Online Learning and Students with Disabilities

This latest post comes from Mary Frances Rice (, a Ph.D. student at the University of Kansas. Rice explains the intersection of online environments and disability.

I look forward to posting more, and as always, contact me at if you’re interested in being a guest blogger for the site, or would like to joint the DS-Rhet listserv. —Dev


I am a curriculum and teaching Ph.D. student. Since January 2013, I have been working at the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities at the University of Kansas. At this center, we focus on providing resources for K12 students with disabilities who are enrolling in online courses or participating in other types of digitally enhanced learning environments. During my time at COLSD, my research has taken several interesting turns. I started out researching text complexity and what makes a text difficult to read. In this work, the notion of what constituted disability was very narrow because all the formulas that one must use to calculate readability are based on fairly narrow views of reading comprehension that were invented long before the Internet and the flourishing of understanding about visual, gestural, and other social semiotic communication. I was glad to do this work because it enriched my understanding about how and why literacy needed to become literacies and why technologies had the potential to be a disruptive force in equity, but without deliberation, they could also be used to reproduce the status quo.

My next set of projects moved away from the curriculum products and towards the individuals engaging in teaching and learning online. Specifically I was charged with interviewing and collecting other data from online teachers who were working to provide accommodations and other support for students with disabilities as they learn. The work of these teachers was interesting to me because of their incredible knowledge of disability law and the deep level of care they had for the learners. What was unfortunate is that, for as much as they were investing, learners in their classes with disabilities failed to complete the courses at much higher rates. I also learned much about how these learners were constructed in virtual schools because there is so much less sensory data. You can hear or see the learners, but only through an Internet or phone connection and you only see what they want you to see. The totality of their body is never in the presence of the teacher. In some ways, this could be liberating; that a learner with a physical exceptionality need not share it with anyone and therefore, a certain kind of power emerges. However, it could also be just as colonizing; the virtual environment could allow the educational setting to deny disability entirely. All you are is what you turn in, and as long as you make progress in the course, interaction with a teacher in a fully online course is likely to be minimal in the settings where I conducted my research.

Another thing that struck me as I was engaging in this work was the “Senior Season,” where high school seniors rush to acquire the credit that they will need to pass courses and graduate. I presumed that it was likely that many of these learners are interested in pursuing university studies or other post-high school training. Like their English teachers, I wondered what lessons the learners were really learning about composition and writing that they would carry with them to college. After all, the curriculum the teachers were teaching was written by an elusive someone, somewhere who did not know the learners at all; the teachers, especially in the case of learners who disclosed their disabilities (another surprise, was even at this K12 setting, not all did) made special efforts to communicate with learners more about their writing and to make sure that learners understood what the assignment was really asking. Then came endless moral and ethical dilemmas about whether and under what circumstances to accept late work, how many revisions should a learner do, and what constituted quality writing when so much of what was assigned was canned, rather than planned. After talking with teachers, I focused next on administrators. These educators were also deeply caring and knowledgeable, particularly about policy aspects relating to disability, yet what it takes to help learners with disabilities move their learning to scholarship in the academy did not enter into our conversations. Online learning, as forward thinking as it is, has so many new dimensions that it is difficult to imagine individual futures of individual learners.

In attending the Council of Writing Program Administrators annual meeting in Boise, Idaho in July, I presented these wonderings about the body, about writing instruction expectations and how they matched up in secondary (especially virtual settings) and university expectations, and about disability and its co-construction on the whole. After secondary schooling is complete, the laws from IDEA (individuals with disabilities in education act) no longer serve learners; other public laws do. However, self-advocacy is required to receive accommodations. Are learners being prepared to talk about what might help them learn without submitting to stories that deny them their embodied personhood? After all, even a body learning online needs things to learn, and whether one is socially deemed –abled or –disabled and whether an exceptionality is physical or not, the physical must be attended to. Online learners need to be able to access a device that will enable them to access information and provide responses. They need to have means to communicate with instructors and classmates that are suitable. They need to have chances to have their personhood acknowledged and their body accepted—whether anyone sees it or not.

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