Meeting the learning needs of students with disabilities in online and remote environments

Following the closing of the residential campus in March 2020 for the Coronavirus pandemic, students reported obstacles to learning entirely online. While the shift in learning environments brought new challenges for everyone, here we try to address the difficulties faced by students with disabilities, for the digital components for blended instruction, or if at some point we have to return to fully online instruction.

In online environments, some standard accommodations, such as preferential seating, may not be necessary, while others, such as extended time for assessments will continue to be important. Some accommodations, such as shared course note-taking, may even work well as strategies to help the entire class adjust to blended learning conditions. The following strategies are based on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles, which focus on ways to make learning environments accessible to all students, reducing the need for individual accommodations.

Challenges Reported by Students with Disabilities Universal Design for Learning Strategies to Support All Students
Work load

Students reported feeling like the workload increased;

there was a greater emphasis on reading and writing;

it was hard to attend to and learn from online lectures

Provide adequate time to accomplish tasks (e.g., give assignments well ahead of the due dates);

provide structure and scaffolding;

record any synchronous sessions so students can review them;

provide multiple ways for students to participate in class;

keep recorded lectures short;

use frequent, low-stakes assessments


Students reported having to learn to use new digital tools, often with insufficient instruction


Give direct instruction (not just links) for students to learn to use any tools you use;

provide opportunities for guided practice before the tools need to be used to learn content or demonstrate understanding;

teach students online etiquette, e.g., muting microphones, using chat functions


We all found it hard to maintain our attention in long Zoom sessions;

video recorded lectures were hard to hear, professors sometimes spoke with their back to the camera;

videos without captions were assigned;

texts that cannot be read by screen readers were assigned


Make sure everyone can see and hear the content;

avoid very long Zoom whole class synchronous sessions, use small group meetings and online discussion forums to supplement;

make hyperlinks descriptive (avoid “click here”);

face the camera when speaking if you are recording your face, and

use videos with captions or provide captions (see resources below);

make text in presentations legible (large font, high color contrast);

provide multiple ways for students to participate


Faculty did not always respond to email;

office hours were filled

Use Moodle, email, and other platforms to provide frequent updates to students;

try to respond to student email by the end of the next work day;

expand office hours when possible, or use a scheduling tool to allow students to sign up directly for them

Loss of support systems and increase in stressors

Asynchronous learning requires students to be more autonomous, without external support from peers and faculty;

students had difficulty maintaining motivation & difficulty managing negative emotions;

faculty may not notice a student struggling

Meet with students one-on-one or in small groups to gauge how they are doing, both academically and personally;

balance structure and regular communications with flexibility;

consider “soft” and “hard” deadlines for assignments, be flexible;

provide back channels so students can communicate with each other for support;

remind students that they still have access to campus support services online

Resources for students

Koenigsberger Learning Center

Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) at University of Washington

Resources for faculty

Accessible Syllabus

Guidelines for ADA compliance for online courses

Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) at University of Washington

Slides from a webinar hosted by Educause – Universal Design for Learning

Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities (COLSD)

Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities 2016 Annual Publication: Equity Matters

Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (CATL) Newsletter

Technology tips

Video recordings made through Kaltura and Webex have closed captioning features that you can edit and upload to your Moodle course.

Google Slides has a live captioning feature that works as a screen-share in Zoom (and you can import a PowerPoint into Google Slides).

Zoom will transcribe a previously recorded session that has been saved to the Cloud.

Here’s how to provide extended time for students on Moodle quizzes.