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Specific Learning Disability

Our nation’s special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines specific learning disability as…

(10)   Specific learning disability  —(i)  General .   Specific learning disability  means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.

(ii)  Disorders not included.  Specific learning disability does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of intellectual disability, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.  [34 CFR §300.8(c)(10)]

From: Center for Parent Information and Resources, (2017), Categories of Disability Under IDEA. Newark, NJ, Author. Retrieved 3.28.19 from https://www.parentcenterhub.org/categories/  (public domain)

Table of Contents

  • Go to Chapter on Dyslexia
  • Go to Chapter on Dyscalculia
  • Go to Chapter on Dysgraphia

DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria

  • General Overview of Specific Learning Disability/Case Study
  • Evaluation Procedures for LD

Tips for Teachers

  • Technology for Students with Learning Disabilities- Video

Dyslexia, sometimes called reading disorder , is the most common learning disability; of all students with specific learning disabilities, 70%–80% have deficits in reading. The term “developmental dyslexia” is often used as a catch-all term, but researchers assert that dyslexia is just one of several types of reading disabilities. A reading disability can affect any part of the reading process, including word recognition, word decoding, reading speed, prosody (oral reading with expression), and reading comprehension.

Dyscalculia

Dyscalculia is a form of math-related disability that involves difficulties with learning math-related concepts (such as quantity, place value, and time), memorizing math-related facts, organizing numbers, and understanding how problems are organized on the page. People with dyscalculia are often referred to as having poor “number sense.”

The term “dysgraphia” is often used as an overarching term for all disorders of written expression. Individuals with dysgraphia typically show multiple writing-related deficiencies, such as grammatical and punctuation errors within sentences, poor paragraph organization, multiple spelling errors, and excessively poor penmanship.

The following text is an adapted from: Boundless.com (n.d.) Textbooks/ Boundless Psychology/Neurodevelopmental Disorders/Specific Learning Disorder. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Specific learning disorder includes difficulties in general academic skills, specifically in the areas of reading, mathematics, or written expression.

Specific learning disorder is a classification of disorders in which a person has difficulty learning in a typical manner within one of several domains. Often referred to as learning disabilities, learning disorders are characterized by inadequate development of specific academic, language, and speech skills. Types of learning disorders include difficulties in reading (dyslexia), mathematics (dyscalculia), and writing (dysgraphia)

The diagnosis of  specific learning disorder  was added to the DSM-5 in 2013. The DSM does not require that a single domain of difficulty (such as reading, mathematics, or written expression) be identified—instead, it is a single diagnosis that describes a collection of potential difficulties with general academic skills, simply including detailed specifiers for the areas of reading, mathematics, and writing. Academic performance must be below average in at least one of these fields, and the symptoms may also interfere with daily life or work. In addition, the learning difficulties cannot be attributed to other sensory, motor, developmental, or neurological disorders.

The causes of learning disabilities are not well understood. However, some potential causes or contributing factors are:

  • Heredity. Learning disabilities often run in the family—children with learning disabilities are likely to have parents or other relatives with similar difficulties.
  • Problems during pregnancy and birth. Learning disabilities can result from anomalies in the developing brain, illness or injury, fetal exposure to alcohol or drugs, low birth weight, oxygen deprivation, or premature or prolonged labor.
  • Accidents after birth. Learning disabilities can also be caused by head injuries, malnutrition, or toxic exposure (such as to heavy metals or pesticides).

(Boundless,n.d)

General Overview of SLD/ Case Study

The following text is an excerpt from: Educational Psychology. Chapter 5  Authored by : Kelvin Seifert and Rosemary Sutton. .  License :  CC BY: Attribution From  https://open.umn.edu/opentextbooks/textbooks/153 

LDs are by far the most common form of special educational need, accounting for half of all students with special needs in the United States and anywhere from 5 to 20 per cent of all students, depending on how the numbers are estimated (United States Department of Education, 2005; Ysseldyke & Bielinski, 2002). Students with LDs are so common, in fact, that most teachers regularly encounter at least one per class in any given school year, regardless of the grade level they teach.

Defining learning disabilities clearly

With so many students defined as having learning disabilities, it is not surprising that the term itself becomes ambiguous in the truest sense of “having many meanings”. Specific features of LDs vary considerably. Any of the following students, for example, qualify as having a learning disability, assuming that they have no other disease, condition, or circumstance to account for their behavior:

  • Albert, an eighth-grader, has trouble solving word problems that he reads, but can solve them easily if he hears them orally.
  • Bill, also in eighth grade, has the reverse problem: he can solve word problems only when he can read them, not when he hears them.
  • Carole, a fifth-grader, constantly makes errors when she reads textual material aloud, either leaving out words, adding words, or substituting her own words for the printed text.
  • Emily, in seventh grade, has terrible handwriting; her letters vary in size and wobble all over the page, much like a first- or second-grader.
  • Denny reads very slowly, even though he is in fourth grade. His comprehension suffers as a result, because he sometimes forgets what he read at the beginning of a sentence by the time he reaches the end.
  • Garnet’s spelling would have to be called “inventive”, even though he has practiced conventionally correct spelling more than other students. Garnet is in sixth grade.
  • Harmin, a ninth-grader has particular trouble decoding individual words and letters if they are unfamiliar; he reads  conceal  as “concol” and  alternate  as “alfoonite”.
  • Irma, a tenth-grader, adds multiple-digit numbers as if they were single-digit numbers stuck together:  42 + 59  equals  911  rather than  101,  though  23 + 54  correctly equals  77.

With so many expressions of LDs, it is not surprising that educators sometimes disagree about their nature and about the kind of help students need as a consequence. Such controversy may be inevitable because LDs by definition are learning problems with no obvious origin. There is good news, however, from this state of affairs, in that it opens the way to try a variety of solutions for helping students with learning disabilities.

Assisting students with learning disabilities

There are various ways to assist students with learning disabilities, depending not only on the nature of the disability, of course, but also on the concepts or theory of learning guiding you. Take Irma, the girl mentioned above who adds two-digit numbers as if they were one digit numbers. Stated more formally, Irma adds two-digit numbers without carrying digits forward from the ones column to the tens column, or from the tens to the hundreds column. Exhibit 4 shows the effect that her strategy has on one of her homework papers. What is going on here and how could a teacher help Irma?

Directions: Add the following numbers.

42 23 11 47 97 41
59 54 48 23 64 27

Three out of the six problems are done correctly, even though Irma seems to use an incorrect strategy systematically on all six problems.

Exhibit 4: Irma’s math homework about two-digit addition

Behaviorism: reinforcement for wrong strategies

One possible approach comes from the behaviorist theory. Irma may persist with the single-digit strategy because it has been reinforced a lot in the past. Maybe she was rewarded so much for adding single-digit numbers ( 3+5, 7+8  etc.) correctly that she generalized this skill to two-digit problems—in fact  over  generalized it. This explanation is plausible because she would still get many two-digit problems right, as you can confirm by looking at it. In behaviorist terms, her incorrect strategy would still be reinforced, but now only on a “partial schedule of reinforcement”.  Partial reinforcement schedules are especially slow to extinguish, so Irma persists seemingly indefinitely with treating two-digit problems as if they were single-digit problems.

From the point of view of behaviorism, changing Irma’s behavior is tricky since the desired behavior (borrowing correctly) rarely happens and therefore cannot be reinforced very often. It might therefore help for the teacher to reward behaviors that compete directly with Irma’s inappropriate strategy. The teacher might reduce credit for simply finding the correct answer, for example, and increase credit for a student showing her work—including the work of carrying digits forward correctly. Or the teacher might make a point of discussing Irma’s math work with Irma frequently, so as to create more occasions when she can praise Irma for working problems correctly.

Metacognition and responding reflectively

Part of Irma’s problem may be that she is thoughtless about doing her math: the minute she sees numbers on a worksheet, she stuffs them into the first arithmetic procedure that comes to mind. Her learning style, that is, seems too impulsive and not reflective enough. Her style also suggests a failure of metacognition , which is her self-monitoring of her own thinking and its effectiveness. As a solution, the teacher could encourage Irma to think out loud when she completes two-digit problems—literally get her to “talk her way through” each problem. If participating in these conversations was sometimes impractical, the teacher might also arrange for a skilled classmate to take her place some of the time. Cooperation between Irma and the classmate might help the classmate as well, or even improve overall social relationships in the classroom.

Constructivism, mentoring, and the zone of proximal development

Perhaps Irma has in fact learned how to carry digits forward, but not learned the procedure well enough to use it reliably on her own; so she constantly falls back on the earlier, better-learned strategy of single-digit addition. In that case her problem can be seen in the constructivist terms. In essence, Irma has lacked appropriate mentoring from someone more expert than herself, someone who can create a “ zone of proximal development” in which she can display and consolidate her skills more successfully. She still needs mentoring or “assisted coaching” more than independent practice. The teacher can arrange some of this in much the way she encourages to be more reflective, either by working with Irma herself or by arranging for a classmate or even a parent volunteer to do so. In this case, however, whoever serves as mentor should not only listen, but also actively offer Irma help. The help has to be just enough to insure that Irma completes two-digit problems correctly —neither more nor less. Too much help may prevent Irma from taking responsibility for learning the new strategy, but too little may cause her to take the responsibility prematurely.

(Seifert & Sutton, 2009)

The following section is an excerpt from:  Center for Parent Information and Resources, (2015), Learning Disabilities (LD). Newark, NJ, Author. Retrieved 3.28.19 from https://www.parentcenterhub.org/ld/  (public domain)

 Evaluation Procedures for LD

Now for the confusing part! The ways in which children are identified as having a learning disability have changed over the years. Until recently, the most common approach was to use a “severe discrepancy” formula. This referred to the gap, or discrepancy, between the child’s intelligence or aptitude and his or her actual performance. However, in the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA, how LD is determined has been expanded. IDEA now requires that states adopt criteria that:

  • must not require the use of a severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and achievement in determining whether a child has a specific learning disability;
  • must permit local educational agencies (LEAs) to use a process based on the child’s response to scientific, research-based intervention; and
  • may permit the use of other alternative research-based procedures for determining whether a child has a specific learning disability.

Basically, what this means is that, instead of using a severe discrepancy approach to determining LD, school systems may provide the student with a research-based intervention and keep close track of the student’s performance. Analyzing the student’s response to that intervention (RTI) may then be considered by school districts in the process of identifying that a child has a learning disability.

There are also other aspects required when evaluating children for LD. These include observing the student in his or her learning environment (including the regular education setting) to document academic performance and behavior in the areas of difficulty.

This entire fact sheet could be devoted to what IDEA requires when children are evaluated for a learning disability. Instead, let us refer you to a training module on the subject. It’s quite detailed, but if you would like to know those details, read through Module 11 of the  Building the Legacy  curriculum on IDEA 2004.  Identification of Specific Learning Disabilities  is available online at the CPIR,

Learning disabilities (LD) vary from person to person.  One person with LD may not have the same kind of learning problems as another person with LD. Sara, in our example above, has trouble with reading and writing. Another person with LD may have problems with understanding math. Still another person may have trouble in both of these areas, as well as with understanding what people are saying.

