Blended and online learning hold great potential to better meet the needs of students with disabilities with personalization and adaptive learning. However, that potential can only be realized if new learning environments are designed with all learners in mind.
Education policies impact a diverse group of learners, but sometimes, certain groups of students are left out of the process. Sometimes, that group is students with disabilities. We have a duty to ensure that all programs meet their moral, ethical, and legal obligations to ensure all learners have access to the full range of educational opportunities available in blended and online learning.
The iNACOL National Standards for Quality Online Teaching, Online Programs, and Online Courses have always included considerations for access and equity. Course designers, instructors, and program administrators/managers all play an important role in ensuring all learners can benefit from blended and online learning.
Design course materials and activities to ensure appropriate access to all students. If a course is developed with universal design for learning (UDL) principles in mind, then the course should be accessible to every participant. Three primary principles that guide UDL include: providing multiple means of representation (e.g., text transcripts for audio, captioning for video, and descriptive tags for graphics), providing multiple means of action and expression (e.g., giving students different ways to communicate and show learning), and providing multiple means of engagement (e.g., alternative ways to keep and sustain students’ interests).
Blended or online educators should know and understand the legal requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Assistive Technology Act and all other applicable state laws. These laws were put into effect to protect students with disabilities, and educators need to deeply understand and implement these principles in their classroom; this includes implementation of each student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) and providing reasonable accommodations.
Programs should provide accommodations to meet a variety of needs, especially for students with disabilities. Programs should clearly state eligibility requirements and ensure that students are provided equitable access. The iNACOL National Standards for Quality Online Programs provide important guidelines for program administrators to follow. A number of states now require online programs to adhere to these quality standards in law or regulation. Unfortunately, it often takes legislative or regulatory action to ensure compliance with standards and best practices. However, programs need not wait for a law or regulation to ensure learning is accessible to all learners.
The iNACOL report, Access and Equity for All Learners in Blended and Online Education, provides detailed recommendations for course designers, educators, and program administrators. The report details best practices from disability and education research, as well as programs’ and schools’ legal obligations from law, regulation, and legal precedent.