Access and Barriers to Online Education for People With Disabilities

Dr Mike Kent

Curtin University

Report Summary

This study examined 356 students with disability studying online at Open University Australia. Students were classified into eight categories: mental illness; medical impairment; mobility impairment; hearing impairment; learning disability; vision impairment; acquired brain impairment; and intellectual disability. The survey sample closely matched the total student body with a disability.
The study focused on the accessibility of the different online platforms; and it examined the student’s level of disclosure to each institution and what motivated them to disclose their disability or not.
Each of the eight categories of disability forms a separate independent report.

Key observations on the eight disability groups include:

  • Mental illness is the largest group, accounting for over half the students registered for disability support. However, the group remains relatively secret. Students were identified as having 54 mental illness classifications. The group are less impacted by learning technologies but are impacted by the design of learning and teaching.
  • Medical impairment (eg chronic fatigue, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, kidney disease) was the second largest disability grouping and it also illustrated great diversity with impairments in 64 categories. The group reported a wide variety of ways in which their study and life are affected by their conditions.
  • Mobility impairment (eg cerebral palsy, spinal cord injury, arthritis, motor neuron disease, Huntingdon’s disease and Parkinson’s disease) was described in 43 different categories. Some students have physical challenges in accessing university, others have in-class challenges, and some have challenges accessing services on campus. Half of respondents indicated they have at least one other non-mobility disability.
  • Hearing impaired students experience difficulties in communicating with peers as well as with teaching and administration staff. Hearing impairment is complex and individualised and eight categories of impairment were reported. Many teachers don’t prepare written notes for online learning, but lecture transcripts would assist hearing impaired students, as would more use of sub-titles.
  • Learning disability consists of difficulties with reading, writing and calculating. This was the fourth largest disability group. Nearly a third of this group identified with a mental illness. More than 60% of students with a learning disability clustered in the first year of study, suggesting they had difficulties in completing studies.
  • Vision impairment is a challenge for students when they rely on digital media. While the group was relatively small (24), interviewees identified 15 types of vision impairment. Inaccessible websites was cited as the major issue.
  • Acquired brain impairment is multiple disabilities arising from damage to the brain acquired after birth. As this group is relatively small within disability, educators and administrators are less likely to be equipped to support students with acquired brain impairment.
  • Intellectual disability was the smallest group from the disability cohort. The report authors believe e-learning has great potential to enhance the lives of students with intellectual disability and provide new opportunities for communication and empowerment.

Overall conclusions included:

  • The acceptance of disabilities needs to be promoted widely among teaching and professional staff.
  • There is a need for flexibility with the adoption of technology and the design of assessment and teaching methods and the acceptance that not all students will be able to participate to the same levels on all occasions.
  • The social mobility model of disability places an emphasis on society assisting the individual. The authors support this model and believe inclusive e-learning needs to embrace it.
  • The next step in research is to examine universal design in e-learning and how it can address areas related to online teaching platforms and they are utilised.


Access and Barriers to Online Education for People with Disabilities

Kent, M. (2016). Access and Barriers to Online Education for People with Disabilities. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.

Posted 4 May 2017 By ncsehe