Researchers think that learning disabilities are caused by differences in how a person’s brain works and how it processes information. Children with learning disabilities are not “dumb” or “lazy.” In fact, they usually have average or above average intelligence. Their brains just process information differently.

There is no “cure” for learning disabilities. They are lifelong. However, children with LD can be high achievers and can be taught ways to get around the learning disability. With the right help, children with LD can and do learn successfully.

Learn as much as you can about the different types of LD.  The resources and organizations listed below can help you identify specific techniques and strategies to support the student educationally.

Seize the opportunity to make an enormous difference in this student’s life!  Find out and emphasize what the student’s strengths and interests are. Give the student positive feedback and lots of opportunities for practice.

Provide instruction and accommodations to address the student’s special needs.  Examples:

  • breaking tasks into smaller steps, and giving directions verbally and in writing;
  • giving the student more time to finish schoolwork or take tests;
  • letting the student with reading problems use instructional materials that are accessible to those with print disabilities;
  • letting the student with listening difficulties borrow notes from a classmate or use a tape recorder; and
  • letting the student with writing difficulties use a computer with specialized software that spell checks, grammar checks, or recognizes speech.

Learn about the different testing modifications  that can really help a student with LD show what he or she has learned.

Teach organizational skills, study skills, and learning strategies.  These help all students but are particularly helpful to those with LD.

Work with the student’s parents to create an IEP  tailored to meet the student’s needs.

Establish a positive working relationship with the student’s parents.  Through regular communication, exchange information about the student’s progress at school.

(CPIR, 2015, LD)

Technology for Students with Learning Disabilities

[TheDOITCenter], (2015, Aug. 20). Working Together: Computers and People with Learning Disabilities. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/-uaEdaD5wJE Creative Commons Attribution license (reuse allowed)    (11:24 minutes)

Photo Reference

Boy with notebook- Image by  paperelements  from  Pixabay

Center for Parent Information and Resources, (2015), Learning Disabilities (LD). Newark, NJ, Author. Retrieved 3.28.19 from https://www.parentcenterhub.org/ld/  (public domain)

Educational Psychology. Chapter 5  Authored by : Kelvin Seifert and Rosemary Sutton. .  License :  CC BY: Attribution From   https://open.umn.edu/opentextbooks/textbooks/153 

[TheDOITCenter], (2015, Aug. 20). Working Together: Computers and People with Learning Disabilities. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/-uaEdaD5wJE Creative Commons Attribution license (reuse allowed)

Wikipedia, (n.d.) Dyscalculia, From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dyscalculia#:~:text=on%20the%20topic.-,Etymology,calculation%22%20and%20%22calculus%22. 

updated 5.26.22

Understanding and Supporting Learners with Disabilities Copyright © 2019 by Paula Lombardi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Open Access

Peer-reviewed

Research Article

A comparative case study of the accommodation of students with disabilities in online and in-person degree programs

Roles Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal analysis, Investigation, Methodology, Project administration, Validation, Visualization, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing

* E-mail: [email protected]

Affiliation Center for Education Through Exploration, School of Earth and Space Exploration, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, United States of America

ORCID logo

Roles Data curation, Validation, Writing – review & editing

Affiliation Student Accessibility and Inclusive Learning Services, Educational Outreach and Student Services, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, United States of America

Roles Validation, Writing – review & editing

Affiliation Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, United States of America

Roles Conceptualization, Funding acquisition, Writing – review & editing

Affiliations Center for Education Through Exploration, School of Earth and Space Exploration, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, United States of America, School of Molecular Sciences, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, United States of America

Roles Conceptualization, Funding acquisition, Project administration, Writing – review & editing

Affiliation School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, United States of America

Affiliation School of Social and Family Dynamics, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, United States of America

Roles Conceptualization, Funding acquisition, Investigation, Project administration, Supervision, Validation, Writing – review & editing

Affiliations School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, United States of America, Research for Inclusive STEM Education Center, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, United States of America

  • Chris Mead, 
  • Chad Price, 
  • Logan E. Gin, 
  • Ariel D. Anbar, 
  • James P. Collins, 
  • Paul LePore, 
  • Sara E. Brownell

PLOS

  • Published: October 12, 2023
  • https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0288748
  • Peer Review
  • Reader Comments

Table 1

Fully online degree programs are an increasingly important part of the higher education ecosystem. Among the many challenges raised by the growth of fully online courses and degree programs is the question: Are institutions providing online students with disabilities accommodations that are comparable to those provided to students in traditional in-person degree programs? To explore this question, we compared students in a fully online biology degree program to students in the equivalent in-person degree program at a large research university. For each group, we assessed the frequency with which students register with the disability resource center, the range of specific accommodations provided, and course grades. Results show that students in the in-person program were nearly 30% more likely to be enrolled with the disability resource center, and that students in the online program were offered a narrower range of accommodations. However, in relative terms (i.e., compared to students without disabilities in their degree program), online students with disabilities perform better than in-person students with disabilities.

Citation: Mead C, Price C, Gin LE, Anbar AD, Collins JP, LePore P, et al. (2023) A comparative case study of the accommodation of students with disabilities in online and in-person degree programs. PLoS ONE 18(10): e0288748. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0288748

Editor: Jolanta Maj, Wrocław University of Science and Technology, POLAND

Received: April 6, 2023; Accepted: June 23, 2023; Published: October 12, 2023

Copyright: © 2023 Mead et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License , which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Data Availability: The data analyzed in this study describe students' individual disability statuses. They also include enough demographic information to make re-identification of individuals possible. For these reasons, it is not possible to publicly release the raw data. Qualified researchers may request access through https://uoia.asu.edu/contact .

Funding: This work was supported by grant #GT11046 from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute ( www.hhmi.org ), awarded to JPC, SEB, PL, and ADA and grant #2012998 and #1644236 from the National Science Foundation ( www.nsf.gov ), awarded to SEB. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

1. Introduction

Legal requirements institutionalized the provision of learning accommodations for students with disabilities in American colleges and universities [ 1 – 3 ]. Within this context, a disability is defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment” [ 1 , 3 ]. Accommodations are an adjustment to a course or degree requirements made to allow a student with a disability to have equal access to that course or degree and, by definition, are intended to ensure that students with disabilities have educational experiences as equivalent as possible to students without disabilities. However, as Gin et al. [ 4 ] discuss, contemporary higher education has changed dramatically since these statutes were enacted. Notably, because university structures that provide disability accommodations predate the availability and growth of both online courses and fully online degree programs, common accommodations provided are specific to the obstacles to learning that students might face when attending in-person courses. Therefore, in-person accommodations may not be as well suited to addressing the needs of online students with disabilities.

Online education offers some inherent accommodations relative to in-person settings, particularly when viewed through the historical lens of disability accommodation [e.g., 5]. For example, students do not need to physically move across campus to get to class, rendering some accommodations related to mobility moot. Similarly, pre-recorded lectures or video conference-based instruction easily allow for pausing, repeated viewing, or playback at different speeds. These can be seen as “built in” accommodations for students with certain conditions such as ADHD. Asynchronous instruction gives students greater time flexibility for completing their work, which can be helpful for students with chronic health conditions who may have frequent doctor appointments or flare ups.

At the same time, the modality of teaching online may present novel challenges and, thus, the need to consider how to adapt common accommodations or create new accommodations to best support fully online students. For example, test-taking accommodations, such as reduced distraction environments in a room on campus, cannot be provided for students who are physically situated across the world. Depending on students’ living situations, a quiet testing environment may not be available. The issue of video-monitored exam proctoring has been increasingly debated during the COVID-19 pandemic [e.g., 6 – 8 ], with some work suggesting that it may exacerbate student mental health struggles [ 9 – 11 ].

Thus, it is an open question whether the inherent accommodations of the online modality allow students with disabilities to learn and succeed academically or if the range of accommodations offered to online students is, indeed, narrower and if this in turn hinders the performance of online students with disabilities. Please note that we chose to use “person-first language” (e.g., students with disabilities) in this article, although we do recognize that this choice is not universally preferred [ 9 ].

1.1. Access to disability accommodations for online students

A pair of recent studies gives some insight into the challenges faced by online students with disabilities. Gin et al. [ 9 ] interviewed students with disabilities in courses that were rapidly shifted to an online format in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Gin et al. [ 4 ] conducted a follow-up survey a year later to test if students with disabilities were being provided adequate accommodations online after instructors had more time to be comfortable teaching online. In both studies the authors found that students with disabilities faced obstacles to receiving the disability accommodations to which they were legally entitled. Early on in the pandemic, students with disabilities were often completely forgotten about and their standard accommodations were often not enacted. A year later, students with disabilities were receiving their accommodations, but often these accommodations were not meeting their needs, both in the new modes of instruction and because of the changing needs of students due to the pandemic. Collectively, these studies highlight that students with disabilities currently are not being adequately supported in many online environments.

These studies brought important issues to light and, through the interviews and open-ended survey questions, allowed students with disabilities to reveal barriers associated with online learning in their own words. However, both studies are limited in that they only capture the experiences of those students who chose to participate in the studies. By examining administrative data, the present study will build on Gin et al. [ 4 , 9 ] and explore the experiences of all registered students with the Disability Resource Center at a single institution.

1.2. Academic performance of students with disabilities

To our knowledge, there are no prior studies that examine the academic performance of postsecondary students with disabilities in fully-online degree programs. In research exploring traditional in-person postsecondary settings, Kimball et al. [ 12 ] studied both persistence and academic achievement of students with disabilities. Although many results point to lower persistence, Kimball et al. argue that the evidence is not conclusive, owing generally to the use of correlational data. Similarly, Fichten et al.’s [ 13 ] review of existing evidence finds mixed conclusions, with studies finding equivalent persistence [ 14 ], albeit with longer time to graduation [ 15 , 16 ], or less persistence [ 17 , 18 ]. Looking at academic achievement, studies often examine the success of students with specific types of disabilities. For example, Dong & Lucas [ 19 ] examined academic performance of students across majors with a range of disabilities and, importantly, studied the performance of students who did and did not register for campus disability services. These authors found the students with disabilities—whether psychological, cognitive, or physical disabilities—were less likely to persist than students who reported no disability. They also found that students with psychological or cognitive disabilities who requested accommodations were more likely to be in good academic standing, although this relationship was not found for students with physical disabilities. Interestingly, Lee [ 20 ] found that STEM majors with disabilities received significantly fewer accommodations than non-STEM majors.

Although research has shown many specific disability accommodations to have a positive impact on student success, these results are not universal. A recent randomized controlled study examined the value of accommodations for students with ADHD or learning disabilities in which students were allowed to complete tests in a separate, reduced-distraction environment [ 21 ]. Their results show that not only did the separate testing room not improve test performance, but that students with ADHD or learning disabilities performed worse in the separate testing room compared to students in the classroom. Using the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (BPS:04/06) data set, Mamiseishvili & Koch [ 22 ] studied factors that predicted first- to second-year persistence among students with disabilities, including specific accommodations. Analyzed in isolation, they found that classroom note-taking accommodation was significantly related to increased persistence and that alternative exam formats and additional time were not significant. However, these did not rise to the level of inclusion in the authors’ final regression model. In a single-university study modeling cumulative GPA, Kim & Lee [ 23 ] found that including specific disability accommodations added only a small amount of explanatory power to their regression model. Newman et al. [ 24 ] looked more broadly and examined the effect on the persistence of students with disabilities of the use of resources that are available to all students regardless of disability status, such as tutoring and writing or study centers. Their results show that accessing only these universally available resources led to significantly higher persistence, whereas accessing only disability-related support had no effect on persistence. Notably, Newman et al. relied on data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2, a nationally representative study, and, thus, included students with disabilities who choose not to disclose this information to their college or university [ 25 ].

