Supporting Students with Disabilities in Accessing Higher Education Online

An opportunity for better and more inclusive education by rethinking our strategies.

GUEST COLUMN | by Cathi Allen

The pandemic has undoubtedly changed the way we think about education. In many ways, we have an opportunity to offer better and more inclusive education for students of all abilities and rethink our strategies to accommodate their individual needs.

As an educator and Executive Director at the Inclusive Higher Education Certificate Program (IHECP), I believe that rethinking conventional teaching methods makes education more accessible. At IHECP, we’re dedicated to raising expectations of what students with learning, intellectual and developmental disabilities can accomplish. Through our inclusive college services, they learn important life skills that allow them to seek meaningful employment, be a part of their communities and gain independence.

‘Online learning means that we’re reaching beyond one student to so many more people who could benefit from learning…’

We knew from the beginning that traditional ways of learning in college were not suitable for these students. I think that this is a challenge for the educational community in general. For many years, we’ve taught in classrooms where students sit down and listen to teachers who impart the knowledge. This paradigm shifts once we become more intentional in the way we use technology to benefit students.

After fourteen months of being online, one thing that I’ve been thrilled about is that technology has supported my students to continue their education. I attribute this success to our pre-pandemic strategy, as we already had a blended learning system that helped us transition to remote education.

Here are some of my thoughts on offering inclusive education for higher education (HE) students.

Choosing technology that works for students

Educational technology promotes executive function and independence skills in students. This is important since students need these competencies as they transition from school to work.

Another significant advantage is that instructors can design programs that are suited to their students’ specific needs. Most university platforms have a language and reading-based interface. However, our students learn better with the help of learning platforms like NEO, which has a graphical interface that integrates with text-to-speech software. They need to log in and learn independently, and we use the platform to deliver lessons, both in-person and remotely.

Focusing on the learning process

HE needs to adapt to new learning environments. For example, whereas I used to teach using a SMART Board, I now record myself going through the content so my students can revisit the lectures later. It also helps to chunk the learning material into smaller, individual concepts. In this way, instructors can use repetition for prior learning, embed deeper learning, and show students that they are learning using gamification elements (points, badges).

Another important aspect is aligning our competencies with what we’re actually teaching and knowing when our students reach them. With our learning management system, we can see progress in real-time as students work through lessons, we see where our students are, where they’re falling behind. All of this is more difficult to achieve in regular classes.

Finding what works for students

In my classes, I use a specific routine every time: lecture, survey, small group project. My students recognize this routine, know what comes next, and engage with other students since it’s important to know that there are other students out there.

They love competing against one another, and I use this time to check in on what they’ve learned and see which content areas to revisit. To increase engagement, I’ll leave a Zoom Room open so students can have lunch together. It’s amazing to hear the discussions that go back and forth with that.

Changing the way we assess knowledge

Online learning provides more opportunities for meaningful, transformative feedback. We teach students to focus on the quest for knowledge, not to aspire to a specific grade. We personalize learning by accommodating their learning preferences.

Traditional assessment methods require students to send written assignments, which doesn’t work for some of my students. If you’re looking for depth of knowledge, audio/video assignments are brilliant. For example, in NEO, my students submit a video or audio recording, and I respond in the same manner. It’s a learning process in which I get to know my students and what they need to succeed.

Online education can and should be accessible to all students

During this time, a pleasant surprise was seeing my students’ parents join the remote courses to check in on their children and offer their support. Online learning means that we’re reaching beyond one student to so many more people who could benefit from learning digital literacy skills, for example.

Moving on, we need to plan for tech, whether we’re in person, online, or blended. My final piece of advice for teachers is: get to know your learning platform very well. HE can and should provide flexible and personalized education for students of all abilities.

Cathi Allen is the founder and Executive Director of the Inclusive Higher Education Certificate Program (IHECP), in partnership with the Metropolitan State University of Denver School of Education, located on the downtown Denver, Colorado Auraria Campus. The IHECP creates and administers higher education programming and supports students with learning, intellectual, and developmental disabilities who wish to continue their education beyond secondary school. Connect with Cathi through LinkedIn.


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