Students with disabilities enrol online ‘to avoid stigmatisation’

US study unmasks marginalisation that disabled learners face in higher education, say authors

November 2, 2015
Woman in wheelchair using laptop
Source: Alamy
No barrier: interviewees said digital learning made their disabilities ‘invisible’

Many students with disabilities are attracted to online learning because they feel less stigmatised than they do in the classroom, a study suggests.

Researchers at two US universities interviewed students with a range of disabilities taking online or blended programmes and found that more than half said that avoiding stigmatisation was a key reason for signing up.

Many of the interviewees, who were enrolled with higher education institutions across the US, highlighted how digital learning made their disabilities “invisible” and “offered the freedom to be viewed as a student without limitations”.

In contrast, they reported that their brick and mortar classroom experiences had been “draining”, “awkward” or “self-conscious”, and that they had found fellow students were “passive-aggressive”, held “false assumptions” or were “reluctant to understand”.

Writing in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, Susana Verdinelli of Walden University and Debbi Kutner of the University of Phoenix say that the findings expose “ableism assumptions” in traditional higher education.

“Pursuing education online appeared to integrate a more positive sense of self,” the paper says. “Participants’ spontaneous accounts of prejudice unmasked the reality that persons with disabilities experience marginalisation in education on a regular basis.”

The 35 interviewees cited several other positive aspects to online study, including the ability to manage pain, health or disability needs more effectively.

However, there were also drawbacks, including perceived isolation. Some students reported missing face-to-face interaction with classmates and lecturers, and some complained that it took longer to get responses from staff than it would in a campus situation.

Dr Verdinelli told Times Higher Education that no learning environment was perfect but that there were clear benefits to online education for students with disabilities.

“According to these participants, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks,” she said.

Walden University is an online college based in Minneapolis, while the University of Phoenix offers a mix of campus-based and online courses.

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