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Overcoming the challenges of online learning for students with disabilities

The COVID-19 pandemic will have far-reaching consequences for years to come. The past year has caused significant disruption to the education system, with the need to maintain safe distances resulting in a rapid shift to online learning. The swift nature of this change and the lack of tangible government support in this area have been detrimental for many schools and students.

This effect is particularly pronounced for students who live with disabilities. In some ways, online learning may provide inclusivity for students who have difficulties navigating the traditional classroom environment. However, the nature of online learning and its reliance upon technology that isn’t always well-designed for group education can leave some students at serious disadvantages. Closed captioning accuracy in live teaching video calls is often subpar, and not all online tools are compatible with assistive technology. Besides, the disruption in itself causes additional stress to students with mental, emotional, or learning challenges.

Every student deserves to thrive during their education. Let’s take a closer look at areas teachers and parents can place effort in to empower students with disabilities to overcome the issues that online learning can present.

Discuss the challenges

One of the problems that have plagued remote schooling during this pandemic is a lack of effective communication. There hasn’t always been a lot of consistency in remote working measures, and there’s a great deal of uncertainty. Consequently, students can feel confused and disrupted. This is certainly not generally the fault of teachers, parents, or students. However, the only way to overcome the challenges of remote learning for disabled students is to make time to discuss them.

Wherever possible, this should be a meeting between not just teachers and parents but students, too. Leaving the student out of the process doesn’t just serve to make them feel disempowered, but it also prevents teachers and parents from gaining key insights. In many cases, the student will be best able to let you into the elements of remote learning that present the biggest challenges or those they are anxious about. Together with parents, you can examine what aspects of their life at home may present hurdles to learning.

Read more: How to keep parents engaged in school activities using an LMS

Aim to be solutions-oriented during these communications. Listen to what the other is saying and communicate what the issues you experience as a teacher are. See where you can work together to create positive ideas for everyone involved. Talk about accessible tools, such as browser extensions, that they may find helpful in the short-term and make a roadmap for the long-term. Arrange to regularly check-in, and formalize a method for communications when there are issues in the meantime.

Read more: 9 Easy mindfulness activities for the virtual classroom

Put wellness first

Often when discussing the challenges disabled students face with remote learning, a lot of the focus is on the methods. However, all the accommodations and teaching approaches in the world won’t help them overcome these challenges if they are not feeling at their best. As such, part of the approach needs to be putting their wellness and wellbeing first.

One of the standout issues that students face is additional stress and pressure. This is amplified for students with disabilities. They are not necessarily receiving the in-school support they are used to. There’s the necessity to use different technology. They also tend to attend shorter, less engaging classes. As a consequence, the feeling that they are falling behind is a recipe for anxiety.

Be sure to provide them with advice about mitigating stress, such as ensuring they get the rest and exercise they need. Encourage students to practice mindfulness that keeps them focused on the present. Adding music to the school day has also been shown to have many positive effects. Check in with them occasionally, and make it clear you are open to chatting should they feel additional strain.

Read more: 9 Easy mindfulness activities for the virtual classroom

As a teacher, one of the most helpful tools in ensuring your students’ wellness and wellbeing is a willingness to be flexible. This is a difficult time for everyone, and there is a great deal of uncertainty. Students who live with disabilities may deal with challenges revolving around adapting to new methods and, in all likelihood, social isolation.

Be open to providing extra time for assignments if they need it. Provide alternatives to class tools if current ones don’t work in their environment. If you can occasionally offer additional attention, that is great, but also be sure that this isn’t to the detriment of your own wellbeing.

Connect with services and tools

To empower students with disabilities to overcome the challenges of online learning, they need resources. Unfortunately, the education system is not always able to provide this without a lot of bureaucracy and prodding. Teachers and parents often need to put additional effort into advocating the tools their students need to thrive.

Your student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is a useful approach in this scenario. It outlines the student’s needs alongside any accommodations that should be made for their education. If your school provides special education measures, they must continue providing these in remote situations. Approaching the school’s special education administrator is the best first step in requesting the needed resources for the student. These can be additional equipment, home therapies, or extended examination times.

The special education administrator should also connect you and the parent with organizations that donate or give access to edtech or adaptive tools designed for your child’s challenges. Often the application process for these can be quite involved. It's important to work together to provide evidence that demonstrates what the student’s needs are, how the equipment will help, and why it can be instrumental to their educational success.

Read more: How edtech is improving special education


The past year has been difficult for many students, but especially for those living with disabilities. Teachers and parents can best help them overcome these by communicating about their ongoing needs and working to obtain appropriate accommodations. There also needs to focus on maintaining students’ wellness and not initiating more stress than they are already experiencing.