Guide for Online Colleges & Disabilities


Though the end result takes many different forms, the ultimate goal for people in achieving higher education is growth, opportunity, and fulfilling their potential, either personally or professionally. More so than just the obligatory placement tests and final examinations, college is about testing yourself. It’s about pushing past limits, not being bound or defined by them. No one understands that mentality more than those living with a physical or cognitive disability. For them, everyday life poses a unique set of challenges. But those challenges are not limitations. With the right accommodations, they can be overcome. Higher education is no exception. Thanks to special provisions under the law, school-sponsored resources, new adaptive technologies, and a multitude of non-profit support groups, anyone with the will and desire to attend college can achieve that goal.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, roughly 11 percent of all undergraduate students reported having some form of disability. With an estimated 20.2 million students enrolled in American colleges in 2015, it’s safe to extrapolate that there are over 2 million students with disabilities currently attending higher education institutions nationwide. The goal of Accredited Online Colleges has always been to provide prospective students with the resources they need to choose the perfect school to fit their needs. With such an undeniable demographic of students with disabilities, we wanted to create this special guide to not only help them choose the right school, but also to give a thorough overview of the resources and accommodations available to them at whichever institution they ultimately choose.

This guide is by no means meant to be comprehensive. Rather, its purpose is to serve as a starting point, one of many resources for students to use in their own research. Ultimately, it is up to you to determine both your needs and which school best meets them.

Your Rights Under the Law

Most schools long ago enacted their own non-discrimination policies, meant to protect the rights of people of all colors and creeds. However, while those policies went a long way in helping to reduce discrimination against all people—including those with disabilities—they historically did less to actually accommodate those who need special considerations. Where those policies fell short, the federal government passed two key laws to ensure that students with physical and cognitive disabilities are afforded the same opportunities as their fellow classmates.

Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was a seminal moment in the quest for disabled rights. The “Rehab Act,” as it is commonly known, was birthed from the original Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1954. Before that 1954 Act, the very idea of disabled rights was barely a consideration, let alone having any actual laws on the books to protect them. But with the flood of wounded soldiers returning home from war between the 1920s and 40s, government-sponsored vocational programs were soon developed, culminating in the 1954 act. With the increased awareness that came from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the law was continually amended, broadening the services offered, until it was greatly expanded when it came up for renewal in 1972. Congress dropped the wording that made the bill strictly a vocational program and added in several provisions regarding affirmative actions and accessibility for those living with disabilities.

The key provision that laid the groundwork for all disability legislation that followed appears in Section 504:

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 504. (a): No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States… shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…

What does this mean for you?

Colleges and universities that receive any federal funding are designated as public, non-profit institutions. Because of that federal financial assistance, they fall under the provisions of Section 504 of the Rehab Act. By law, they cannot discriminate against any person with when it comes to admittance into their programs based solely on their disabilities.

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)

The Rehab Act ultimately gave birth to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Instead of having provisions included for them in another, broader act, the ADA was written to be a much more comprehensive piece of legislation that dealt exclusively with the civil rights of those with disabilities. Whereas the 1973 Rehab Act applies only to federally funded agencies and institutions, the Americans with Disabilities Act extends its application to many key areas in both the public and private sectors, as well as gives authority to several government agencies to enforce the new provisions.

Key Provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act

  • Employment: If an individual is qualified for an employment opportunity, and can fulfill the job duties with reasonable accommodations, they can’t be denied the opportunity bases solely on their disability. They must be given the same considerations as every qualified applicant.

    Enforcing agencies:

  • Public Services: Protects the right to access public services by those with disabilities. All services must be able to accommodate the needs of those with a disability.


    • Public bus service
    • Government meetings
    • Public schools and universities
    • National and state parks

    Enforcing agencies:

  • Private Entities/Public Accommodations:
    All public places, regardless of private ownership or federal funding status, must be readily accessible to people with disabilities.


    • Public gathering places (restaurants, movie theaters, etc.)
    • Lodging (hotels, motels, inns)
    • Retail stores
    • Social service centers

    Enforcing agencies:

  • Telecommunications: Requires that telephone companies provide telecommunication relay services for hearing-impaired or speech-impaired individuals. Also includes Closed Captioning provisions for television broadcasts.

