Unlocking the Future: Making Online Learning Accessible for Students with Disabilities

The rapid transition from traditional in-person teaching to online education has brought many opportunities and challenges. In this dynamic shift, making online learning accessible for students with disabilities is essential to ensure that the digital learning environment caters to their needs too.

Clare Mullaney, an assistant professor of disability rhetoric at Clemson University, offers valuable insights into designing accessible online courses. She gave three tips to the professors, including thinking about access from the beginning of course design, offering students multiple ways to engage with course materials, and considering access as an ongoing process.

This article explores Mullaney’s three key tips to create an environment that fosters equitable learning experiences for all students.

The Shift to Online Learning and Accessibility

Online platforms have made education more accessible to a broader audience, breaking down geographical barriers and providing flexible learning options. Students who might have previously been unable to attend in-person classes due to location, health concerns, or other reasons can now access educational content remotely.

However, ensuring equal access to online education remains a significant challenge. Not all students can access reliable internet connections, suitable devices, or conducive learning environments.

On the other hand, some students with disabilities may face barriers related to inaccessible online content or platforms not designed with their needs in mind.

Educational institutions and instructors must address these accessibility challenges by considering various factors. These include providing alternative formats for content, captioning videos, ensuring compatibility with screen readers, and implementing inclusive design principles.

Efforts to make online teaching more accessible can result in a more equitable educational experience for all learners, allowing them to completely engage with and benefit from the virtual learning environment.

Challenges Disabled Students Face When Seeking Online Education

From technological barriers to communication challenges, disabled students confront unique hurdles in the digital learning environment. Educators must address them for making online learning accessible for students with disabilities as well. Some of these challenges include:

Incompatibility of Digital Materials with Assistive Technologies

Students with visual impairments often rely on screen readers to access content, but not all online materials are designed to be compatible with these tools. While many website accessibility tools like Accessibility Spark are there to help, the problem still persists.

Complex formatting, images without alternative text, and improperly labeled documents can make course materials incomprehensible for those using assistive technologies. This hampers their ability to engage with the content effectively and isolates them from the learning experience.

Communication Barriers

The interactive nature of online classes presents communication barriers for students with hearing impairments.

While valuable for live interactions, video conferencing platforms might lack adequate captioning or sign language interpretation. As a result, students with hearing impairments may struggle to follow discussions and participate fully in class. This affects their comprehension of the material and undermines their ability to engage in meaningful academic discourse.

Navigation Difficulties

The sudden transition to online learning has also posed challenges for students with cognitive disabilities.

Navigating online platforms, managing multiple windows, and processing digital information can be overwhelming for individuals with cognitive impairments. The absence of familiar classroom cues and routines might lead to confusion and anxiety.

Moreover, the lack of face-to-face interactions can limit the availability of personalized support that these students often require.

Accessibility of Assessment Methods

Traditional exams might not adequately accommodate the needs of disabled students. Online exams can introduce new challenges, including time constraints, technical difficulties, and increased stress levels.

Students with certain disabilities might require extended time or alternative formats for assessments. Without proactive accommodations, they may face unnecessary hurdles that hinder their performance.

The Digital Divide

Not all students can access the necessary technology and reliable internet connections for online learning. This is particularly problematic for disabled students, as their specific assistive devices or technologies may not be readily available in all settings.

Economic disparities can exacerbate this issue, further marginalizing disabled students who lack the resources to participate fully in online education.

A Deeper Insight Into Mullaney’s Approach to Making Online Learning Accessible for Students with Disabilities

To ensure every student accesses educational courses equally, professors and institutions must acknowledge the below three tips.

1.   Have an Accessible Approach From the Beginning of Course Design

Mullaney’s first tip for making online learning accessible for students with disabilities calls for a proactive approach to inclusivity from the course’s beginning. Instead of waiting for specific requests from disabled students, instructors should strive to make their course materials accessible from the outset.

This includes the following steps:

Making Digital Readings OCR (Optical Character Recognition) Searchable

OCR converts text and images into special, machine-encoded text. It benefits students with visual impairments who use screen readers, as well as those with dyslexia and similar learning disabilities.