1.3. The present study

We examine administrative data from students in both an in-person and a fully online biology degree program at a large, public research university. Our focus on a science degree program follows from the substantial body of work, particularly in recent years, showing failures in achieving diversity, equity, and inclusion in the sciences and engineering [e.g., 26 – 28 ] and our own prior work examining course grade equity for women, racial and ethnic minorities, low-income, and first generation to college students in online biology [ 29 , 30 ]. Thus, against this backdrop, we consider whether students with disabilities in an online biology degree program are afforded an equitable experience both relative to their online peers without disabilities and relative to in-person degree students. In this study we pose the following research questions:

RQ1: Do in-person and fully online students differ in either the frequency of reported disabilities or the frequencies of receiving specific accommodations?

RQ2: Do students with disabilities compared to students without disabilities differ in academic performance between in-person and fully online degree programs?

2.1. Description of population and data sources

We collected three types of student data:

  • Academic data: individual course grades, overall grade point average,
  • Demographic data: student gender, race/ethnicity, college generation status, and Pell Grant eligibility (an indicator of socioeconomic status), and
  • Disability data: categorical disability type and specific accommodations requested by course.

All students were enrolled in the Biological Sciences degree program. This degree is offered both in-person and in a fully online mode, but both modes are housed in the same academic unit and were designed to be identical in their curriculum structure. We included course enrollments from Fall 2014–Fall 2019 for the in-person program and Fall 2017–2019 for the online program (Note that the online degree program began in Fall 2017, but grew rapidly in enrollment, eventually surpassing in-person enrollment). The end point was chosen to avoid the confounding effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which necessitated a shift to remote instruction for all students beginning midway through the Spring 2020 semester. We do wish to acknowledge the effects the pandemic has had on students with disabilities; please see Gin et al. [ 4 , 9 ] for examinations of those effects. In order to make our findings more general and to avoid undue influence from unique circumstances that can emerge in smaller courses, we limited our analysis to the large, required courses that are the focus of the first two years of the degree program. These include the two-course introductory biology sequence, genetics, evolution, a two-semester introductory chemistry series, two organic chemistry courses, and introductory physics. Most of these courses include a laboratory component. These are also the same set of courses analyzed in a previous study, the focus of which was course grade equity in online courses with respect to gender, race/ethnicity, household income, and college generation status [ 29 ].

Data regarding student disability status and the specific accommodation requests are stored separately from ordinary academic and demographic data. For this reason and to ensure there was no possibility that personally identifying information related to disability status was revealed, we took steps to ensure that the identifiable disability data were handled only by staff members within the Disability Resource Center (DRC). Note that we will use the DRC abbreviation as a generic term, but such organizations may also be called a Disability Services Office, Student Accessibility Center, among other names. The lead author compiled the academic and demographic data based on the selection criteria described above. These data were then sent to the office in charge of approving and coordinating disability accommodations who performed a match to their internal database, de-identified the data, and returned the new dataset to the lead author for analysis. Details of this process were reviewed and approved by the Arizona State University institutional review board (IRB, protocol #9105). Consent was not obtained because the data were analyzed anonymously.

Prior research on the subject of disability accommodations has argued for the importance of including and prioritizing the perspectives of students with disabilities themselves [ 31 ]. The present study relies on de-identified administrative data. It would not be possible to conduct such a broad survey of the types of accommodations sought and the course grades earned by students with disabilities in these degree programs. Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge that the administrative data do not capture the full depth and range of the academic experiences of these students and that since we are only analyzing students who are registered with the DRC, we are only examining the experiences of students who have the resources and support to have achieved a diagnosis.

2.2. Description of analyses

We calculated descriptive statistics for the student demographic variables, students’ disability status, disability type, and the frequencies of disability accommodations that were received. The categories used for disability type are the same used in Gin et al. [ 4 , 9 , 31 ]. Following the procedure of our prior studies [ 29 , 30 ], we used a linear mixed effects regression to estimate the effect of student disability status on course grades, adjusting for the effects of prior academic performance (GPA in other courses, abbreviated as GPAO, [ 27 ]), whether the student earned fewer than 30 credit hours, gender, race/ethnicity, age, college generation status, and socioeconomic status (fixed effects) and including random effects for each student and class section. GPAO was a continuous variable on a 0–4.33 (A+) scale. Age was treated as a categorical variable (18–25 and over 25 years of age). These categories distinguish the more “traditional” aged (18–25 years old) students from older students and are also of roughly equal sizes among the online program students. The remaining fixed effects were analyzed as binary variables: fewer than 30 credit hours or not, binary gender (female, male), race/ethnicity (BLNP [Black, Latine, Native American, or Pacific Islander], White or Asian), college generation status (first-generation, continuing-generation), socioeconomic status (Pell eligible, non-Pell eligible). We also used logistic regression to estimate the effects on DRC registration of degree program modality (online or in-person) and possible interaction effects between modality and gender, race/ethnicity, college generation status, and socioeconomic status. For model selections, we employed both forward selection (starting with a minimal model and adding predictors stepwise) and backwards elimination (starting with a full model that consisted of all of the above predictors and removing predictors stepwise) [ 32 ].

Note that, in contrast to Mead et al. [ 29 ], we did not fully exclude students with missing demographic data or students who received “withdraw” grades in a course. Because the focus of the present study goes beyond just grades analysis, there was no need reduce our analytical power by excluding these data when analyzing DRC enrollment or the types of accommodations given. However, for regressions involving grades or demographics, we excluded any course enrollments where the student received a “withdraw” grade and we excluded students with missing demographics data.

2.3. Positionality statement

Our research team consists of both women and men as well as first generation college graduates and individuals who received Pell grants as students. Some of us are members of the LGBTQ+ community and some of us identify as having depression. Most of us have served as instructors of courses who have worked directly with the DRC to provide students with disabilities with accommodations. One of us has received accommodations for a disability through the DRC as an undergraduate and graduate student.

3.1. Population demographics

The total population included 5586 students, 2908 from the in-person degree program and 2678 from the online degree program ( Table 1 ). Women were a majority in both groups, although substantially more so in the online program (74% vs. 59%). About a third of students in both programs were BLNP. Just under half of the in-person students were Pell eligible, while somewhat more than half were Pell eligible among the online program students. Similarly, the percentage of first-generation students was also higher online (43% vs. 33%). In summary, although the two populations are similar, the online program has slightly more representation of each of the four historically marginalized groups (consistent with our own prior work, [ 29 ]). Another important demographic consideration is student age, which also differs substantially between the in-person and online populations. The median age for in-person students in our dataset is 19 as compared to 25 in the online population.

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https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0288748.t001

Table 2 shows the percentage of students in each program who are registered with the DRC. With 8% of in-person students and 4.7% of online students registered for a disability accommodation, this is well below published estimates for the overall proportion of students with a disability (19.4%; [ 33 ]). However, previous research also finds that only about a third of students with disabilities disclose this information to their school [ 25 ], which would put the two populations in our study near to the prior estimates. Full demographic details for the students with any disability accommodation may be found in S1 Table . Table 2 also shows the percentages of students whose listed “primary” disability falls within either learning disability (including ADD/ADHD; see [ 9 ] for a discussion of this categorization) or mental health/psychological disability. These are the most common disability types in our data set, which is consistent with prior analysis [ 34 ]. Students in both groups were registered with other disabilities types, including, Acquired Brain Injury, Chronic health condition, Hearing loss, Neurological, Physical disability, and Visual loss, but each of these categories had fewer than 20 individual students and our research protocol prohibits us from presenting results for subgroups smaller than this size. It is also important to note that the personal experiences of individuals, even with the same type of disability, are unique [ 35 , 36 ]. Thus, we caution against making generalizations concerning all individuals who share a disability type or specific disability.

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https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0288748.t002

Finding 1: DRC enrollment is significantly lower among online program students

There are two important dimensions to this research question: differential access to (or use of) disability support services and a differential range of services provided. To examine the first dimension of this, we used logistic regression to determine whether students in the online or in-person modalities were equally likely to be registered with the university DRC. To test for possible differences within these populations, we performed additional regressions that included student demographics and interactions between the degree program type and each of gender, race/ethnicity, Pell grant eligibility, college generation status, age, and whether the student has fewer than 30 credit hours.

Overall, we find significant differences in DRC enrollment associated with degree program mode (in-person or fully online). Specifically, in-person program students are nearly 30% more likely to be enrolled with the DRC ( Table 3 ). Regarding demographics, we will first consider a main effects model to examine how the demographic effects differ by degree program mode. We will then add a series of interaction terms to see whether these demographic effects vary in their impact for in-person and online students. In the main effects model ( S2 Table ), we find that women are much more likely to be registered with the DRC as are students older than traditional college age. Pell eligible students are slightly more likely to be registered while first-generation students are somewhat less likely to be registered. No significant differences exist in the main effects model with respect to race/ethnicity or credit hours earned.

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https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0288748.t003

Considering the full model with degree program modality interaction effects ( Table 4 ), we see that women are more likely to be registered in both programs, but that this effect is stronger for in-person students. In contrast to the main effects model, we see that BLNP is significant when the program interaction effects are considered. BLNP students in the online program are more likely than white or Asian students to be registered with the DRC, but in the in-person program BLNP students are slightly less likely to be registered. There are also similar, but smaller differences with respect to college generation status, with first generation students in the in-person program being significantly less likely to be registered than first generation students in the online program. For online students, having fewer than 30 credit hours is a negative predictor of DRC registration; this is not the case in-person. No significant interactions with program modality were found for student age or Pell eligibility.

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https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0288748.t004

Finding 2: Online degree program students with disabilities are given access to a narrower range of accommodations

Table 5 presents an overall summary, for common accommodation categories, of the frequency at which they are received by students in both the in-person and online program courses. A complete list of accommodation types is provided in S3 Table . There are several accommodation “types” that are much less common for online students than in-person students. These include:

  • “Reduced Distraction” environment for testing
  • Flexible attendance
  • Peer notetaking services
  • Audio recording

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https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0288748.t005

The impact of these varies in severity. Depending on the nature of the online course, “audio recording” and “flexible attendance” may be irrelevant in the majority of cases. However, both “reduced distraction environment” and “peer notetaking services” are accommodations that can reasonably be seen as addressing needs that are common to both in-person and online learning. A previous nationwide study found notetaking to be the third most common accommodation with 26% of students surveyed reporting receiving this kind of support [ 18 ]. It is important to state that the notetaking accommodation here refers to a peer notetaker, i.e., a fellow classmate who is compensated to share their own notes with the student receiving the accommodation. Thus, while dictation software or other technology solutions have some overlap with the intended benefits of the peer notetaking services accommodation, those tools are not entirely equivalent.