    Enforcing agencies:

What does this mean for you?

Like the 1973 Rehab Act before it, Title II of the ADA protects the rights of people with disabilities and their ability to access federally funded institutions, which again includes all public schools and universities. However, the new provisions in Title III now guarantee accessibility to all public gathering places, which would include private colleges and universities as well. Between Section 504 and Titles II and III of the ADA, no school can deny a qualified applicant based solely on their disability if they can participate in the program with reasonable accommodations. It is also the responsibility of the school to provide those accommodations in order to stay compliant with the law.

Choosing the Right Program

The road from high school to postsecondary education is one with an infinite number of paths. Navigating to the right program can be a difficult journey in and of itself, before the hard work of higher learning even begins. With so many programs to choose from, including both online and traditional campus-based classes, every factor – location, cost, reputation, career outlook, etc. – must be taken into consideration. Those with a disability also have several other considerations which could make the choice harder, or easier, depending on the accommodations they need and the services available at their desired school.

Exploring School Resources

Though all schools are willing (and required by law) to accommodate those with special needs, their ability to effectively do so may vary. According to the U.S. Department of Education, a postsecondary institution “does not have to make adjustments that would fundamentally alter the nature of a service, program, or activity, or that would result in an undue financial or administrative burden.” Some programs or activities could be so specialized that they don’t allow much room for accommodation. Likewise, smaller, less-well-funded schools might not have the financial means to provide the assisted services or adaptive equipment needed.

When searching for a school and their ability to accommodate your disability, the most important place to start is with their disability office, resource officer, or ADA coordinator. When presented with the specifics of your disability, and a list of needed accommodations, the disability office will be able to tell you if, and when, they can make any adjustments for you.

For a directory of school disability offices, see Section 7 of this guide.

Disclosing Your Disability

When transitioning from high school to college, there is a major shift in both your responsibilities and the responsibilities of the school toward you, as it relates to your disability. In high school, if a student is disabled, it is the responsibility of the school district to identify the student’s educational needs and provide any special education, related aids, or services necessary to meet them. However, a postsecondary institution is only required to provide necessary accommodations to ensure that they don’t discriminate on the basis of a disability. It is not their responsibility to identify your needs and provide you an education. It is your responsibility to inform them of your needs, then they will do what they can to accommodate you within their existing programs.

That said, disclosing a disability is completely voluntary at the college level. You have no obligation to inform the school of any impairment. However, if you want any special accommodations or academic adjustments, you must properly disclose and document your disabilities. The earlier you inform them of your needs, the more likely they will be able to accommodate them in time.

Tip: If you have an individualized education program (IEP) or Section 504 plan from high school, it may help identify services that have been effective for you when consulting a college disability office. There are many differences between college and high school education, so what worked before might not necessarily work (or be available) now, but it is a good starting point if you have one.

Defining and Documenting Disabilities

As long as there have been ordered systems put in place, there have been people who try to manipulate and take advantage of them for their own personal gain. Unfortunately, the same is true when it comes to disabilities and higher education. Recently, there has been an increasing epidemic of enterprising slackers faking cognitive disabilities in order to get what they think will be an easier path to college success. Because of issues like this, and with the government’s long history of dealing with fraudulent social security claims, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (and its enforcing agencies) defines what a disability is in regards to the law, as well as establishes guidelines for documenting them in order to be protected under its provisions. Most colleges and universities follow these same documentation standards when complying with the ADA on their campuses and in their programs.

How does the ADA define a disability?

The Americans with Disabilities Act does not clearly define specific ailments that they consider to be a disability. There is no list of individual disabilities and qualifying criteria. Rather, the ADA gives a broad definition of a disability in regards to the 1990 law. A disabled individual is defined by the ADA as:

“…a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”

What does this mean for me?

In this context, the definition of a disability is a legal one, not medical. Because of this, the ADA’s definition could differ from how a disability is defined under other laws. And while a person could be diagnosed with a medical disability, the diagnosis might not be considered to substantially limit a major life activity, as outlined by the ADA. If your disability does not substantially limit you from participation in a school’s program, the school is not required to make any special accommodations for you.

