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Viewpoints and Findings from the REL Mid-Atlantic

Going the Distance: Online Strategies for Helping Students with Disabilities
By Emily Vislosky, WestEd and Joey Hunziker, Director of Young Adult Initiatives, National Center for Learning Disabilities

Going the Distance: Online Strategies for Helping Students with Disabilities

As schools across the country physically closed this spring, educators and students shifted to online and distance learning. This swift and unexpected change forced educators to rely on different—and sometimes new—approaches to support students’ learning. Finding effective practices that advance distance learning for students with disabilities, who represent one-fifth of our nation’s school-age learners, is a critical concern.

In response, many organizations are offering resources, tools, and support to educators, parents, and students. For example, Google; Microsoft Education; and Educating All Learners, a coalition of national organizations committed to education equity, are reaching out to educators during this challenge. Decision makers need to know how to choose tools that will work for this group of students.

At REL Mid-Atlantic, our mission is to partner with educators to apply evidence and prepare students for success. Although rigorous, experimental research on this topic is difficult to develop, research on online learning for students with disabilities suggests a number of promising practices:

  • Professional development and teacher support. In a 2014 survey on their sense of preparedness for virtual teaching, only 3 percent of teachers thought they had the knowledge to teach students with disabilities virtually, because it required a different set of competencies, namely personalizing instruction to individual students.1 For online teaching to be effective, teachers must have support before and throughout the process.
  • Family engagement. Families take on additional responsibilities in a distance learning setting. They facilitate instruction, monitor progress, and help integrate interventions.2 Meeting the needs of students with disabilities requires increased communication between parents and teachers and helps parents ensure their children's specific disability-related needs are addressed, a frequent worry.2, 3
  • Accessibility. Online learning platforms must be accessible for students with disabilities (for example, by captioning media and providing access to screen reading technology).1 Vendors and in-house course designers should be encouraged to maximize the fit between students’ capabilities and access, including the fit between language used and the reading skills of students, so they can progress without additional reading support.3, 4
  • Instructional strategies to support personalization. Online instruction for students with disabilities must incorporate personalization and give students choice in when, how, and what content they engage with.4, 5 Students’ progress should be monitored early and often.3 And schools must be able to access online performance data to monitor students’ progress.6 Students should be able to interact and collaborate with instructors and peers to encourage engagement and development of social skills.3, 4 The format of interaction also matters: in one setting, students with learning disabilities and other health impairments had limited performance improvements when supported with online tutorials. The size of those effects varied depending on the frequency of interactions with students and their specific accommodations.7

The following are some suggestions education leaders should consider when working online with students with disabilities based on research findings.

Cornerstones of effective online learning for students with disabilities
Professional development and teacher support8 Family engagement2
  • Train and prepare teachers to be adept users of online learning platforms.
  • Involve families early in the process.
  • Include real-time support on selected platforms.
  • Provide parents with opportunities for communication and engagement with teachers.
  • Provide virtual professional development as teachers adopt the new approaches.
  • Encourage parents to support on-site instruction and help educators meet children’s individualized education plan and 504 accommodations.
Accessibility Instructional strategies to support personalization
  • Choose online learning tools with accessibility features that support students with different disabilities.1
  • Encourage students to voice opinions on instructional practices in and outside the classroom.4
  • Ensure teachers and students can communicate and share data to support instruction.3
  • Involve students in creating equitable online learning environments by encouraging choice and voice in instruction and the online learning process.4
  • Adopt virtual systems or platforms that are compatible or interoperable with the schools’ existing systems.3
  • Practice empathy to accommodate different learning styles and needs.5
  • Help teachers and leaders use design thinking, Universal Design for Learning concepts, or both to ensure a fit among learner needs, teaching practices, and technology.9, 10
Notes: According to the Interactive Design Foundation, design thinking “is a non-linear, iterative process which seeks to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test.”9 Booth et al. 2020 describe Universal Design for Learning as “evidence-based educational framework that supports the needs of all learners through the use of multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression.”10

Online education for students with disabilities offers many potential benefits, including the ability for students to work at their own pace and review the material as many times as they need. At REL Mid-Atlantic, we are continuing to partner with education leaders to ensure data and research help improve outcomes for these students.

1 Greer, D. L., Smith, S. J. & Basham, J. D. (2014). Practitioners’ perceptions of their knowledge, skills and competencies in online teaching of students with and without disabilities. Journal of the American Academy of Special Education Professionals, 150–165.

2 Smith, S. J., Burdette, P. J., Cheatham, G. A., & Harvey, S. P. (2016). Parental role and support for online learning of students with disabilities: A paradigm shift. Journal of Special Education Leadership, 29(2), 101–112.

3 Crouse, T., Rice, M., & Mellard, D. (2018). Learning to serve students with disabilities online: Teachers’ perspectives. Journal of Online Learning Research, 4(2), 123–-145. Retrieved from:

4 Rice, M. F. (2018). Supporting literacy with accessibility: Virtual school course designers’ planning for students with disabilities. Online Learning, 22(4), 161–179.

5 Betts, K., Cohen, A. H., Veit, D. P., Alphin, H. C., Broadus, C., & Allen, D. (2013). Strategies to increase online student success for students with disabilities. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 17(3), 49–64.

6 Connell, M. W., Johnston, S. C., Hall, T. E., & Stahl, W. (2017). Disconnected data: The challenge of matching activities to outcomes for students with disabilities in online learning. Journal of Online Learning Research, 3(1), 31–54.

7 Richardson, J. T. E. (2016). Face-to-face versus online tutorial support in distance education: Preference, performance, and pass rates in students with disabilities. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 29(1), 83–90.

8 Smith, S. J., Basham, J., Rice, M. F., & Carter, R. A. (2016). Preparing special educators for the K-12 online learning environments: A survey of teacher educators. Journal of Special Education Technology, 31(3), 170–178.

9 Interaction Design Foundation. (n.d.). Design thinking. Retrieved June 12, 2020, from

10 Boothe, K. A., Lohmann, M. J., & Owiny, R. (2020). Enhancing student learning in the online instructional environment through the use of universal design for learning. Networks: An Online Journal for Teacher Research, 22(1).