Navigating Online College Courses for Students with Learning Disabilities

Attending college courses online while living with a learning disability presents unique challenges. However, you are not alone in your fight to overcome these obstacles. There are plenty of strategies for addressing learning disorders so that you can make the most of your academic potential. With a little prep work and a lot of dedication, your college career can be a successful step toward the career that you’ve always wanted.

Understand Issues Faced by Students with Disabilities in Online Courses

Depending on your particular diagnosis, you may only have problems in certain classes, or you may face challenges across the board. The following are some common learning online student face.

  • Auditory processing disorder
  • People with an auditory processing disorder have difficulty distinguishing similar sounds and words. This results in trouble understanding and following verbal directions, distinguishing important sounds from background noise, and keeping focused during a verbal lecture. Some online courses make use of recorded lectures or video chat, which may be a challenge to students with an auditory processing disorder.
  • Dyscalculia
  • Students living with dyscalculia have a hard time solving math problems, using spatial reasoning, balancing a budget, reading maps and charts, and counting rapidly. The amount to which this impacts your online education will depend largely on which classes you are taking, but most universities require at least a few courses in mathematics.
  • Dysgraphia
  • Students with dysgraphia have difficulty with the physical act of writing, especially by hand. This can make it difficult to produce legible handwriting, align math problems correctly, and organize thoughts in written form. Courses that have a heavy writing component can be especially challenging for students with dysgraphia.
  • Dyslexia
  • Students with dyslexia have difficulty distinguishing between similar words and letters. This can affect their reading, writing, and speaking abilities. These students may also have trouble picking up on nonverbal cues, following idioms in language, and summarizing a body of information, which can create additional challenges, particularly in writing-based and foreign language classes. Online college courses frequently use chats and forums to connect students with the professor and each other, which can be challenging for students with dyslexia.
  • Visual processing disorder
  • Those with a visual processing disorder have trouble distinguishing different letters or shapes on a page. This can create particular difficulty reading texts, copying notes, reading maps, and legibly spacing handwriting. Cluttered and unclear webpages may be particularly difficult for these students in the online classroom.
  • Dyspraxia
  • People with dyspraxia have trouble with their physical movements. Students with this condition may have difficulty with the fine motor skills needed to use a keyboard, calculator, mouse, and numeric keypad. They can also have difficulty with verbal expression, which is required via Skype for some online courses.

Try Out Strategies for Successful Online Learning

In spite of these challenges, many students with learning disabilities can and do succeed at the college level. It will take adjustment and additional work, but with effort and dedication, anyone can succeed in online schools. Below you will find tips for students with learning disabilities to help you during your online courses.

Take charge of your education

It’s common for parents to take the main role in advocating for their children during high school. While this is fine in high school, colleges will expect you to speak up for yourself and seek out the help you need on your own. Many students avoid talking about their disabilities and only feel comfortable discussing them anonymously online. In fact, one study showed that of the 67% of students with learning disabilities who pursued college after high school, only 24% informed their professor and asked for some form of assistance. While this silence may seem more comfortable at the time, many of these students begin to struggle in class and have little recourse.

To avoid this, fill out any necessary paperwork for assistance and bring the issue to your professors on the first day of class. They are far more likely to be understanding if you work with them from the start than if you show up at the end of the semester with a failing grade and ask for lenience due to your learning disability. Make sure that any documentation about your disability is up-to-date. Some universities will not make allowances if the diagnosis is more than two years old without subsequent treatment.

Remember, there is no requirement for universities to test you for learning disabilities, and they are not legally allowed to ask you about them. You have to take charge to succeed, but always be respectful when requesting accomodation. Not every professor will know how to help a student with learning disabilities, so be prepared to suggest solutions that play to your strong points.

  • Students who have difficulty perceiving the written word may want to request the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge through video chat rather than through a chat room forum. Chat rooms move quickly and can be difficult to keep up with if you have trouble reading at a fast pace.
  • Students who have trouble with verbal lectures may ask professors if there are transcripts of their lessons available. If there are not, this is a good opportunity to use dictation technology.
  • It may also be reasonable to request extended deadlines on papers or more time on timed online tests. Work closely with your professors on these issues and be sure to ask in advance, not the night before a paper is due.

Know your diagnosis

One of the most important steps in advocating for yourself is knowing your condition and being able to explain it in a way that others can understand. Knowing your individual challenges will help you prepare for them and determine what sort of considerations you should ask for to help you in your learning experience. This will also help you develop an online course schedule that you will be able to manage throughout the semester.

Know how to work around your disability

You will not find the same provisions in college that you did in high school. This is a time of greater independence, which also means greater responsibility. While universities are required to make accommodations for students with disabilities, it is up to the university to determine what is a reasonable accommodation and what is not. If you find yourself struggling, try a lighter course load that will give you more time to learn the material. If you know a particular type of course will be difficult for you, space those courses out across a few semesters. This will prevent having to tackle your most-challenging courses all at once.

Research accomodations

The best way to ensure success in your online courses is to make sure you’re attending the right college, because not all schools treat learning disabilities in the same way. Some have fully formed programs for students with learning diabilities, while others have nothing set in place and will have to improvise to help you with your particular needs. Look at The K & W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities or Peterson’s Colleges with Programs for Students with Learning Disabilities or Attention Deficit Disorders as you begin researching. Talk with your guidance counselor to find more suggestions of colleges that might work for you.

Investigate helpful technologies

Modern technology offers an array of help to students with learning disabilities. Spell check, for example, is found in most word processing programs and can help students who have a hard time distinguishing letters. Text-to-speech screen readers can convert written instructions into verbal ones, while dictation programs can do the exact opposite. If you have difficulty typing, but are good at communicating your thoughts verbally, try a program like Dragon Naturally Speaking, which will take your spoken word and convert it into text.

Furthermore, ad blocker technology can eliminate distracting and flashing elements from webpages to make online work easier. Electronic calendars and alerts can help you stay on top of work and remember when assignments are due. Leverage these resources and research new technology that can help you demonstrate your ability to engage in high-level work.

Don’t procrastinate

One of the best ways to ensure your success is to prepare now. You should try to take challenging courses during your high school career to prepare both mentally and academically for college courses. Keep in mind that some of the classes that aren’t necessary for graduation from high school might be necessary for college. Take this time to start assuming responsibility and developing skills you will need for your college courses.

If you feel like you need extra help, pursue a summer internship or even a regular college dedicated to helping students with learning disabilities. These programs will not only give you a standard education, but also teach you how to work with your disability, play to your strengths, and be successful both in college and after you graduate. This type of specialized help can be just what you need to start out on the right path in your education.