Also, it is important to note that while a medical diagnosis is not necessarily a qualifying disability, those qualifying disabilities must still be medically determinable.

What documentation does a school require?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) defines a medically determinable impairment as “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities that can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” Put simply, a person can’t claim symptoms as a disability. They can only claim a diagnosis, backed by medical evidence. Therefore, proper documentation is required before applying for government benefits or for protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The same documentation required by the SSA is usually enough to satisfy most colleges and universities when seeking accommodations. However, there may be extra requirements as schools often recognize learning disabilities and short-term illness or injury that the Social Security Administration does not. A learning disability may not hinder you from seeking gainful employment, but it could substantially limit the activity of attending college, and therefore falls under the provisions of the ADA.

In general, any documentation submitted to a school’s disability office should include the following:

  • a clearly stated diagnosis
  • current information
  • an educational, developmental, and medical history
  • a supported diagnosis
  • a description of the student’s functional limitations
  • a list of needed accommodations or adjustments
  • the evaluators’ professional credentials

A sample of required documentation for specific disabilities is listed below:


Required Documentation


Documentation of an ADHD diagnosis made by someone with appropriate professional credentials, based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and showing a recent history (usually within the last 5 years).

Visual Impairments

Provide a patient history including educational, developmental, and medical documentation of diagnosis and the functional limitation. Provide technical details for conditions other than blindness including eye exams, fusional ranges, and depth perception.

Autism Spectrum Disorders

Diagnosis may vary based on the version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders used at the time, but generally include Autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, and Pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified. Documentation should include both diagnosis and patient history plus recommended accommodations.

Communication Disorders

Communication disorders can include a broad range of conditions, most often those affecting speech. Some common conditions include Language Disorders, Childhood-Onset Fluency Disorder (also known as stuttering), Speech Sound Disorder/Phonological Disorder, Social or Practical Communication Disorders. Diagnosis must be made by an expert in the field showing patient history, testing, and needed accommodations.

Hearing Impairments

Diagnosis should be made by someone with appropriate professional medical credentials. Test results should include specifics on hearing loss and functional capability.

Learning Disorders

Diagnosis should be made by a licensed professional based on criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Documentation should include recent scholastic updates and limitations.

Physical/Medical Disorders

Include both the initial evaluation and diagnosis along with an update. As many physical and medical conditions can change over time, documents must be recent. Specify needed accommodations or limitations.

Again, this list is not comprehensive or universal. Always check with a school’s disability office to find out what specific documentation they require.

Reasonable Accommodations

Under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, schools must provide reasonable accommodations as not to discriminate against any student with a disability from participating in their programs. Those accommodations can vary greatly depending on the student’s impairment, as well as the facility, program needs, and available technologies. However, all schools are prepared to assist their disabled students and have a number of programs and measures in place.

Common Adjustments

Physical Accessibility

All facilities subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act must adhere to the ADA Accessibility Guidelines. If a school provides housing, they must also provide accessible housing that adheres to the ADAAG.


  • wheelchair ramps
  • wheelchair doorway access
  • accessible signs
  • accessible restroom facilities
  • elevators
  • designated handicap parking

Academic Adjustments

Schools can make adjustments to their academic programs to accommodate disabilities, as long as they don’t lower or substantially change essential requirements.


  • arranging for priority registration
  • reducing a course load
  • substituting courses
  • extended time for testing
  • allowing the use of audio recorders where otherwise prohibited

Auxiliary Services

Schools may provide physical assistants to aid the student with certain aspects of a class.


  • note takers
  • readers
  • sign language interpreters

Auxiliary Aids

As technology continues to advance, there is no shortage of devices to aid in a disabled student’s learning. Schools are required to provide these devices (or their equivalent) where needed.


  • taped texts
  • videotext displays
  • talking calculators
  • electronic readers
  • Braille calculators, printers, or typewriters
  • voice synthesizers
  • specialized gym equipment
  • TTY devices for dorm telephones

It is important to note that, under the ADA, the school is not required to provide personal attendants, individually prescribed devices, readers, tutors, or typing services for personal use or study. They are only required to provide aid and accommodation in-class and on-campus. Also, they are not required to provide the specific auxiliary aids requested, nor the most sophisticated one, as long as they can prove that the aids they do provide effectively meet the need of the student. The school does have flexibility in choosing what aid it provides. Therefore, it is important to clearly state and document your individual needs to the school’s disability office. Then, the appropriate available aids and services can be chosen in close coordination between you and the disability coordinator.