Conversely, we see that some accommodations are somewhat more common in the online group. These include Assistive Technology and PDF with Recognized Text (i.e., ensuring that PDF documents are compatible with screen readers). These accommodations are understandably important in the computer-based learning environment of the online program. We found that extra time on exams is the most common accommodation in both modalities and flexible assignment deadlines is the second and fourth most common for online and in-person, respectively, but in both cases, the percentages of students receiving these accommodations are higher in the online modality.

Finding 3: The relative performance of students with disabilities in the online program exceeds that of the in-person program

Our regression model finds a significant interaction effect between disability status (i.e., a student requesting a disability accommodation for a particular course) and learning modality. Specifically, in-person students with disabilities earn grades 0.19 grade units lower than their peers as compared to students in the online degree program ( Fig 1 , Table 6 ). The overall grade effect associated with disability accommodation was positive, but non-significant. This model also finds significant effects associated with demographics categories and online program status. Similar demographic findings from a closely related student population were described in [ 29 ]. Recognizing Finding 1—significant demographic and program modality differences in DRC enrollment—we explored the addition of interactions between these factors and the disability status term, but none of these interactions were statistically significant.

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Whereas having a disability was not associated with an overall grade difference, the results do show a significant interaction effect between disability status and modality.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0288748.g001

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https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0288748.t006

We explored possible interaction effects involving specific types of disabilities using the same categories as in Table 6 . The learning disability and mental health/psychological disability categories represent a large majority of students in this population (see Table 2 ). Our modeling showed students in each of these categories to have similar patterns of course performance to our initial regression model (i.e., to have a negative grade effect associated with the in-person degree program). See S4 Table for details. The small number of students with other types of disabilities limited our ability to detect possible interaction effects associated with any of those disability types.

4. Discussion

Regarding our first research question, our results show that systematic differences exist between the two modalities of degree programs studied, with students in the online program being less likely to enroll with the DRC or request disability accommodations. There are also notable differences in the demographic effects by modality, such as online BLNP students being more likely to have a disability accommodation and online students with fewer than 30 credit hours being less likely to have any accommodation. The online students are also offered a narrower range of disability accommodations. With respect to our second question, we find that the relative academic performance of students with disabilities to students without disabilities differs between the online and in-person degree programs. In relative terms (i.e., compared to students without disabilities in their degree program), online students with disabilities perform better than in-person students with disabilities.

The differences in the types of accommodations provided online as compared to in-person reflect a combination of accommodations that are impractical/impossible to provide to a distributed and remote population of students and accommodations that are inherently unnecessary online. This is very much the pattern we anticipated, and it highlights the inherent advantages and disadvantages of online learning for students with disabilities. However, the differential rates of registration and requests for accommodations with the university DRC across both modality and student demographics raise questions about whether all students are being made aware of and given access to these resources. Our findings are consistent with the issues raised in Gin et al. [ 4 ] and Terras et al. [ 37 ], both in the specific lack of access to distraction-free testing and peer notetaking services for online students and in the overall lower rates of DRC registration among the online students studied.

Our findings with respect to the demographic predictors of DRC enrollment contribute to a somewhat varied set of previous findings. The largest demographic effect we observed was that of gender, in which women were much more likely to be registered for an accommodation. This sits in contrast to Henderson [ 38 ], Wagner et al. [ 39 ], and Newman et al. [ 25 ] which present evidence of the opposite trend. However, the U.S. Department of Education reported gender parity with respect to disability status among undergraduates and found that women were more likely to report a disability among postbaccalaureate students [ 33 ]. It is important to note that our study population has a high population of women, owing in part to the discipline of the program studied (biology) and in part to the fact that the online program enrolls proportionately more women [ 29 ]. As additional studies are performed involving online programs, it will be interesting to see how these demographic effects compare to results from in-person programs.

It goes beyond our data to make claims about whether the underlying rate of disabilities differs systematically between the in-person and online degree programs. However, if we assume that this rate of disability is constant, then our data point to systematic differences between these two degree programs across one or more of a number of factors related to how students with disabilities approach these programs. This may include students’ awareness of these university services or of their personal eligibility for receiving them. It may include students’ perceived value of the available accommodations or their willingness to request accommodations. Lastly, the differences in usage may stem from perceived and real differences in the need for accommodation in the in-person versus online programs, even for students with very similar personal circumstances. We expand upon each of these possibilities in the following paragraphs.

4.1. Awareness

It is possible that the online program students are less well-informed about the availability of support through the DRC [e.g., 9 , 40 ]. This could follow from a lack of informal sharing of information that is more likely to occur in in-person learning environments. Supporting this explanation is the fact that for online students, having fewer than 30 credit hours was predictive of less DRC enrollment, whereas this was not the case among in-person students. This suggests that, despite the university’s many lines of communication to its online program students, including traditional academic advisors and “success coaches” who provide support to online students for things like time management and career exploration, many students early in their college journey may not receive the support that they may require and be entitled to.

4.2. Eligibility

Complicating this subject is the question of which students are considered eligible to receive accommodations. In addition to the structural issues addressed in the Gin et al. studies, prior research has highlighted the “documentation disconnect”, in which a student was deemed eligible for a disability accommodation at the K–12 level, but, due to more stringent requirements for documentation of disability, was not found to be eligible for the same accommodation at the college level [ 41 , 42 ]. Sparks & Lovett [ 43 ] also conclude that the breadth of methods for diagnosing a learning-disabled student has led to a situation in which there is substantial overlap in the academic performance of “learning disabled” and “non-learning disabled” students. The literature calls attention to ways that a student may have an expectation of receiving a disability accommodation, but not be eligible in practice. Some of these factors may be exacerbated in the case of fully online degree programs. For example, the documentation disconnect described previously occurs in part because different laws mandate disability accommodation in K–12 than in higher education and in part because standards for K–12 disability status vary by state. Given that online undergraduate programs are often marketed toward out-of-state students, the fraction of these ineligible students may be greater in an online program as compared to the traditional in-person degree programs at the same university. In addition, given that our prior work showed that the online program attracted relatively more students from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds [ 29 ], it is possible that online students with disabilities are, on average, less able than the in-person degree students to obtain the medical diagnoses necessary to demonstrate their eligibility.

Assuming that online students with disabilities are aware of their support options and, bearing in mind our results showing the limited range of accommodations that are commonly received ( Table 5 ), it is possible that some students are making an informed choice to not ask for accommodations. That is to say that these students may believe that the accommodations that are made available to them do not effectively address their needs. We have no evidence that speaks directly to this possibility. However, in considering more indirect evidence, Gin et al. [ 4 , 9 ] found that some students with disabilities struggled to be granted the kind of support they felt was justified during the emergency shift to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is also the question of a perceived stigma associated with requesting accommodations, so students must see these accommodations as having a value that exceeds the effort required to obtain them and any negative consequences (e.g., judgement or bias against them) they may associate with them.

4.4. Willingness to request

Numerous previous studies highlight the important possibility of students who choose not to address or report their disabilities [ 5 , 12 , 25 , 44 ]. This may be even more true in online courses and programs where students will have fewer and more limited interactions with their peers or with faculty members. The limited nature of these interactions makes it easier, and perhaps more appealing, to keep one’s disability status private. It also removes opportunities for students to learn about the types of accommodations available or the potential value of those resources. Similarly, it may be more difficult for online instructors (or student peers) to recognize instances where a student may benefit from disability services. Therefore, the mediated nature of an online degree program expands the concept of a “hidden disability”, providing many students with disabilities the choice whether or not to disclose their disability status to others. In an in-person setting, a hidden disability might be a mental health condition, but in an asynchronous online setting, this category could include deafness, physical disabilities, or chronic health conditions, many of which would be readily apparent in-person. Thus, students not registering with the DRC could be a conscious decision not to reveal their disability to others, and the nature of online learning gives students in those degree programs more autonomy regarding this decision.

Looking at results from both Tables 5 and 6 , a final possibility is that the differences in the frequencies of requested accommodations follow from the inherent accommodations provided by the online learning modality. Put simply, perhaps students online need fewer accommodations because of the asynchronous flexible nature of the learning environment. Consider peer notetaking services, for example, which our results show to be a relatively common accommodation in-person, but not available to online students. It may be the case that some students who would have requested this kind of accommodation for a synchronous, in-person class do not see it as necessary for an asynchronous, online delivery where they can freely pause, rewind, or rewatch lectures at their convenience. Alternatively, perhaps our results are driven by a self-selection effect in which students with disabilities preferentially enroll in the online degree program knowing that they will not need to request disability accommodations. This kind of strategic enrollment would imply a high level of effective self-determination, something that prior work has shown to be associated with academic success [ 45 ]. Therefore, if such behavior is widespread, then our observed grade differences reflect a combination of the inherent affordances of the online modality and the presence of students with the skills of self-determination that help them to be successful.

Prior research is mixed on whether online courses are seen as preferable by students with disabilities, with much of the difference coming from how attentive a given institution or instructor has been to accessibility [ 12 , 46 , 47 ]. The present study does not examine instructional practices or technology use at the level of individual courses, but strategies for effective and accessible online learning have been reviewed elsewhere [e.g., 48 ] and could be the basis for future research expanding on our work.

This study relied on administrative data because these data provide a complete summary of the university’s available DRC services and students’ use of these services. However, our work cannot speak directly to the students’ perspective in requesting, declining to request, or receiving DRC services, nor can it speak to factors related to the self-determination of these students. The latter is one of the more widely studied constructs for both predicting success of students with disabilities and for designing support programs to promote success [e.g., 49 – 52 ]. Future work is needed to explore whether our findings reflect an underlying difference in the level of self-determination between students in in-person and online degree programs or, perhaps, that the skills associated with self-determination (self-advocacy, goal setting, etc.) must be applied differently in online settings.

We conclude this section by reiterating that our regression results with respect to course grades suggest that students with disabilities who are registered with the DRC in the online degree program have an equal or better opportunity to succeed as their in-person counterparts. Therefore, we tentatively conclude that online students with disabilities can be well-supported in that modality. However, we do underscore that our interpretation of the grade results is complicated by the fact that we can only analyze students who were officially eligible for and proactively chose to request support from the campus DRC, thus it may be the case that our finding with respect to grades is biased by a selection for the most well-informed students with disabilities. Or, relatedly, that online students with disabilities that are registered with the DRC are the more privileged group of students with disabilities, so the grade advantage that we see online is simply because the more privileged group of students with disabilities are represented in the dataset.

4.6. Limitations

Although we believe this work is an important first step in closing a gap in the existing understanding of disability accommodations in online learning environments, we also wish to highlight some limitations. First, there are reasons to predict that some students with disabilities might be more likely to prefer an online degree program. This could lead the population of students with disabilities online to be systematically stronger academically and more motivated to succeed. Testing this possibility would require an indicator of prior academic performance, such as high school GPA or standardized test scores, but these data are not uniformly collected at admission to the online degree program that we studied, thus we are unable to rule it out. Second, the overall percentage of students with disabilities is smaller in the online program than the in-person one. If there exist substantial numbers of online students who could benefit from disability accommodation, but who are not registered to receive them, this could have biased our comparison of online to in-person grades by disability accommodation status.

