Access to Education for Students with Disabilities – Group Project

Unit 4 – Activity 1 | Discussing Impacts of Digital Learning

The Impact of Digital Learning: Access to Education for Students with Disabilities

Lisa Gates, Jeff Goodes, and Eunice Leung

The rise of technology has provided more equitable opportunities for students with disabilities to support their learning. There are wide ranges of assistive technology, both hardware and software, that have been designed to either help with a difficult task or learn a new skill. The following sections outline some of the impacts technology has had on creating access to education for students with disabilities.

Profile: Students with Disabilities

The following bullet points highlight the various needs that a student who has a disability might have. Sometimes it can be only a specific need, other times it can also be a combination of needs. Unfortunately, not all learning needs at the post-secondary level are always supported.

  • The term “students with disabilities” is a broad one and can encompass a wide spectrum of students with “an array of problems, from those related to particular impairments to those related to learning and behavioural difficulties experienced by some learners compared with other similar learners (Florian and Hegarty, 2003, p.8-9).” Within this definition, the needs of this group are:
    • communication and interaction
    • cognition and learning
    • behaviour, emotional and social development
    • sensory and/or physical (Florian and Hegarty, 2003).
  • “People with disabilities-some 54 million in the U.S. (McNeil, 1997)-remain underrepresented in postsecondary education” (Schmetzke, 2001, p.1).

Impact of Digital Learning in the Classroom

Utilizing assistive technology has increased opportunities for students with disabilities to participate online and in the classroom. The decreasing costs and rising availability for supports have created a more equitable to make learning more accessible to everyone regardless of their needs.

  • The use of assistive technologies has increased access to online learning for people with disabilities. Studies have shown that assistive technology has removed barriers for students which had impeded their academic success. In fact, many students are using more than one adaptive technology due to the fact that they have more than one disability. In addition, some students may co-opt technology for another disability to their own needs. “For example, screen readers are not only used by those who are blind, but by those who have a learning disability such as dyslexia.” (Seale, 2006, p. 57)
  • With decreasing cost, rising availability of software and the ability to deliver online instruction,  the accessibility of the written word has expanded. Digital text displayed on a screen can be converted to speech (i.e., screen readers), mechanically reproduced as braille characters on a specialized keyboard (i.e., refreshable braille display), and enlarged to an accessible size (i.e., screen magnifier) (Taylor, 2016).

Impact of  Digital Learning Design

When hardware and software are incorporated to support the learning of students with disabilities, accommodations need to be made. As a result, instructional designers have started to take into an account designing content that is accessible to their learners. Applying universal design principles when designing content has increased accessibility, however, more can be done.

  • Just as there are enabling and disabling conditions in the physical environment, so are there conditions associated with digital technology that result in the inclusion or exclusion of certain people. Technology that is not universally designed, without consideration for the full spectrum of human (dis) abilities, is likely to contain access barriers for people with print disabilities (Schmetzke, 2001).
  • Schmetzke notes that online learning can be challenging to those with print disabilities, leading to scenarios in which those with print disabilities are discriminated against. “The amount of accommodations and adaptations to the regular online course that, by law, need to be made under such circumstances would be tremendous. And even then, the legality of the end result would be questionable: In essence, students with print disabilities would end up taking courses in a separate track-a scenario that is at odds with the legal mandate to provide programs in the most integrated settings”. (Schmetzke, 2001).
  • Accessibility is an issue across online learning. Not all academic online resources available to students are universally barrier free.  Schmetzke observes that, “A study within the University of PM ITD Journal Wisconsin-Madison revealed that only 38% of the 101 departmental homepages evaluated with Bobby, an automated accessibility checker, were free of accessibility problems. After an additional, more stringent manual assessment, only a mere 14% passed as barrier-free” (Accessibility & Technology, 2000 as cited in Schmetzke, 2001).
  • “Students with visible disabilities, such as people who are blind or who are using wheelchairs, are noticed in the physical campus environment. Anyone observing a person in a wheelchair attempting to negotiate a sidewalk curb will quickly realize the need for a curb cut. In the online environment, the needs of people with disabilities tend to go unobserved, and thus unacknowledged. The planners of online classrooms are unlikely to meet face-to-face with blind individuals as they link to course web sites only to find most information to be provided in an inaccessible image format” (Schmetzke, 2001, p. 13).
  • Designed correctly, distance education options create learning opportunities for everyone. Designed poorly, they erect barriers to equal participation in academics and careers for potential students and instructors with disabilities. Employing universal design principles as we create technology-based distance learning courses can bring us closer to making learning accessible to everyone, everywhere, at any time (Burgstahler, 2002).

Changing Teacher/Instructor Roles

The role of the teacher/instructor has changed drastically. To incorporate the use of assistive technology within learning, new knowledge and skills are being required of them.

  • Using digital learning material to enhance the education experience for students with disabilities has not always been successful. The challenge, according to Seale is not the lack of digital accessibility tools, it’s that “very few practitioners however, know exactly how to make e-learning accessible” (Seale, 2006, p. 1).
  • Technology in the classroom has been used since the 1970s to enhance the  learning experience of students with disabilities. Success has been varied. Florian and Hegarty (2003) suggest that there are three essential elements which contribute to the success of technology to assist students with disabilities: “the right equipment , access to high-quality materials and ongoing practice-based training” (Florian and Hegarty, 2003, p.33).
  • Siyam (2019) echoes the need for training by teachers: “the strong impact of self-efficacy on teacher’s actual use of technology…indicates the importance of providing teachers with training on the technology tools presented to them” (Saddler, 2006 as cited in Siyam, 2019, p.33).
  • Special education teachers should be exposed to hands-on activities that focus not only on how to use the tool, but on how this tool has the ability to impact students’ learning and behavioural outcomes (Almeida et al. 2016). Secondly, technology should be included in preparatory programs for special education teachers and should cover a different range of tools such as learning management systems, academic platforms, behavior tracking apps and social assistive technology. Moreover, special education policies should be improved to develop understanding and awareness of the importance of using technology in special education classroom practices (Siyam, 2019).
  • Faculty need to take responsibility for both the technology that they choose to use and that which they choose not to use. Both decisions can have a significant impact on student accessibility (Taylor, 2016).


Burgstahler, S. (2002). Distance Learning: Universal Design, Universal Access.  AACE Journal, 10(1), 32–61. Retrieved from

Florian, L and Hegarty, J. ICT and Special Educational Needs, McGraw-Hill Education, 2003. ProQuest Ebook Central. Retrieved from Created from royalroads-ebooks on 2019-05-30 13:09:54.

Seale, J. K. (2013). E-learning and Disability in Higher Education: Accessibility Research and Practice. Retrieved from

Schmetzke, A. (2001). Online Distance Education – “Anytime, Anywhere” But Not For Everyone. Retrieved from:

Siyam, N. (2019). Factors impacting special education teachers’ acceptance andWild lady slipper orchids - white modified bottom petal with red and green modified lateral sepals. actual use of technology. Education and Information Technologies, 24(3), 2035–2057.  Retrieved from

Taylor, M. A. (2016). Improving Accessibility for Students with Visual Disabilities in the Technology-Rich Classroom. PS: Political Science & Politics, 49(01), 122–127. Retrieved from


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