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Research Brief: Digital Access for Students in Higher Education and the ADA

September 7, 2021
Source: ADA Knowledge Translation Center [Note: This summary description is provided by the Mid-Atlantic ADA Center.]

This latest research brief from the ADA National Network outlines findings related to barriers and benefits experienced by post-secondary students with disabilities participating in online learning. From using websites to find information, register for programs, or apply for financial aid, to accessing digital library collections, online writing centers, and web courses, students encounter “built-in” barriers to access as well as lack of awareness and response to the need for individualized accommodations.

Students with disabilities, just like those without disabilities, report both benefits and disadvantages of distance learning, though many of these may be related to, or magnified by, accessibility issues for students with disabilities. Some students with disabilities report feeling less anxiety in online settings versus traditional classrooms, more control over their learning pace and process, and enhanced ability to manage their disability-related needs. However, others report difficulty with focus and concentration, feelings of isolation, physical strains of sitting at computers for long periods of time, and widespread inaccessibility of websites and other digital content. Among the most common barriers encountered are websites that lack the coding needed to make them accessible to screen-reading technologies often used by students who have vision disabilities, and audio content that lacks captions for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

One of the key findings of the research was that faculty and staff need more training and support in order to improve digital access. Among universities that offer workshops on how to accommodate students with disabilities, whether online or in the classroom, attendance is typically voluntary, and few teachers or staff choose to attend. Greater understanding is needed about how to design more accessible online content, as well as how to make appropriate adjustments to accommodate individual students.

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