Although we explored the possible differential effects among students with different types of disabilities and found no such differences, it bears repeating that our primary results aggregate all students with any disability. It goes without saying that the nature of the barriers to academic achievement experienced by a student with reduced mobility and those experienced by a student with a learning disability are very different. The same is true within these broad categories of disability. Critically, we also cannot assume that an in-person student and an online student with the same type of disability will have the same barriers to academic success. It is also important to note that the personal experiences of individuals, even with the same type of disability, are unique [ 35 , 36 ]. Thus, we caution against making generalizations concerning all individuals who share a disability type or specific disability and acknowledge that our aggregated analyses may conceal important variability.

The other notable limitation is the use of administrative data. Although these data did allow us to examine research questions that are troublesome for survey and interview research-based approaches, the administrative data do not capture a complete picture of any one student’s experience. This is particularly true when studying students with disabilities, each of whom must be categorized within an existing category for disability type (and other demographic characteristics).

5. Conclusion

The use of online learning will certainly continue to grow among institutions of higher education. It is, therefore, essential that these institutions examine and continuously monitor how their existing disability accommodations align with the needs of students in online courses and fully online degree programs. Previous survey- and interview-based research has found that students with disabilities in online courses feel less well supported and encounter more obstacles to receiving accommodations [ 4 , 9 , 37 ]. In our study, administrative data from a fully online degree program suggests that this kind of unequal accommodation persists. While our analysis of course grades indicates that the affordances of online learning for students with disabilities may outweigh any disadvantages caused by the gaps in accommodation, there remains an obligation for administrators and faculty to ensure that students are equitably supported across both in-person and online programs. In particular, if the types of accommodations offered predate the online program, there may be gaps either due to the appropriateness of those accommodations for fully online courses or due to the practical realities of providing those accommodations to remote students. Although the details of disability accommodations will vary, we hope that the present study will offer a starting point for self-study at any institution with new or existing online degree programs and that our results will inspire these institutions to look for ways to better support their online students with disabilities.

Supporting information

S1 table. student with disability’s demographics by modality..

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0288748.s001

S2 Table. Difference in DRC enrollment by student demographics.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0288748.s002

S3 Table. Complete list of accommodations in dataset.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0288748.s003

S4 Table. Regression results for disability type.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0288748.s004

Acknowledgments

We thank ASU’s Student Accessibility and Inclusive Learning Services for their support in providing access to the anonymous data analyzed in this study.

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The Transition of Students with Learning Disabilities: A Case Study.

  • S. Evelo , Lynda A. Price
  • Published 1991
  • The Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability

9 Citations

Transition planning for college-bound students with learning disabilities, the characteristics of high school transition programs that assist learning disabled students to succeed at the post-secondary level, promoting access, accommodations, and independence for college students with learning disabilities, an investigation of documentation submitted by university students to verify their learning disabilities, of students first diagnosed with learning disabilites in postsecondary school, practices and attitudes of postsecondary ld service providers in north america, title of dissertation: secondary transition experiences: analyzing perceptions, academic self- efficacy, academic adjustment and overall impact on college students' with ld success in postsecondary education, orientation for students with learning disabilities: to plan or not to plan, college-bound students with learning disabilities, 41 references, meeting the transition needs of college-bound students with learning disabilities, special needs of the learning disabled college student: implications for interventions through peer support groups, the role of special education in ld adolescents' transition from school to work.

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Access and Participation of Students with Disabilities: The Challenge for Higher Education

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Access to university is a right for all people; however, access to higher education for people with disabilities is still a challenge. The present study, based on a systematic review of the literature, aims to report on the challenges faced by students with disabilities in accessing and participating in higher education. The systematic review of four databases resulted in 20 studies published between 2011 and 2021. The results indicate that students with disabilities face numerous challenges in accessing university education. Based on the results, strategies are proposed in order to provide equal opportunities and success in higher education for students with disabilities.

1. Introduction

The UNESCO conference in Salamanca (1994) had an impact not only on educational thought, policy, and practice, but also on culture [ 1 ]. Today, it continues to present an indispensable point of reference for all those involved in the struggle for inclusive education. This legacy immersed in the digital age is leading educational institutions and professionals to a profound transformation and a radical change in their ways of doing, acting, and training. In the framework of the European Higher Education Area, a more inclusive character is being demanded from the University, as evidenced in different international declarations [ 2 ]. Furthermore, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on education of the European Agenda 2030 calls for ensuring an inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all by 2030. It emphasises the importance of inclusion and equity as the foundation for quality education and learning.

In the case of persons with disabilities, the European Agency for Special Needs, and Inclusive Education [ 2 ] and the United Nations High Commissioner recognised inclusive education as an opportunity for their empowerment [ 3 ], as well as an opportunity to remove barriers to learning and participation for all learners [ 4 ]. However, at present, practices of educational exclusion and discrimination are still present in all education systems, constituting real barriers or obstacles to progress [ 5 ].

2. Conceptualisation

The scientific literature shows that there is a wide range of definitions around access and participation of students with disabilities in higher education. Thus, according to the World Health Organisation [ 6 ], barriers to inclusion are all those physical, social, and attitudinal factors that prevent or limit the full realisation of individuals. Authors such as Ainscow [ 1 ] refer to them as obstacles to inclusion that hinder or limit learning, belonging and participation, under equal conditions, in educational processes. Authors such as Darrow [ 7 ] classify barriers in three areas: organisational, attitudinal, and knowledge barriers. The first ones refer to the way in which institutions and classes are structured, how the objectives proposed to students with disabilities are defined, how teaching strategies are used and how classes are managed.

Attitudinal barriers relate to the beliefs and attitudes that teachers may have about educational services for students with disabilities, including curricular adjustments, interactions with students, and participation in the institution and community activities.

Conversely, aids, supports, or facilitators are elements of the educational context that contribute to students’ social and educational inclusion in educational contexts [ 8 ]. Within the studies referring to the school environment, Pivik, McComas and Laflamme [ 9 ] identify three aspects to be addressed as facilitators: environmental modifications, changes in policies, and institutional resources. Regarding environmental modifications, they consider it important to include technological resources and to adapt the infrastructure to the needs of the students, and about policies, they recommend educating the population and making curricular adaptations.

On the other hand, participation is a multidimensional concept made up of three interdependent subdimensions. Firstly, it refers to feeling a sense of belonging or the perception of emotional well-being resulting from an established social and academic self-esteem. It also symbolises being part of a peer group, where students are valued and recognised and where identities are constructed in a positive way and not deficient or of lesser value than any other student. Finally, it means taking part in the formal and informal bodies and structures of educational participation [ 10 ].

In short, barriers and facilitators constitute one of the different ways of approaching the inclusion (and exclusion) of people with disabilities in higher education. Their effects are the result of the convergence between collective actions, individual actions, and social conditions, and are manifested in different dimensions of students’ academic and social life [ 11 ].

3. Results, State of Play, Access, and Participation of Students with Disabilities in Higher Education

Many efforts have been made to try to create an educational culture where students feel competent, valued, and not excluded, regardless of their characteristics, interests, abilities, or difficulties. In this sense, access to university for people with disabilities is a legally recognised right [ 12 ]. Despite this, there are still legal gaps in its implementation, contributing to the fact that the path of these institutions towards inclusion is increasingly long [ 13 ]. We are aware that there is gradually a greater commitment on the part of universities to move towards this objective; despite this, works and studies that give students a voice conclude that universities become an obstacle course that, on many occasions, generates a premature abandonment of university studies [ 14 , 15 ]. On the contrary, it should be noted that students with disabilities recognise the value of universities for their social and educational inclusion, but at the same time they consider that their experiences in this institution are not always positive [ 15 ]. Therefore, it is not enough to guarantee access, but rather it is necessary to establish policies and plans to ensure that all students, including those with disabilities, remain and succeed in university studies [ 16 ].

Along these lines, in recent years, studies have focused on the different barriers encountered by students with disabilities during their time at university. However, the most common barriers include architectural barriers, lack of information, inaccessible technologies, or regulations that are not applied, as well as teachers. Regarding the latter, teachers are identified as the main obstacle to inclusion [ 17 ], as their attitude towards people with disabilities is essential to facilitate student learning [ 18 , 19 ]. Other research focuses on the teacher profile, especially on personal competences as essential values for working in inclusive contexts [ 20 , 21 ]. Studies that have given a voice to inclusive teachers have concluded that when it comes to facilitating the learning of students with disabilities, the diversity of active and participatory methodological strategies where students are included, more affective and emotional, is just as important [ 22 ].

Another line of research in relation to the possible barriers encountered by students with disabilities focuses on the teaching and learning processes themselves [ 23 ]. These studies show how reasonable adjustments to the curriculum (flexible timing and methodological strategies) to help students participate in the teaching and learning processes on an equal footing with their peers can contribute to the retention and success of students with disabilities [ 23 , 24 ]. Another key element of educational projects that concerns both students and teachers is the assessment tests. Research addressing this issue points to the difficulty for teachers to adjust, especially in examinations. Studies coincide in pointing out the lack of receptiveness of teachers to enable different modes of assessment [ 25 ].

Another relevant finding is the importance of peer relationships. Peer support would favour the participation of students with disabilities, as they value the support of their peers as a facilitator of their inclusion in the academic context [ 24 ].

This context of access, barriers, and participation of students with disabilities in higher education is where our work is directed, hence the purpose of this article was to analyse the latest research on access and participation of students with disabilities in higher education and the main themes that guide the different studies conducted in this area to deepen the understanding of the challenges of access to university. Therefore, the current analysis aimed to develop a systematic review to answer the following research questions:

Q1. What is the current state of research in the field of students with disabilities in higher education?

Q2. What are the barriers to access and participation of students with disabilities in higher education?

Q3. What aspects could be addressed to facilitate the inclusion of students with disabilities in university education?

This study adopted the methodology of a systematic literature review [ 26 ]. This method allows synthesising the relevant information available on the selected topic [ 27 ]. To this end, this study relied on the PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) Statement [ 28 ] to guide the search, selection, and analysis of data.

4.1. Search Strategy

The current study was conducted in July 2022. Four databases (Web of Science (WoS), Scopus, Education Resources Information Center (ERIC), and Google Scholar) were searched, selecting papers published in the last ten years.

Keywords related to students with disabilities in higher education were used as search terms in the title, abstract, and/or keyword fields. The search strategy, according to the particularity of each database, was as follows: (“student with disabilities”) AND (“higher education” OR “university”) AND (“access” OR “participation” OR “inclusion” OR “experience” OR “admission”).

4.2. Selection Criteria

The inclusion criteria established for the selection of articles were as follows: (a) empirical articles published in peer-reviewed journals; (b) published in the last ten years, between 2011 and 2021; (c) the sample was students with disabilities in higher education; (d) contained details on access and participation of students with disabilities in higher education. The exclusion criteria were: (a) type of document: reviews, essays, books, book chapters, or conference proceedings, (b) duplicate documents.

4.3. Literature Selection

The initial search revealed 80 studies in the different databases analysed. Once the publications had been selected, a thorough review of the titles and abstracts of the selected studies were carried out to exclude those that were duplicated, did not target students with disabilities, or were theoretical studies, eliminating a total of 55 studies. The remaining studies ( n = 25) were read in full by two authors who checked that they met the inclusion criteria set for this systematic review. Discrepancies between authors were resolved with the third author, thus excluding 5 studies. Therefore, 20 studies were identified for this systematic review. Figure 1 shows the literature search process.

