items may still be the responsibility of the individual receiving the computer. These costs are relatively minimal however and well worth the investment if used to further your education and therefore enhance your ability to earn a living.

One of the first resources you may want to approach for more information on refurbished computer distribution is your local Center for Independent Living. If they are not involved in computer refurbishing themselves, they will almost certainly be able to refer you to those organizations that are.

Once you receive a computer and the proper equipment, an additional issue arises in determining the best Internet Service Provider (ISP) to approach. There are many services that offer a limited amount of connect time either free or for a low-monthly fee. While most schools will offer a free e-mail account, you may also want to consider the availability of e-mail from the ISP you plan to go with. Keep in mind that when connecting to the Web through an ISP you will be doing so through your telephone line and depending upon the dial-up numbers, may incur monthly charges on your phone bill. It is imperative that you make certain the dial-up number offered by the ISP is local, so you will not be charged for long-distance calls on your monthly phone bill.

Following are a few free or low-cost national service providers you may want to contact if you have not yet been connected to the World Wide Web.

Once you investigate all the necessary computer equipment and services you will now want to consider your adaptive technology needs.

Adaptive Technology

Distance learning courses requiring the use of computer technology will inherently require the use of adaptive technology for those with physical disabilities. While colleges and universities are required to reasonably accommodate students on site, they are not required to provide technology accommodations to a student in their own home. Therefore, the financial burden of obtaining the necessary adaptive technology lies solely on the student.

Before investing in adaptive devices, it is to your benefit to have your needs assessed by a qualified individual. Your college or university should almost certainly have a department for students with disabilities. While they may not necessarily be qualified to offer a proper technology assessment, they should be able to direct you to someone who can. Another great place you can go is your local Center for Independent Living (CIL). A CIL will often be your greatest resource, as they not only offer assessments, but may also offer an opportunity to try out adaptive devices in which you may be interested.

You will find that computer adaptive technology is very costly, often rising into the thousands. Do not let this factor deter you from obtaining an education from a distance however, as there are several sources of funding available. Before you can determine the most appropriate funding source however, you will first need to determine the type of technology that is required; again this can be done through a technology assessment.

Knowing and understanding your needs and the benefits you will receive from the adaptive technology will only strengthen your request for assistance. Furthermore, before approaching a funding source, make certain you organize the following information pertaining to your disability:

Once this information is reviewed by the funding source they may also require you to provide a justification statement, in which you may need to explain why you need the technology and how it will be used to benefit your everyday life. Be prepared to defend your justification, as funding may be limited and the selection process very competitive.

There are many funding sources you can approach for funding assistance including community organizations and federal agencies. To learn more about the various sources of funding available and the process involved in acquiring assistance, visit our Adaptive Technology: Financial Assistance resource list for links to several helpful resources.

If you have found yourself unable to obtain funding, you may want to align yourself with an advocate from your state's Protection and Advocacy System, a congressionally mandated, legally based disability rights agency. They will devote themselves to seeing that you receive equal access to educational opportunities and any financial assistance necessary to advance your education. Visit National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems to locate your local advocacy office.

If you find that you are successful in obtaining computer and adaptive technology, you may also want to investigate assistance for costs relating to school tuition and books. Following is a discussion of the options available.

Higher Education Financial Aid

If you are seeking a higher education at a state college, university or technical school you may first want to investigate financial aid for costs relating to the tuition. This aid can be received in several forms. The first is a scholarship or grant; an amount of money to be used towards tuition and books that does not require repayment. Such aid can be highly competitive, as it is often offered on a limited basis to students meeting certain criteria.

To learn more about receiving a scholarship or grant you can visit your college's financial aid office. You may also want to visit the Heath Resource Center website, which offers funding information specific to people with disabilities, as well as a great deal of general information relating to higher education opportunities for people with disabilities.

The second funding source is low-interest subsidized and unsubsidized federal loans. Such loans must be applied for and are offered to eligible students. Criteria for federal loans are often much less stringent than those of grants or scholarships.

