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Eleven Best Practices to Support Learners with Disabilities in the Online Classroom

By Rebekah Dyer, Jean Mandernach / January 2024

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Learners with disabilities can thrive in the online classroom… assuming the learning environment is designed utilizing effective supports that prioritize inclusive teaching and learning. While some learners with disabilities utilize available university accommodation services to ensure the learning environment is aligned with their needs, other learners with disabilities enter college classes without asking for, or using, accommodations [1]. The reasons for not seeking formal accommodations vary widely: some want to challenge themselves, others may be intimidated by their instructors, and some simply don’t want to be singled out for their needed accommodations. Regardless of their reasons, the reality is that learners should not need to disclose disabilities to have an online learning environment that prioritizes inclusivity and adaptability. The following 11 best practices can be implemented by instructors to proactively support learners with disabilities in the online classroom:

1. Prioritize relationship over rigor. The curriculum you are using and all the resources you provide to your students may still not be enough to meet each learner’s unique needs. In many cases, their greatest need may be a relationship with you as the instructor [2]. Learners with disabilities may be hesitant to initiate a relationship with the instructor due to negative experiences in past courses (K-12 or college) and those experiences may impact how they interact with you as the instructor. Be proactive in establishing a relationship of trust and understanding with each learner. By prioritizing your relationship with the learner over content focus or rigor, you can promote engagement and overall success.

2. Identify individual learners’ needs. As you begin introductions and discussions in the online classroom, be intentional in exploring what each student needs to be successful in your class. If you receive information regarding accommodations that need to be provided for a learner with a disability, use this information as a foundation for concrete discussions about how this translates into individual needs. Ask questions to see how you can best support their learning. Ask what they need that is not currently happening in the course, which will help them be successful. It is beneficial to implement any changes that need to be made and follow up after a short time to monitor the effectiveness of those changes. Connect with the student individually beyond simply following known accommodations. When instructors take the time to recognize and understand the unique needs of learners, it affirms their value as students [3].

3. Utilize proactive teaching strategies to foster success for all learners. Everyone has specific strengths that can be a foundation for success. Learners with disabilities may struggle with a specific content area or they may struggle with executive functioning skills, such as time management. However, all learners have strengths that can be built upon [4]. Integrating assignment and activity options that employ student agency can tap into these unique strengths. By providing choices for participation, assignments, assessments, and other work in the course, learners are given the opportunity to choose something that can demonstrate their strengths. The Universal Design for Learning Guidelines can be implemented to provide multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression. These strategies lead to increased student motivation and engagement.

4. Ensure course alignment. Learners benefit from a clear explanation of the course objectives and the work they will be doing [5]. Specifically for learners with disabilities, there can be a lack of understanding and motivation at times if they do not have a clear understanding of how the content relates to the work they are doing. The same goes for understanding the assignment directions and what is expected of them. You can provide direct guidance for each concept in your course by explaining what they will be learning, what they will be required to do, and how the two are connected. This information should be provided in multiple ways including videos, announcements, infographics, checklists, etc. Creating a “roadmap” of the course that shows the connection between objectives and activities helps to situate and motivate learning [5].

5. Foster emotional safety in the online classroom. A primary goal of effective instruction is to engage the whole person; this includes the consideration of all aspects of the learner experience including cognitive, social, behavioral, and emotional components [6]. Learners with disabilities may experience unique challenges related to their health and well-being, and as such, may have a differing and unique perspective to share in the online classroom. When learners feel emotionally safe, they are comfortable sharing in the course through forums, assignments, projects, and assessments. Integrating intentional strategies to help learners with disabilities feel emotionally safe in the virtual classroom helps them to feel valued and accepted as they are.

6. Implement differentiation strategies. Differentiated instruction involves implementing instructional strategies that meet the varied needs of the learners [7]. Learners come from different backgrounds, ability levels, socioeconomic status, etc.; as instructors, we are responsible for ensuring everyone is set up for success in our class. This includes the unique needs of learners with disabilities. Differentiation can be implemented with the content, process, and product of your instruction. The content can be differentiated by encouraging thinking at various levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. The process of your instruction can target different learning preferences of your learners. Differentiation of the product of your instruction involves using a variety of assessment strategies in an ongoing, interactive process. By avoiding a static, one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and course design, you can more effectively engage all learners [7].

7. Monitor engagement. While effective instructors continuously monitor the engagement of all learners, it helps to pay specific attention to the engagement of learners with disabilities [8]. A lack of (or decrease in) engagement may be the result of their disability; by proactively monitoring engagement, you can adjust your supports if issues arise. Instructors should reach out to learners if they are not engaged in the initial discussions of the course and/or if you notice a decrease in their engagement. If you notice any type of change in their behavior or tone, you will want to initiate contact. The contact should be framed in a positive manner to demonstrate your concern and desire to support them.

8. Focus on a growth mindset. Learners with disabilities may struggle with motivation due to challenges or lack of success in past courses. They may come into your course already feeling discouraged or have misconceptions about their ability to be successful. Learners with disabilities need to be encouraged to have a growth mindset. Rather than avoiding challenges, we want learners to persevere and put effort into challenging themselves and building new skills. You can support a growth mindset by listening to their challenges and providing specific feedback for growth [9]. In addition, you can share inspirations and encouragement when they do push through difficulties. Learners can be inspired by you sharing your own struggles and successes in learning and other areas of your life. Most importantly, instructors can support learners with disabilities by serving as a model of a growth mindset.