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Object name is ijerph-19-11918-g001.jpg

Flow chart of the selection process.

4.4. Data Extraction and Analysis

For the extraction and analysis of the data from the articles, a table was developed to extract information from each of the studies: (a) author, (b) year of publication, (c) method, (d) type of disability, (e) country, and (f) main topic or category. Network mapping analysis techniques were also employed using VOSviewer software version 1.6.16. (Centre for Science and Technology Studies, Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands) [ 29 ] to analyse the themes of the studies included in the review.

Considering the search strategy and selection criteria, 20 empirical articles published between 2011 and 2021 were selected for this systematic review indexed in WoS, Scopus, ERIC, and Google Scholar. Considering the year of publication ( Figure 2 ), even though research in this field has been constant over the last ten years, most of the published studies were found in the last year as can be seen in Table 1 . Likewise, if we look at the method employed, fourteen of the publications analysed predominantly used a qualitative methodology ( n = 14, f = 70%), the remaining six were carried out using a quantitative approach ( n = 6, f = 30%).

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Object name is ijerph-19-11918-g002.jpg

Studies by year of publication.

Description of the studies included in the review.

StudyYearMethodDisability TypeCountryMain Topic
Moriña Díez and Molina Romo [ ]2011QualitativeHearing, visual, physical, and intellectual disabilitiesSpainBarriers to university access
Nava-Caballero [ ]2011QualitativeHearing, visual, physical, and intellectual disabilitiesSpainFacilitating factors in access and adaptation
Ryan [ ]2011QualitativeNot specifiedAustraliaFacilitating factors in access and adaptation
Ocampo González [ ]2012QuantitativeNot specifiedChileBarriers to university access
Opini [ ]2012QualitativeNot specifiedCanadaBarriers to university access
McEwan and Downie [ ]2013QuantitativeIntellectual disabilityCanadaBarriers to university access
Zubillaga del Río et al. [ ]2013QuantitativeNot specifiedSpainFacilitating factors in access and adaptation
Kendall and Tarman [ ]2016QualitativeHearing impairedUKFacilitating factors in access and adaptation
Palma et al. [ ]2016QualitativeHearing, visual, physical, and intellectual disabilityChileFacilitating factors in access and adaptation
Heiman et al. [ ]2017QuantitativeNot specifiedIsraelFacilitating factors in access and adaptation
Alsalem and Abu Doush [ ]2018QualitativeNot specifiedJordanBarriers to university access
Majoko and Dunn [ ]2018QualitativeASD, physical, hearing, and visual disability.South AfricaFacilitating factors in access and adaptation
Rodríguez Molina & Valenzuela Zambrano [ ]2019QualitativePhysical, visual disability, and ASDChileBarriers in access to university
Ansay and Moreira [ ]2020QualitativePhysical disabilityChileBarriers in access to university
Yusof et al. [ ]2020QualitativePhysical and visual disabilityMalaysiaBarriers to access and adaptation
Braun & Naami [ ]2021QualitativePhysical disabilityUSABarriers in access to university
Dreyer [ ]2021QualitativeLearning disabilitySouth AfricaBarriers in access to university
Newman et al. [ ]2021QuantitativeIntellectual disability and hearing impairmentsUSABarriers in access to university
Shpigelman et al. [ ]2021QualitativePhysical, visual, hearing, and intellectual disabilities.IsraelBarriers in access to university
Valle-Flórez et al. [ ]2021QuantitativeHearing, visual, physical, and intellectual disabilities.SpainFacilitating factors in access and adaptation

If we focus on the country of publication, we can see that most of the papers have been carried out in Chile ( n = 4, f = 20%) and Spain ( n = 4, f = 20%). Other countries with the highest production included Canada ( n = 2, f = 10%), South Africa ( n = 2, f = 10%), Israel ( n = 2, f = 10%), and the USA ( n = 2, f = 10%), and to a lesser extent Australia ( n = 1, f = 5%), Jordan ( n = 1, f = 5%), Malaysia ( n = 1, f = 5%), and the UK ( n = 1, f = 5%) ( Figure 3 ).

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is ijerph-19-11918-g003.jpg

Studies by country of publication.

The selected studies were conducted with students with disabilities in higher education. However, there were differences between the participating sample. Most of the published studies focused on students with physical disabilities ( n = 10, f = 26.6%). However, the least researched students were students with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) ( n = 1, f = 2.6%) and students with learning disabilities ( n = 1, f = 2.6%). Although most of the research described the type of disability of their participants, there were 15.7% of publications that did not differentiate between the type of disability of their students and investigated the access and participation difficulties of university students with disabilities in general ( Figure 4 ).

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is ijerph-19-11918-g004.jpg

Studies by type of disability.

Promoting the educational inclusion of students with disabilities in higher education is a challenge. However, in order to make further progress on this path, we need to know what the challenges are that make it impossible for them to access higher education. Thus, this systematic review allowed us to identify the different limitations posed by the research analysed. To this end, we classified the studies according to the main subject of the study. In this sense, we found two categories: eleven studies (61.11%) focused on the obstacles that universities face for the access and participation of these students, and seven studies (38.8%) focused on the factors that facilitate their access to higher education.

In addition, in order to identify the main trends affecting access to higher education for students with disabilities, a keyword analysis was carried out by representing the keywords in a keyword graph ( Figure 5 ). The studies included in the review were loaded, obtaining a total of keywords. After analysing their homogeneity, three thematic clusters were automatically generated according to the degree of similarity of the keywords. Thus, the main challenges or challenges of access and participation of students with disabilities in higher education focused on three clusters:

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is ijerph-19-11918-g005.jpg

Network of extracted keywords.

Cluster 1 (red), related to infrastructure. The infrastructure category was related to the barriers to access to higher education. This cluster grouped items such as barrier, access, context, impact, and campus.

Cluster 2 (green), related to the teaching–learning process. The category was related to barriers involving educational materials, access to information, and teacher training. This cluster grouped items such as students, universal design, process, learning, and training.

Cluster 3 (blue), related to the management of the university institution. The category of institutional management encompassed all those aspects that were not related to the teaching–learning process or at the infrastructure level. It focused on all those measures that favoured the access and inclusion of these students to university education. This cluster grouped together items such as support, institution, transition, service, and policy.

6. Discussion

The aim of this systematic review was to analyse the studies published in the last decade on the access and participation of students with disabilities in higher education, responding to the research questions posed.

In response to the first research question, the results showed that there was a high tendency towards qualitative rather than quantitative research in this field, as well as a greater publication of studies carried out in institutions in Chile and Spain, coinciding with previous studies [ 50 ]. This may be due to the fact that these countries have participated very actively in the development and implementation of the new international agenda, especially in the definition of Sustainable Development Goal 4, aimed at ensuring inclusive, equitable, and quality education and promoting learning opportunities for all [ 2 , 3 ]. Likewise, even though publications in this field have been increasing over the years, it was evident that it was in the year 2021, where this subject had the greatest boom in the last decade.

About the diversity of students who participated in the works reviewed, it was observed that the samples were mainly of students with physical disabilities. However, there were also numerous studies that focus on students with hearing, visual, and intellectual disabilities. This may be since there is a higher prevalence of students with physical, hearing, visual, and intellectual disabilities in universities [ 50 ].

Likewise, after analysing the main topic addressed in each of the studies, two categories were differentiated: those that addressed the obstacles to access and participation of students with disabilities in higher education and, on the other hand, those that addressed the factors that facilitated their success in university inclusion.

In this sense, answering the second research question, we can summarise that the barriers to access and participation of these students were concentrated in three main areas:

  • - Infrastructure: Students with disabilities present educational needs that must be addressed for them to successfully access education, as the existence of these barriers can impede accessibility for these students [ 35 , 45 , 51 ]. Architectural or infrastructural barriers are the most common access barriers for students with disabilities. This may be since university facilities are mostly old buildings, therefore, their spaces are not adapted to the needs of students [ 50 ], affecting their mobility.
  • - Teaching–learning process: Studies highlight several barriers to learning. Among them, the lack of preparation of teachers to use a methodology that promotes inclusion in the classroom according to the needs of their students stands out [ 39 ]. These results coincide with other studies that have been carried out on the lack of teacher training to cater for these students in higher education [ 52 , 53 ]. They also mention the difficulties of access to material resources, since in most cases they are not adapted to their needs or are limited [ 34 , 40 , 46 , 54 ].
  • - Institutional management: Students highlight that the provision of services to address the queries and needs of students with disabilities are scarce at the university level [ 44 , 55 ], as well as the lack of funding for support programmes for students with disabilities [ 32 ].
  • - In this line, and to answer the third research question posed, the way to facilitate a successful access to university education for these students, the following aspects must be addressed:
  • - Infrastructure: Students with disabilities demand multiple supports related to access to higher education, mainly related to access and mobility on campus. The elimination of the different architectural barriers, such as the absence of spaces reserved for people with disabilities, the absence of ramps, inadequate signage, or acoustic barriers in classrooms, will facilitate the movement and permanence of these students at the university [ 30 , 42 , 48 ].
  • - Teaching–learning process: It is necessary to generate a new organisational response in the attention to diversity and in teacher training [ 33 , 49 ]. Current trends in education point out that all students can be included in education through inclusion programmes, despite their educational needs, offering different opportunities to these students [ 55 ], promoting methodological changes in university institutions, and fostering inclusive education. Among these, the incorporation of Universal Design for Learning stands out to increase the participation of these students [ 50 ], as most of the resources and materials are not adapted to their needs. This would allow them to work with the rest of their classmates. Recent studies highlight the incorporation of information and communication technologies as potentially beneficial tools for the inclusion and participation of students with disabilities [ 36 ].
  • - On the other hand, to promote the training of teaching staff in the acquisition of competences to cater for the diversity of their students, training courses, and the modification of the specific training plans that are developed in the different universities are necessary [ 56 ], which are usually scarce or nonexistent.
  • - Institutional management: All students present difficulties during the educational process, therefore, it is necessary to provide assistance services for students with disabilities, in order to offer specialised support and guidance to these students [ 44 ]. Thus, assistance services for students with disabilities should be created in all university institutions, or at least, the possibility for all students who need it to have a person or scholar to help them with their integration into the university [ 31 , 47 ].

Likewise, although support throughout the educational process is necessary, it is also essential to provide support during the transition from secondary to higher education by establishing transition strategies, as all students require support. Therefore, it is not only necessary to make changes in the academic aspect, but also deep cultural changes that achieve inclusion, developing clear educational policies, establishing economic funds, as well as establishing protocols of good practices to achieve inclusion [ 37 , 38 , 43 ].

The inclusion of all these aspects has beneficial results for all these students, allowing them to successfully complete their studies, as well as enter the workforce [ 57 ].

7. Conclusions

This systematic review showed that there were many barriers that limited access to higher education for students with disabilities. Through this systematic review, we learned that, in the last decade, the difficulties of access to higher education for students with disabilities have been studied. However, ten years later, despite the considerable increase in the presence of these students in university classrooms [ 41 ] and the strategies developed so far [ 58 ], the full inclusion of these students has not been achieved. For this reason, different aspects related to infrastructure, the teaching–learning process and institutional management are necessary to facilitate the presence of these students in university classrooms. Only by improving the accessibility of higher education institutions, training university teaching staff, and raising the awareness of the educational community for inclusive education in higher education will it be possible to promote the success of students with disabilities in university education.

