Online education has the possibility to open the door for learners who are challenged by traditional classroom environments.

When many of us think about the advantages provided by online education, we think about the convenience or taking a course on our own time, and from our own homes. However, there is one group of learners for whom e-learning has completely transformed their learning experience. For learners with disabilities or special needs, online education has been a game-changing development in terms of the educational opportunities it provides.

Students with special needs constitute a wide range of individuals, from those with physical handicaps to cognitive or developmental impairments. E-learning is not always the right solution. Some of these individuals need personal, one-on-one attention with qualified educators to make progress.

However, for others, e-learning offers an opportunity to progress at their own pace, without the additional social pressures of a classroom, and with access to the kind of assistive technology they may be unable or embarrassed to use in public situations. Here are a few of the main benefits e-learning brings to these learners.

Students can participate on their own terms.

For many learners, especially those with autism, social anxiety, or speech difficulties, classrooms can be particularly fraught environments. They live in dread of being called on by an instructor, and they may have difficulty focusing on the teacher in the midst of environmental distractions.

Learning at home, these students can engage with material at a pace that feels comfortable to them. They can respond to question in a forum, reducing the pressure of an on-the-spot response. Online environments can also make it easier for them to complete group assignments. And if they do interact via video or phone, they can do so one-on-one with the teacher, rather than in front of all their peers.

E-learning reduces the need to travel.

Travel is a huge barrier for any learners with mobility issues. Not only can it be difficult to access transportation, travel times are usually longer, and their destination may not be fully equipped with accessible facilities.

Furthermore, disabled learners may rely on assistive technology to complete assignments, such as voice controls, refreshable braille readers, or sip and puff systems. Learners may rely on these tools to take notes, but feel embarrassed to use them in a classroom. A home environment can provide the privacy to access courses in whatever way works best for them.

Educators can adapt courses to address specific needs.

In a traditional classroom environment, educators must split their attention across many learners. They may not have the opportunity to give individual learners the attention they need to complete a course, no matter how much they may want to.

However, when it comes to online learning, educators can devote more time to learners with special needs by scheduling extra time with them to work through lessons or by adjusting assignment requirements to meet their abilities. This added attention keeps special needs learners from being lost in the system when a few easy adjustments might see them through.

Follow established accessibility guidelines:

Accessibility has no one-size-fits-all solutions. Solutions that work well for one group may exclude another, and vice versa. However, if your goal is to create a course that is accessible to the broadest group of learners, there’s many easy gains to be made that will help learners with special needs—and improve the user-friendliness of your site at the same time:

Include both audio and visual formats.

Your content should be accessible in multiple forms. Learners don’t need to be blind or deaf to have difficulty seeing or hearing different media forms. By providing both formats, you give your learners options.

Use alt tags on images and headers in your copy.

Screen readers and tab navigation are designed to work with HTML markup in certain ways. When you upload an image, include an alt description that accurately describes what is in the image, so that screen readers know what it represents. And include headers in your copy so that those using tab navigation can easily skim through content.

Enable options for special keyboards and tab navigation.

Learners with motor control difficulties rely on special navigational tools, such as alternative keyboards, to move through your site. Make sure your course supports these navigation tools.

Provide many large, prominent “back” buttons.

We all make mistakes. Furthermore, many of us learn by experimentation—especially online. And when it comes to learners with disabilities or special needs, the ability to back up after taking a wrong turn is essential.

Avoid crowding with large, readable text and lots of white space.

Tight, small text is bad design to begin with. Now imaging your learners have poor eyesight, suffer from Cerebral Palsy or Parkinson’s, or have broken their arm and need to navigate with their bad hand. Not only is cramped text harder to read, buttons and links that don’t have enough click padding around them are hard to click. Give your designs room to breathe.

Use contrast and descriptive labels with your infographics.

Colorblindness affects approximately 8% of men and 0.5% of women. The most common form, red-green, makes it difficult for learners to distinguish between some hues. If you have graphics or design elements that rely on color, choose colors that have light/dark contrast, use patterns effectively, and label all elements. If in doubt, put your graphic through a black and white filter to see if it still makes sense. If it doesn’t, it may be unreadable by some learners.

Accessibility is a complex topic, and individual needs will change based on their condition. If you know what group you are designing your course for, or if you have a specific individual you want to help, you may need to discuss your course design with an accessibility expert. In the meantime, focus on the low-hanging fruit. You never know who you might reach.

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