Distance Education

By its very nature, Distance Education eliminates many of the challenges faced by disabled students when attending college. Often, in a home-based setting, the reasonable accommodations facilitated by a school either don’t apply, are more easily instituted, or are already built into the delivery of the program. As with any coursework, there will still be obstacles, but students may find online programs to be a more attractive option than campus-based classes, depending on their goals.

Physical Accessibility

Since many programs are offered 100% online from the comfort of home, the physical accessibility issues of going to class on campus are virtually non-existent. Most likely, those living with a physical disability have already made the necessary adjustments in their homes, or have incorporated adaptive equipment to make their lives easier. When home is also the classroom, the physical accommodations have either already been made, or are not needed. And if a program does require any on-campus visits – either for registration, orientation, special classes, or lab work – accessibility will still be guaranteed under the ADA.

Academic Adjustments

The academic adjustments schools often make in order to accommodate both physical and cognitive disabilities are sometimes already addressed in the built-in flexibility of most online degree programs. For example:

Adjustments to Traditional Program

Distance Learning Program

Reducing a course load

Many online programs are designed for busy, working professionals, and therefore have lighter, part-time options that their traditional, on-campus counterparts don’t have.

Adjusted schedule

Many online course are delivered asynchronously, meaning that the lectures and course materials are pre-recorded and can be accessed at any time, on the student’s schedule.

Computer access

Online coursework and materials are delivered electronically via computer more often than in traditional classes, making them easier to be used in conjunction with adaptive software.

Extended time for assignments

While online programs do have set deadlines for assignments, they are often more fluid, meaning that they can often be done in less or more time, depending on the student’s schedule and needs.

Extended time for testing

The same fluid deadlines can often be true for test taking in online courses. And since tests are delivered and taken electronically, there can be more flexibility in adjusting any timed component depending on the student’s need.

Alternate format for exam access

Since online tests are delivered electronically via computer, they eliminate the need for pen and paper for those whose disability would prevent them from taking the test traditionally.

Distraction-reduced testing environment

Test are taken online, in the comfort of the student’s home, without the distractions of testing in a classroom full of other students.

Recorded lectures

Most lectures for online courses are pre-recorded, or recorded during the initial broadcast, and can be accessed anytime (and repeatedly) by the student at their convenience.

These are just examples of some ways in which distance education is already tailored to the needs of some disabled students. Of course, schools are still willing and able to adjust the traditional online format in order to accommodate any disability.

Auxiliary Aids

Because distance learning courses are delivered online via a computer, they are easily compatible with many adaptive electronics and software, some of which you may already own and utilize and others which can be provided by the institution. Some common auxiliary aids utilized in distance learning include:

Auxiliary Aid


Abbreviation Expanders

Software that saves keystrokes by creating shortcuts for commonly used words

Alternative Keyboards

Expands or reduces input options, and can also group keys by color, location, and images


Downloadable audio files of written text, including textbooks or auxiliary reading materials

Electronic Math Worksheets

Organizes and aligns math problems, and often utilizes speech synthesizers to read problems aloud

Freeform Database Software

Used in conjunction with word processing software, allows for easy notetaking by “jotting down” relevant information of any length and on any subject, which can be retrieved later by typing any fragment of the original note

Graphic Organizers and Outlining Software

Sorts written material in visual ways

Optical Character Recognition Software

Allows printed material to be scanned and then read aloud for the student

Speech-recognition Software

Translates audio dictation into onscreen text

Speech Synthesizers

Allows the text on a computer screen to be read aloud

Word-prediction Software

Saves time and effort by suggesting frequently used words with fewer keystrokes while typing

Disability Office Directory

If you live with a disability and need accommodations, your first point of contact when searching for any higher education program should be the school’s disability office. From there, you will be connected with the appropriate resource officer or ADA coordinator who can walk you through the list of accommodations available to you, and also coordinate for those adjustments to made should you choose to enroll in that institution.