9. Establish your preferred mode of communication. We all have a preferred mode of communication that is most effective and convenient for our success. As instructors we need to have options for our students to communicate with us so that they can choose the one that is most comfortable and effective for them. Learners with disabilities may shy away from more direct modes of communication such as videoconferences or phone calls. They may prefer email or virtual with no camera. While it is appropriate to encourage learners with disabilities to expand their communication skills across all modes, it is more important to ensure they are comfortable communicating with us. Learners with disabilities have a higher rate of anxiety in communicating [10] with their instructors and giving them options can alleviate that anxiety.

10. Solicit feedback. Solicit feedback from learners a few weeks into the course to gauge how things are going for them. Rather than relying on traditional mid-term or end-of-course student surveys, create an informal check-in opportunity for students to share their experiences and concerns [11]. You can ask students what is going well, what they are struggling with, what resources they are using, what additional resources would help them, if they understand assignment feedback, their preferred mode of communication, or anything else that can help you adapt the learning environment to be more effective. Learners with disabilities may feel more comfortable sharing feedback through this modality, rather than reaching out to the instructor individually. 

11. Reflect and modify. Using the insights gleaned from student feedback allows you to identify if learners’ needs are being met and modify instruction as needed. The reality is that learners’ needs are continuously changing, so strategies that have worked well in the past may be less effective now or less valuable for a particular class of learners [12]. Further, learners with disabilities may have specific needs that you have not encountered before, thus prompting adjustments that may be unique to this class. Monitoring and adjusting instruction not only promote more effective learning but simultaneously foster a positive, collaborative relationship with your learners.

With the appropriate supports, instructors can directly impact the academic success of learners with disabilities. Inclusive teaching doesn’t need to be time or labor-intensive; most strategies can be easily incorporated into instruction… yet have a significant impact on learners with disabilities who may otherwise silently struggle [13]. By intentionally focusing on meeting the unique needs of learners with disabilities, you can foster relationships and connections that will impact their success in not only your online course but throughout their entire educational journey.


[1] Dyer, R. Inclusion and accessibility for students with disabilities in higher education. In E. Meletiadou (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Promising Practices for Advancing Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education. IGI Global, 2022, 301-314.

[2] Sethi, J. and Scales, P. C. Developmental relationships and school success: How teachers, parents, and friends affect educational outcomes and what actions students say matter most. Contemporary Educational Psychology 63 (2020). 101904.

[3] Greene Nolan, H. l. Rethinking the grammar of student-teacher relationships. American Journal of Education 126, 4 (2020), 549–572.

[4] Madden, W., Green, S., and Grant, A. M. A pilot study evaluating strengths‐based coaching for primary school students. In J. Passmore and D. Tee (Eds.), Coaching Researched: A Coaching Psychology Reader. Wiley, 2020, 297–312.

[5] Park, J.-H., Lee, I. H., and Cooc, N. The role of school-level mechanisms: How principal support, professional learning communities, collective responsibility, and group-level teacher expectations affect student achievement. Educational Administration Quarterly 55, 5 (2018), 742–780.

[6] Ferreira, M., Martinsone, B., and Talić, S. Promoting sustainable social emotional learning at school through relationship-centered learning environment, teaching methods and formative assessment. Journal of Teacher Education for Sustainability 22, 1 (2020), 21–36.

[7] Bondie, R. S., Dahnke, C., and Zusho, A. How does changing “one-size-fits-all” to differentiated instruction affect teaching? Review of Research in Education 43, 1 (2019), 336–362.

[8] Moriña, A. The keys to learning for university students with disabilities: Motivation, emotion and faculty-student relationships. PLOS ONE 14, 5 (2019).

[9] Farmer, T. W. and Lemons, C. J. Handbook of Special Education Research. Routledge, 2022.

[10] Aguirre, A., Carballo, R., and Lopez-Gavira, R. Improving the academic experience of students with disabilities in higher education: Faculty members of social sciences and law speak outInnovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research 34, 3 (2021), 305–320.

[11] Flanigan, A. et al. Initiating and maintaining student-instructor rapport in online classes. In Proceedings of the 2022 AERA Annual Meeting. AERA, Washington D. C., 2022.

[12]Usher, M., Hershkovitz, A., and Forkosh‐Baruch, A. From data to actions: Instructors' decision making based on learners' data in online emergency remote teaching. British Journal of Educational Technology 52, 4 (2021).

[13] Bunbury, S. Disability in higher education – do reasonable adjustments contribute to an inclusive curriculum? International Journal of Inclusive Education 24, 9 (2018), 964–979.

About the Authors

Dr. Rebekah Dyer, a full professor at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, AZ, is an esteemed educator and advocate for individuals with disabilities. As the Branch Council Executive Committee Chair and National Board Member of the International Dyslexia Association, she is deeply committed to fostering inclusion across all settings. Dr. Dyer's passion extends to her involvement with the Lopes Academy, an advisory board where she teaches classes in a two-year certificate program, providing opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities to experience college. She organizes an annual Disability Week on campus, promoting awareness and inclusion. With a research focus on Autism Spectrum Disorder, Dr. Dyer has presented internationally and published multiple articles, elevating discussions on special education, dyslexia, differentiated instruction, and disability ministry. Her teaching strengths lie in building relationships, effective communication, and engaging classrooms.

Jean Mandernach, Ph.D. is executive director of the Center for Innovation in Research on Teaching at Grand Canyon University. Her research focuses on enhancing student learning experiences in the online classroom through innovative instructional and assessment strategies. She explores strategies for integrating efficient online instruction in a manner that maximizes student learning, satisfaction, and engagement. In addition, she has interests in innovative faculty development and evaluation models, teaching and learning analytics, emergent instructional technology, and faculty workload considerations. Mandernach is an active researcher, author, presenter, and consultant in the field of online education.

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