|Photo credit: see below|
Disabled students encounter a range of challenges in their education, including in online education. Th is week’s readings feature a few qualitative studies and a variety of case studies to describe the challenges disabled students are facing. Most readings deal with dyslexic students, and students with mobility, visual or hearing impairments. Occasionally, we read about students with mental disabilities, dyspraxia and epilepsy.
Challenges go beyond the accessing the course materials and can be roughly divided between course related challenges, challenges related to registration and bureaucracy, and psychological challenges.
Course related challenges include:
- accessing course materials:
Many disabled students use assistive technologies such as screen readers, mechanical page turners, scanners, laptops with specialised software etc. Challenges also include bad pedagogy (such as long PowerPoint lectures) and design (such as images without description).
- communication with other students
This includes challenges to engage in group activities and to respect the deadlines that come with it. However, informal peer support is important for many learners with disabilities.
- examination and assessment
These include problems to work under time pressure, extra time needed due to use of assistive technologies and difficulties to express verbally or orally one’s thoughts. Inappropriate feedback such as excessive attention on spelling and grammar mistakes for dyslexic students can be demotivating.
- managing learning
These include challenges to find their way in a multitude of assignments and readings. Looking up and accessing third party materials online may pose challenges. An university library can be a daunting place for a student with dyslexia.
Registration related challenges include:
- dealing with procedure to get accepted for additional help
- deciding whether to apply or not for additional help
- lack of communication between the administration and the academic department, or between various departments (‘glass walls’)
- waiting for extra help to arrive
- time and energy spent on administrative issues encroaching on study tasks.
Students with disabilities are each engaged in a ‘personal journey’ (Goode, 2007) trying to reconcile a desire to study with a learning disability. They are actively managing their identity in various ways. Psychological challenges in doing this include:
- Dealing with the decision whether or not to disclose their disability
People may have various reasons to try concealing their disability. Students try finding a balance between a need for assistance and a desire to live and study (as) independently (as possible). Some students fear being stigmatized by their peer students or harming their job prospects when disclosing a disability. Some students fear being victimized, and prefer a ‘give-and-take’ relationship. In online learning, students arguably have more control over what they want to disclose and to whom.
- Deciding whether to use additional services & issues related to their use
Mortimer and Crozier (2006) report that additional services are underused (and perhaps also oversold). Lack of information and aversion from bureaucracy may offer some explanation, but case studies show that quite a few students deliberately choose not use services that they are eligible to. For them using them may present more disadvantages than benefits. Disadvantages can include creating a sense of dependency or abandoning their coveted ‘ordinariness’. Sometimes they fear that staff or peers may be unappreciative to their ‘special’ situation.
Both challenges come down to finding the right balance between becoming ‘invisible’ and becoming ‘extravisible’.
Students with disabilities can become ‘invisible’ if/when their needs are not met— they are disabled by the environment from full participation and ‘disappear from view’. On the other hand, if and when they have to go out of their way to make their needs known they become ‘extravisible’ in a negative way.(Goode, 2007, p.42)
- Negotiate a variety of social relations
Studying usually brings a variety of challenges that studying entails, even without a disability to handle. Studying is often a first break with parental oversight. Disabilities may manifest more clearly as study demands rise. For quite a few students in the case studies studying is a kind of personal endeavour, proving to themselves that they can achieve something, move beyond their limits.
Already facing physical and psychological hurdles, they often didn’t have the energy to ‘do battle’. ‘Battling the system’ was a very common phrase and several interviewees had come close to dropping out. In other cases students had become ‘battle-hardened’ and were more able to ‘demand’ the rights to which they knew they were entitled (Goode, p.44).
The case studies seem to support the argument for a social approach to learning disabilities, in which courses are designed with flexibility in mind, enabling variations in study pace, media preferences, study approach and assessment. In its accessibility policy institutions should not only focus on developing a system of specialist help, but on designing courses that are inviting for as large and diverse group of learners as is reasonably possible.
Goode, J. (2007) ‘“Managing” disability: early experiences of university students with disabilities’, Disability & Society, 22(1), pp. 35–48.
Mortimore, T. and Crozier, W.R. (2006) ‘Dyslexia and difficulties with study skills in higher education’, Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), pp. 235–251.
Credit for the picture at the top to UNICEF/UGDA2012-00127/Michele Sibiloni. http://www.educationandtransition.org provides stories on inclusive education from many countries.