Finally, the implementation of teaching practices based on the principles of Universal Design for Learning could mean in the future the elimination of barriers to learning, not only for students with functional diversity, but also for other students. We are aware that improving teaching practices for students with disabilities will have a positive impact on both teaching and learning for all students.

Limitations and Future Studies

Among the limitations of our study, it should be noted that the data were extracted from scientific articles published in peer-reviewed journals addressing facilities and barriers to access and participation in higher education for students with disabilities. Future studies would also need to widen the scope to other types of papers. Future research would also need to examine the perceptions of students at other levels of education to understand the differences in their specific needs for a successful access to education.

Funding Statement

This publication is part of the project I+D+i, PID2019-108230RB-I00, funded by MCIN/AEI/10.13039/501100011033.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, J.M.F.-B., M.M.-R. and J.F.-C.; methodology, J.M.F.-B., M.M.-R. and J.F.-C.; formal analysis, J.M.F.-B., M.M.-R. and J.F.-C.; investigation, J.M.F.-B., M.M.-R. and J.F.-C.; resources, J.M.F.-B., M.M.-R. and J.F.-C.; writing—original draft preparation, J.M.F.-B., M.M.-R. and J.F.-C.; writing—review and editing, J.M.F.-B., M.M.-R. and J.F.-C.; funding acquisition, J.M.F.-B. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Informed consent statement, data availability statement, conflicts of interest.

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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A collective case study of nursing students with learning disabilities

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  • 1 Franciscan University of Steubenville, Steubenville, Ohio, USA. [email protected]
  • PMID: 14535146

This collective case study described the meaning of being a nursing student with a learning disability and examined how baccalaureate nursing students with learning disabilities experienced various aspects of the nursing program. It also examined how their disabilities and previous educational and personal experiences influenced the meaning that they gave to their educational experiences. Seven nursing students were interviewed, completed a demographic data form, and submitted various artifacts (test scores, evaluation reports, and curriculum-based material) for document analysis. The researcher used Stake's model for collective case study research and analysis (1). Data analysis revealed five themes: 1) struggle, 2) learning how to learn with LD, 3) issues concerning time, 4) social support, and 5) personal stories. Theme clusters and individual variations were identified for each theme. Document analysis revealed that participants had average to above average intellectual functioning with an ability-achievement discrepancy among standardized test scores. Participants noted that direct instruction, structure, consistency, clear directions, organization, and a positive instructor attitude assisted learning. Anxiety, social isolation from peers, and limited time to process and complete work were problems faced by the participants.

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Please note you do not have access to teaching notes, exploring efficiencies of informal learning space: a case study.

Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education

ISSN : 2050-7003

Article publication date: 9 January 2024

Systematic efforts to study students' use of informal learning spaces are crucial for determining how, when and why students use such spaces. This case study provides an example of an effort to evaluate an informal learning space on the basis of students' usage of the space and the features within the space.

Design/methodology/approach

Use of heatmap camera technology and a semi-structured interview with a supervisor of an informal learning space supported the mixed-methods evaluation of the space.

Findings from both the heatmap outputs and semi-structured interview suggested that students' use of the informal learning space is limited due to the location of the space on campus and circumstances surrounding students' day-to-day schedules and needs.

Practical implications

Findings from both the heatmap outputs and semi-structured interview suggested that students' use of the informal learning space is limited due to the location of the space on campus and circumstances surrounding students' day-to-day schedules and needs. These findings are actively contributing to the authors’ institution’s efforts surrounding planning, funding and design of other informal learning spaces on campus.

Originality/value

While most research on instructors' and students' use of space has taken place in formal classrooms, some higher education scholars have explored ways in which college and university students use informal spaces around their campuses (e.g. Harrop and Turpin, 2013; Ramu et al. , 2022). Given the extensive time students spend on their campuses outside of formal class meetings (Deepwell and Malik, 2008), higher education institutions must take measures to better understand how their students use informal learning spaces to allocate resources toward the optimization of such spaces. This mixed-methods case study advances the emerging global discussion on how, when and why students use informal learning spaces.

  • Mixed methods
  • Higher education
  • Heatmap camera
  • Informal learning space

Acknowledgements

Corrigendum: It has come to the attention of the publisher that the article, Harris, T., Birdwell, T. and Basdogan, M. (2024), “Exploring efficiencies of informal learning space: a case study”, Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education , Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/JARHE-06-2023-0267 , was published with anonymized references, masked during the peer review process. This has now been corrected in the online version of the paper. The authors sincerely apologise for any inconvenience caused.

Harris, T. , Birdwell, T. and Basdogan, M. (2024), "Exploring efficiencies of informal learning space: a case study", Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education , Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/JARHE-06-2023-0267

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The Supreme Court Is Not Done Remaking America

Some of the rulings that came before the justices’ decision on presidential immunity could prove to have just as big an impact..

This transcript was created using speech recognition software. While it has been reviewed by human transcribers, it may contain errors. Please review the episode audio before quoting from this transcript and email [email protected] with any questions.

From “The New York Times,” I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.”

When the Supreme Court wrapped up its term last week, much of the focus was on the ruling that gave Donald Trump sweeping immunity from criminal prosecution. But as my colleague Adam Liptak explains, a set of rulings that generated far less attention could have just as big an impact on American government and society.

It’s Monday, July 8.

Adam, welcome back. It hasn’t been very long, but we want to talk to you about the rest of the Supreme Court’s decisions that happened over the past few weeks, the rest meaning the non-Trump decisions. There were a lot of other cases, many of which we covered on the show over the past year, but we haven’t yet talked about where the justices landed as they issued their rulings on these cases over the past few weeks. So I wonder if you can walk us through some of the bigger decisions and what, taken as a whole, this entire term really means. So where should we start?

Well, this term had so many major cases, Michael, on so many important issues touching all aspects of American politics and society, that it’s a little hard to know where to start. But I think one way to think about the term is to ask, how much is this a 6-3 court? There are six conservatives in the majority, the three liberal justices in dissent. Are we going to get that kind of classic lineup time after time after time?

And one way to start answering that question is to look at two areas which are kind of part of the court’s greatest hits, areas where they’ve done a lot of work in the last few terms — guns and abortion.

OK, let’s start with guns.

The court had two big guns cases. One of them involved the Second Amendment and broke 8 to 1 against Second Amendment rights. Only Justice Clarence Thomas, the most avid supporter of gun rights, was in dissent. So let me tell you just a little bit about this case.

There’s a federal law that says people subject to domestic violence restraining orders, it’s a crime for them to have guns. A guy named Zackey Rahimi was subject to such a domestic violence restraining order, but he goes to court and says, this law violates my Second Amendment rights. The Second Amendment protects me and allows me to have a gun even if I’m in this status.

And that goes to the Supreme Court. And the way the Supreme Court analyzes this question is it looks to a test that it established only a couple of years ago, in 2022, which said you judge the constitutionality of gun control laws using history. You kind of go back in time and you see whether the community and the founding era disarmed people in the same way that the current law disarms people.

And you might think that actually, back in the 1700s, there were no such things as domestic violence restraining orders. So you might think that the answer is, this contemporary law is unconstitutional. But Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for an eight-justice majority, says, no, that’s not quite right. We’re going to kind of roll back the specificity of the test and look at very general principles. Can you disarm dangerous people back then? And if you can do that, then you can disarm Rahimi, even under this law that the founding generation could not have contemplated.

That’s really interesting. So the court, its conservative majority especially, seems to be saying that our last big decision made it too hard to regulate guns. We need to fix that. So we’re going to search really hard for a way to make sure that somebody with a restraining order for domestic abuse can’t legally have a gun.

Right. On the other hand, there was a second guns case, not involving the Second Amendment, but posing an important issue. The question in the case was whether the Trump administration was allowed to enact a gun control regulation in 2017 after the Las Vegas shooting in which, at an outdoor music festival, a gunman killed 58 people, wounded 500 more.

And the Trump administration, prompted by this massacre, they issue a regulation that tries to outlaw bump stocks. What are bump stocks? They’re devices that turn semi-automatic weapons into weapons that can fire at rates approaching a machine gun. And drawing on the authority of a 1934 law which bans, for the most part, civilian ownership of machine guns, it said bump stocks are basically the same thing, and we will, by regulation, outlaw them.

And the question for the court was, did the 1934 law authorize that? And here — and this is a typical split on this kind of stuff — the majority, the conservative majority, takes a textualist approach. It bears down on the particular words of the statute. And Justice Thomas looks at the words that Congress said a machine gun is one where a single function of the trigger causes all of these bullets to fly. And a bump stock, he said, is not precisely that. Therefore, we’re going to strike down this regulation.

So how do you reconcile these two divergent gun rulings, one where the court works really hard to allow for gun restrictions in the case of domestic abusers, and another where they seem to have no compunction about allowing for a bump stock that I think most of us, practically speaking, understand as making a semiautomatic weapon automatic in the real world?

I think the court draws a real distinction between two kinds of cases. One is about interpreting the Constitution, interpreting the Second Amendment. And in that area, it is plowing new ground. It has issued maybe four major Second Amendment cases, and it’s trying to figure out how that works and what the limits are. And the Rahimi case shows you that they’re still finding their way. They’re trying to find the right balance in that constitutional realm where they are the last word.

The bump stocks case doesn’t involve the Constitution. It involves an interpretation of a statute enacted by Congress. And the majority, in those kinds of cases, tends to read statutes narrowly. And they would say that that’s acceptable because unlike in a constitutional case, if it’s about a congressional statute, Congress can go back and fix it. Congress can say whatever it likes.

Justice Samuel Alito said, in the bump stocks case, this massacre was terrible, and it’s a pity Congress didn’t act. But if Congress doesn’t act, a regulator can’t step in and do what Congress didn’t do.

That’s interesting, because it suggests a surprising level of open-mindedness among even the court’s most conservative justices to an interpretation of the Constitution that may allow for a greater level of gun regulation than perhaps we think of them as being interested in.

Yeah. When we’re talking about the Constitution, they do seem more open to regulating guns than you might have thought.

OK. You also mentioned, Adam, abortion. Let’s talk about those decisions from this court.

So the Court, in 2022, as everyone knows, overturned Roe v. Wade, eliminated the constitutional right to abortion. But in two cases this term, they effectively enhanced the availability of abortion.

One of them involves emergency rooms. There’s a federal statute that says that emergency rooms that receive federal money have to treat patients and give them stabilizing care if they arrive in the emergency room. That seems to conflict with a strict Idaho law that prohibits abortions except to save the life of the mother.

The court agrees to hear the case, it hears arguments, and then it dismisses the case. It dismisses it as improvidently granted, which is judicial speak for “never mind.” But it’s very tentative. The court merely dismissed the case. It said it was too early to hear it. They’re going to look at it later. So it’s a very tentative sliver of a victory for abortion rights.

But nonetheless, the effect of this is to suspend the Idaho law, at least to the extent it conflicts with the federal law. And it lets emergency abortions continue. Women in Idaho have more access to emergency abortions as a consequence of this decision than if the court had gone the other way.

And of course, the other abortion case centered on the abortion pill, mifepristone.

