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Special Education

A common myth is that online learning is only for certain types of students and thus not appropriate for students with disabilities. The reality is that students with a wide variety of disabilities are achieving success in online learning.

Web Site Accessibility

One issue is to make sure that your web site is accessible to students with specific disabilities. For example, students with visual handicaps might use screen readers – web browsers that speak text presented on a web page – but screen reader programs can’t “read” graphics. However, it’s possible to add a description (called a tag) into a web page that describes each graphic and then screen readers can “read” the graphic to the reader.2

Section 508 of the US Rehabilitation Act provides regulations for federal agencies on making information technology accessible to individuals with disabilities. Web sites that are 508 compliant adhere to all the standards required in this legislation.

Learning management system vendors may indicate that their software is 508 compliant but that doesn’t mean all of your course content will automatically be accessible. It simply means that the LMS functionality follows all of the standards. It is still possible to place non-accessible content into a 508 compliant platform. Using the example at the beginning of this subject, if graphics embedded throughout your courses don’t have tags for use by screen readers, then your courses will not be completely accessible even if your platform is 508 compliant.

Individual Education and 504 Plans

Beyond the issue of making sure your site and content is accessible is the support and accommodations required for students with disabilities. Any student that meets the federal definition of special education is required to have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) as specified in the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IEP specifies the nature of the student’s disability, the educational goals for the student and the specific accommodations and services that the student will receive as a result of his disability. An IEP is equally valid for students in both traditional and online classrooms.

Students with disabilities that don’t meet the federal definition of special education may still need accommodation as required by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Such students have 504 plans instead of an IEP. 504 plans are more common with students who have physical disabilities such as visual or hearing impairments.

A full-time online program that meets the definition of a local education agency has all the same responsibilities for meeting the needs of students with disabilities as does a traditional school. If a student is enrolled in a supplemental program, the student’s local school has ultimate responsibility for making sure the IEP or 504 plan is implemented to meet the needs of the student. However, the online learning program shares this responsibility by making sure that the required accommodations are addressed for the student in his online course. Just as is the case in a traditional school, many online learning programs will have staff dedicated to meeting the needs of students with disabilities. Depending on the specific needs of a student, these staff members may provide services directly to the student or may work with the student’s online teacher(s) to implement the necessary accommodations.

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