In keeping with our mission to provide the best resources to prospective students, Accredited Online Colleges has compiled an extensive directory of school disability offices to aid in your search.

Scholarship Opportunities

While you are never defined by your disability, it does put you in a unique group of students, one which may qualify you for scholarship opportunities not available to everyone else. There are a number of scholarships available to disabled students which can be used to offset the costs of tuition, fees, and supplies.

We’ve compiled a scholarship listing to help you find and apply for these opportunities, so that your regular perseverance over unique challenges can be even more of an asset in achieving your goal of higher education.

Additional Resources

Aside from the lawful provisions and school-sponsored resources, there are a number of additional groups and agencies who regularly provide information, advice, and assistance to those living with physical or cognitive disabilities. In conjunction with this guide, any one of these resources below will help you better understand your needs, the services available to you, and how they apply to higher education.

Government Resources

  • Provided by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, this comprehensive guide to the Americans with Disabilities Act comes complete with information, advice, and technical assistance regarding the law.
  • The federal government’s website for comprehensive information about disability-related programs, services, policies, and regulations.
  • U.S. Department of Education – Office of Civil Rights: A complete resource established by the DOE’s Office of Civil rights, which is dedicated to ensuring equal access to education through enforcement of civil rights laws. It contains valuable information on the ADA as it pertains to postsecondary education. Also includes information on how to file a complaint.
  • U.S. Dept. of Education Institute of Education Sciences – College Navigator: The National Center for Education Statistics college search engine provides valuable data on higher education institutions, such as admissions, enrollment, and tuition data.
  • National Council on Disability: An independent federal agency made up of Presidential and Congressional appointees charged with advising on policies and programs that affect people with disabilities

Nonprofit Organizations

  • American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD): One of the nation’s largest disability rights advocacy groups, the AAPD promotes equal opportunity, economic power, independent living, and political participation for people with living with disabilities.
  • Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD): AHEAD is a professional association committed to the full participation of students with disabilities in higher education.
  • Disability Rights Advocates (DRA): The DRA is one of the leading nonprofit disability rights legal centers in the nation. Its mission is to advance equal rights for people with all types of disabilities. The organization prides itself on being run by people with disabilities for people with disabilities.
  • Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF): The DREDF is a leading national civil rights law and policy center which promotes legal advocacy, training, education, and public policy and legislative development for people with disabilities.
  • National Organization on Disability (NOD): The NOD seeks to advance opportunities for people with all kinds of disabilities by providing data and disability employment models to both the public and private sectors.

Specific Disability Advocacy Groups

  • American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD): The AAIDD is an advocacy group that promotes policies, sound research, and equal rights for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
  • American Foundation for the Blind (AFB): The AFB advocates for the equal rights, accessibility, and opportunity of those with vision impairments.
  • Epilepsy Foundation: The Epilepsy Foundation is an organization dedicated to improving the lives of all people impacted by seizures through advocacy, education, and support programs.
  • Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA): The MDA is the world’s leading nonprofit health agency dedicated to finding treatments and cures for muscular dystrophy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and other neuromuscular diseases by advocating, funding research, and providing support to those affected by MD.
  • National Association of the Deaf (NAD): The NAD is the nation’s premier civil rights organization advocating for the rights and accessibility of those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  • National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD): The NCLD advocates for the equal rights and opportunities for people with learning disabilities and attention issues and seeks to empower them with the academic, social, and emotional skills needed to succeed in work, school, and life.
  • National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS): The NDSS advocates for the equal rights and opportunity of those with Down Syndrome.
  • United Spinal Association: The United Spinal Association is an organization dedicated to enhancing the quality of life of all people living with a spinal cord injury or disease. Their recently launched Advocacy Alliance is working to help bring awareness to policy makers on issues that affect wheelchair users nationwide.

This is just a small sampling of the countless organizations working with both the federal government and colleges and universities nationwide to ensure that every student, regardless of their disability, has the access to the higher education they desire. With the right amount of research and consultation with any number of available resources, you should be able to find the perfect program to fit your physical, cognitive, and personal needs.