Right. And that pill is used in a majority of abortions. And the availability of that pill is crucial to what remains of abortion rights in the United States. Lower courts had said that the Food and Drug Administration exceeded its authority in approving these abortion pills. And the case comes to the Supreme Court.

And here, again, they rule in favor of abortion rights. They maintain the availability of these pills, but they do so, again, in a kind of technical way that does not assure that the pills will forever remain available. What the court says, merely — and unanimously — is that the particular plaintiffs who challenged the law, doctors and medical groups who oppose abortion, didn’t have standing, hadn’t suffered the sort of direct injury, that gave them the right to sue.

And it got rid of the case on standing grounds. But that’s not a permanent decision. Other people, other groups can sue, have sued. And the court didn’t decide whether the FDA approval was proper or not, only that the lawsuit couldn’t go forward. And here, too, this case is a victory for abortion rights, but maybe an ephemeral one, and may well return to the court, which has not given an indication of how it will turn out if they actually address the merits.

Got it. So this is a court, the one you’re describing in these rulings, acting with some nuance and some restraint?

Yeah, this picture is complicated.

This is not the court that we’re used to thinking about. There are a lot of crosscurrents. There are a lot of surprises. And that was true, in those cases, on big issues, on guns and abortion. But in another set of cases, the court moved aggressively to the right and really took on the very power and structure of the federal government.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

We’ll be right back.

So Adam, tell us about these cases where the court was less nuanced, less, perhaps, judicious, and really tried to move aggressively to the right and take on the power of government?

So it’s been a long-term goal of the conservative legal movement to weaken the power of regulators, of taking on what they call the administrative state. And this term, the court really vindicated that decades-old project primarily by overruling the foundational precedent in this area, a precedent that gave expert agencies the power to interpret federal laws and enact regulations to protect consumers, investors, all manner of people.

And the court overruled that decision called Chevron. It was as important as the court, two years ago, overruling the right to abortion, one year ago, overruling affirmative action in higher education. This decision will reshape the way the federal government does its work.

Right. And Adam, as I recall, because we did a whole episode about this with you, Chevron created a framework whereby if a law has any ambiguity about how it’s supposed to play out, that the experts within the federal government, within the EPA or the FDA, you name the agency, that we collectively defer to them and their wisdom, and that that becomes the basis for how these laws get interpreted and carried out.

That’s right. And if you think about it, Michael, Congress can’t anticipate every circumstance. Congress will, on purpose sometimes, and inevitably at other times, leave gaps in the law. And those gaps need to be filled by someone. And the choice that the Chevron decision made was to say, we’re going to let the expert regulator fill in those gaps. If there are ambiguities in statutes, the reasonable interpretation of the regulator will get deference from courts.

Experts, not judges, will decide this matter, is what Chevron said 40 years ago. And it’s really hard to overstate the consequences of overruling Chevron. It will open countless, countless regulations to judicial challenge. It may actually kind of swamp the courts. The courts have relied very heavily on Chevron to make difficult decisions about complicated stuff, questions about the environment, and food safety, and drugs, and securities, questions that really often require quite technical expertise.

So what was the court’s rationale for changing that Chevron framework that’s been in place for so long?

What the six-justice majority opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts says is that Chevron was a wrong turn from the outset, that unelected bureaucrats should not be empowered to say what the law means, that that’s the job of judges. So it moves from the expert agency to federal judges the determination of all sorts of important issues. And it probably has the effect of deregulating much of American society.

I mean, in the old world, the regulator had a thumb on the scale. The regulator’s interpretation of an ambiguous statute was the one that counted. And now, the judge will have a fresh look at it. That doesn’t mean that, in every case, the challenger wins, and in every case, the regulator loses. But it shifts the balance and it makes challenges more likely to succeed.

Where else did we see this instinct by the court to challenge the government’s authority in this term?

So right after the court overturns Chevron, it issues a second decision that really amplifies the power of that decision, because it says that challenges can be brought not only in the usual six-year statute of limitations from when a regulation is issued, but six years from when it first affects a company.

And bear with me, because that’s a big difference. If I start a company tomorrow, I have six years to sue over a regulation that affects it, even though that regulation may have been in place for 30 years. So it restarts the clock on challenges, and that one-two punch, both of them decided by 6-3 majorities, go even further in reshaping the ability of the federal government to regulate.

I just want to be sure I understand something. So in the past, let’s say the Clean Water Act was passed in the 1970s. Under the old statute of limitations, a company could sue and say that regulation is a problem for six years. But you’re saying a new company formed right now could go back and sue over something in a 30 - or 40-year-old law and how it’s being interpreted. In other words, this ruling means there really isn’t a statute of limitations on challenging these regulations any longer.

That’s right. And it’s not as though you can’t form a company just for the purpose of litigation. I mean, it completely opens up the ability of industries, trade groups just to set up a trivial nothing company that will then be said to be affected by the regulation and then can sue from now until the end of time.

And the liberal justices sure understood what was happening here, that this one-two punch, as Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote in dissent, was a catastrophe for regulators. She wrote, “At the end of a momentous term, this much is clear — that tsunami of lawsuits against agencies that the court’s holdings in this case have authorized has the potential to devastate the functioning of the federal government.”

It’s a pretty searing warning.

Yeah. I mean, talking about regulations and administrative law might put some people to sleep, but this is a really big deal, Michael. And as if those two cases were not a substantial enough attack on the federal government’s regulatory authority, the court also issues a third 6-3 decision undoing one of the main ways that regulators file enforcement actions against people who they say have violated the law.

They don’t always go to court. Sometimes, they go to administrative tribunals within the agency. The court says, no, that’s no good. Only courts can adjudicate these matters. So it’s just another instance of the court being consistently hostile to the administrative state.

Adam, all three of these decisions might sound pretty dangerous if you have a lot of confidence in the federal government and in the judgments of regulators and bureaucrats to interpret things. But if you’re one of the many Americans who doesn’t have a whole lot of faith in the federal government, I have to imagine all of these rulings might seem pretty constructive.

That’s an excellent point. Lots of people are skeptical of regulators, are skeptical of what they would call the deep state, of unelected bureaucrats, of even the idea of expertise. And so for those people, this is a step in the right direction. It’s taking power away from bureaucrats and handing it to what we would hope are independent, fair-minded judges.

What does seem clear, Adam, is that even though this episode was supposed to be about the rest of the Supreme Court’s rulings this year, the less sexy-sounding decisions than Trump and immunity and how much power and protection all future presidents have, the rulings that you’re describing around the government’s administrative power, they seem like they’re going to have the greatest long-term impact on how our government functions, and in a sense, what our society looks like.

Well, the biggest case of the term is obviously the Trump immunity case. That’s a decision for the ages. But close behind these decisions, reshaping the administrative state and vindicating a long-held goal of the conservative legal movement going back to the Reagan administration, that the Federalist Society, the conservative legal group, has been pushing for decades, and really unraveling a conception of what the federal government does that’s been in place since the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal.

So as much as we’ve been talking about other cases where the court was tentative, surprising, nuanced in the biggest cases of the term, all delivered by six to three votes, all controlled by the conservative supermajority, the court was not nuanced. It was straightforward, and it reshaped American government.

In the end, a hard right court is going to, no matter how much it might deviate, operate like a hard right court.

Yes, Michael. It’s possible to look at the balance of the decisions and draw all kinds of complicated conclusions about the court. But when you look at the biggest cases, the picture you see is a conservative court moving the law to the right.

Well, Adam, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

Thank you, Michael.

Here’s what else you need to know today. “The Times” reports that four senior Democratic house members have told colleagues that President Biden must step aside as the party’s nominee over fears that he is no longer capable of winning. They include the top Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, the Armed Services Committee, and the Veterans Affairs Committee.

Those top Democrats joined five rank and file House Democrats who have publicly called for Biden to step down. The latest of those was representative Angie Craig of Minnesota, who represents a swing district in the state. In a statement, Craig said that after watching Biden in the first debate, quote, “I do not believe that the president can effectively campaign and win against Donald Trump.” Senate Democrats remain largely quiet on the question of Biden’s future.

Now, you probably heard, I had a little debate last week. I can’t say it was my best performance.

In several appearances over the weekend, Biden acknowledged the growing skepticism of his candidacy —

Well, ever since then, there’s been a lot of speculation. What’s Joe going to do?

— but emphatically rejected the calls to step aside.

Well, let me say this clearly as I can. I’m staying in the race.

And in a surprise electoral upset, France’s political left was projected to win the largest number of seats in the National Assembly after the latest round of voting. The anti-immigrant far right had been expected to make history by winning the most seats, but a last-minute scramble by left wing parties averted that result.

Today’s episode was produced by Rikki Novetsky, Shannon Lin, and Rob Szypko. It was edited by Devon Taylor and Lisa Chow. Contains original music by Dan Powell and Sophia Lanman, and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.

That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.

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When the Supreme Court wrapped up its term last week, much of the focus was on the ruling that gave former President Donald J. Trump sweeping immunity from criminal prosecution. But another set of rulings that generated less attention could have just as big an impact on American government and society.

Adam Liptak, who covers the Supreme Court for The Times, explains.

On today’s episode

case study of a student with learning disabilities

Adam Liptak , who covers the Supreme Court for The New York Times and writes Sidebar, a column on legal developments.

A group portrait of the Supreme Court justices in their black gowns, in front of a red velvet curtain.

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In a volatile term, a fractured Supreme Court remade America .

Here’s a guide to the major Supreme Court decisions in 2024 .

In video: How a fractured Supreme Court ruled this term .

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Adam Liptak covers the Supreme Court and writes Sidebar, a column on legal developments. A graduate of Yale Law School, he practiced law for 14 years before joining The Times in 2002. More about Adam Liptak

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The Transition of Students with Learning Disabilities: A Case Study

Profile image of Lynda Price

1991, Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability

Related Papers

Exceptionality

David J Connor , Wendy Cavendish , Louis Olander

High school students perspectives related to school facilitation of involvement of students in the transition process were examined. Qualitative interviews with 40 high school students with Learning Disabilities (LD) were conducted using a semi-structured interview protocol and a constant comparative approach was used in data coding. Qualitative analysis of interview data resulted in the emergence of three primary themes based on student perceptions of what works in transition planning related to (1) diploma options and course choice, (2) meaningful Individualized Education Program and Transition Plan involvement, and (3) opportunities to explore transition domains of career and college preparation. Implications for practice include a discussion of ways in which schools can facilitate meaningful student involvement in transition planning for graduation and post-school success.

case study of a student with learning disabilities

Lynda Price

Cognizance Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies (CJMS)

Cognizance Journal Multidisciplinary Studies , Pema Chhogyel

This review paper critically analyses the transition process for individuals living with disabilities as they navigate various phases of life. The transition from school to adult life for students with disabilities, especially students with learning difficulties is completely a holistic plan including various aspects. The transition process mainly focuses on four aspects related to the inclusive pathway consisting of (1) transition from school to post-school activities, (2) transition from school to adult leisure and recreation, (3) transition from home to alternative accommodation and (4) transition from mid-life to retirement. To make the life of a person with disability more effective, productive and lively, it is highly recommended to attend all aspects and facilitate accordingly.

Linda Price

CAISE Review

v scott solberg

Kelly Chang

Rhonda Palmer

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