If qualified to receive a federal loan, your loan amount will be based upon your status in school, either full-time or part-time. The greatest benefit of a federal loan is that payments are waived as long as you are enrolled in school at least part-time. Payments will begin about 6 months after graduation, and hopefully after several months of sustained employment. An additional benefit is offered in subsidized loans. Such loans will waive interest charges until payment begins. This will allow you to save hundreds or even thousands of dollars in interest charges that would occur on a traditional loan. For more information on the Federal Loan Program, visit Student Aid

The United States government offers many other programs and benefits to students seeking a higher education. A relatively recent benefit can be found in the HOPE Scholarship and Lifetime Learning Credit, both received by form of an income tax credit. The tax credits, which are received when you or the person responsible for covering tuition costs file income taxes, are determined by your year in school. For more information on such credits, visit the IRS website.

Distance Learning Programs

Many colleges and universities are tuning into the concept of distance learning and offering a wide variety of courses and even full degree programs entirely from a distance. While many colleges are indeed offering distance learning programs, not all are designing their programs to be fully accessible to students with disabilities. It is therefore very important that you carefully consider the general accessibility practices of the school and its range of services offered to students with disabilities. If a school does not meet your needs on the most basic level then they will certainly not be able to meet your needs in a distance learning program.

Following are a few schools that have recognized the importance of accessibility and are taking great strides in meeting the unique needs of students with disabilities while also offering distance learning programs:

Understand Your Rights

As an individual, regardless of disability, you have rights to an education. But, because you have a disability, it is very important that you understand your rights and know when they have been violated. Following is a discussion of the laws that protect your rights.

According to The Accessible Future, a publication of the National Council on Disability, "the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) bans discrimination on the basis of disability in employment (Title I); in the provision of public services by state and local government (Title II); and in the provision of or access to goods, services, and facilities of public accommodations and commercial facilities (Title III). In addition, Title IV requires the provision of telephone relay services."

Title II is of particular interest, as it requires the use of auxiliary aids in ensuring effective communication.

"Auxiliary aids and services include:

  1. Qualified interpreters, notetakers, transcription services, written materials, telephone handset amplifiers, assistive listening devices, assistive listening systems, telephones compatible with hearing aids, closed-caption decoders, open and closed captioning, telecommunications devices for deaf persons, videotext displays, or other effective methods of making orally delivered materials available to individuals with hearing impairments;
  2. Qualified readers, taped texts, audio recordings, Braille materials, large print materials, or other effective methods of making visually delivered materials available to individuals with visual impairments."

In a broader sense, Sec. 504 (a) of the Rehabilitation Act states that "no otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, as defined in section 7(20), shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance or under any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency."

Therefore, if an education program is designed without considering your needs as an individual with a disability, reasonable accommodations should be made as long as such accommodations will not alter the fundamental design of the program. In addition to the auxiliary aids mentioned above, another consideration that should be made by distance learning professors is website accessibility. While it is not mandated that all websites be accessible, your professor or school should provide you with alternative access to information pertaining to the class that is only available on inaccessible websites.

If you would like to learn more about your rights to an education or if you feel your rights have been violated, contact the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF). DREDF is "the leading national law and policy center in disability civil rights" by offering education, training and technical assistance to people with disabilities. They will advocate for your rights and if they do not successfully secure your rights through advocacy they will also represent you in a court of law. For more information, visit their website, e-mail dredf@dredf.org, or call the main office in California at (510) 644-2555.

Education is a Reality

With so many options available and so many colleges and universities striving to meet the needs of their students with disabilities, now is the time to pursue a higher education. While obstacles do remain, you will find that many people are willing to help you overcome these obstacles as long as you are willing.

We hope that this guide has provided you with an insight into the options available to you, and that you may feel compelled to further research the feasibility of obtaining a higher education. Knowledge gives you the power to affect change in your life and possibly the lives of others.

The preceding guide has been derived from the following sources:

ABLEDATA's Informed Consumer's Guide to Funding Assistive Technology

The Accessible Future, a publication of the National Council on Disability

Distance Education: Access Guidelines for Students with Disabilities, a publication of the High Tech Center Training Unit, in collaboration with the Distance Education Accessibility Workgroup

If you have questions or ideas, information and solutions that you would like to share with us, contact us by e-mail at: horizons@new-horizons.org or to use our NHU E-Mail Form or NHU Community Forum, click the links below.

Homepage icon Home  /  Disability News  /  NHU Quarterly Newsletter
Share Your Knowledge!  /  NHU Community Forum  /  Contact Us
About NHU  /  Announcements and Features  /  Contribute  /  What's New?  /  Site Plan

© Copyright 2005, New Horizons Un-Limited Inc.
[Updated October 31, 2005]
NHU has no liability for content or goods on the Internet.