According to Mullaney, the benefits of this approach extend beyond disabled students. Making digital content easily searchable and readable can alleviate the strain on students’ eyes during prolonged periods of computer use.

Incorporating Flexibility through Syllabi Design

Flexibility is a cornerstone of an accessible online course. Mullaney encourages instructors to consider diverse needs when designing syllabi. One effective strategy is to incorporate flexible deadlines.

Students with chronic conditions often face unpredictable health fluctuations that can impact their ability to adhere to strict deadlines. Mullaney shares an example of a creative approach to flexibility where students are provided with a two-day buffer period to submit assignments. This pragmatic adjustment allows for a more inclusive approach to projects and deadlines.

This approach not only accommodates disabled students but also recognizes the uniqueness of each learner’s circumstances. It promotes a more compassionate, student-centered learning environment that can alleviate stress and empower students to engage fully with the course content.

2.   Diverse Engagement with Different Course Materials

The transition to online teaching has shifted how students interact with course material. Mullaney’s second tip for making online learning accessible for students with disabilities encourages educators to diversify course engagement options. These include:

Multiple Methods of Communication

Instead of relying solely on spoken participation during Zoom calls, instructors should embrace alternative methods of communication. This includes utilizing chat functions and asynchronous forums that accommodate different communication styles. These platforms offer quieter students the chance to contribute meaningfully to discussions, fostering a more inclusive learning community.

Collaborative Note-Taking Approach

Furthermore, Mullaney advocates for the implementation of collaborative note-taking practices. Assigning a designated class note-taker who contributes to a communal Google document can benefit students who miss classes or struggle with processing information orally. This practice creates a supportive environment where students can collaborate and ensure that vital course information is accessible to all.

Diversified Assessment Methods

Learning is not limited to a single mode of expression, so students should engage deeply with course content in ways that resonate with them.

In line with fostering inclusivity, Mullaney encourages instructors to diversify assessment methods. While conventional scholarly papers have their place, offering alternative ways for students to showcase their knowledge can tap into different strengths and learning styles.

This approach is particularly valuable for students who struggle with traditional assessment formats due to disabilities. By allowing students to express their understanding through various projects, presentations, or creative assignments, instructors promote a learning environment that values diverse talents and perspectives.

3.   Consider Access as an Ongoing Negotiation

Mullaney underscores the importance of viewing accessibility as an ongoing negotiation rather than a static checklist. Inclusion is not a one-size-fits-all concept; it involves a continuous dialogue between educators and students.

Here are some key points to ensure accessibility for the long term:

Conducting Students’ Survey

One practical approach to making online learning accessible for students with disabilities is distributing a survey at the beginning of the semester. It will gather insights into students’ learning preferences and needs.

This strategy empowers students to communicate their requirements without disclosing specific diagnoses.

Mid-Term Course Evaluations

Midway through the term, educators can engage in further conversations with students through mid-term course evaluations or individual check-ins. This feedback loop allows for timely adjustments to classroom assignments and policies based on the evolving needs of the students.

It is a flexible approach to course design that underscores the instructor’s commitment to fostering an inclusive environment to cater to every student’s unique learning journey.

Discussions About the Best Online Learning Practices

Amid extraordinary times, reimagining education becomes a moral imperative. Mullaney encourages educators to initiate discussions about effective online learning practices.

By addressing questions related to time management, screen time reduction, focus, and motivation, instructors create a platform for students to share strategies that work for them. In this collaborative endeavor, both educators and students can learn from each other’s experiences and develop a toolbox of techniques that support effective online learning.


Clare Mullaney’s insights provide a comprehensive roadmap for making online learning accessible for students with disabilities. The shift to virtual education offers the chance to rethink traditional practices and prioritize equity.

By adopting proactive accessibility measures, flexible deadlines, various engagement options, and ongoing communication, educators can create learning environments that honor the diverse strengths and needs of all students.

As we navigate the complexities of online education, we must remember that accessibility is not just a checklist—it’s a commitment to fostering an inclusive and empowering educational experience for everyone.