Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 19731 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)2 define an individual with a disability as a person who (A) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; (B) has a record of such an impairment; or (C) is regarded as having such an impairment. Institutions of higher education have legal and ethical obligations to provide qualified students with disabilities with individualized, reasonable accommodations3 to ensure that they have equal access to the learning experiences entailed in the programs, including in online learning environments. 

In Practice

In practice, addressing the needs of students with disabilities in online education settings consists of two phases:

Proactive Design

Proactive design requires course design teams to consider the needs of students with disabilities in the initial construction of the courses and activities within programs. This could include providing captions and transcripts for all video and audio based course assets, creating course material such as lecture slides following accessibility best practices, and reviewing the accessibility of any third-party tools before introducing them to students. Universal Design for Learning (UDL)4 is a popular educational framework that can guide course design teams when creating accessible learning experiences.

Reactive Actions

Reactive actions are modifications or accommodations made after the initial online course development (specifically after receiving requests from students with disabilities), such as providing additional time to complete tests. Appropriate accommodations aim to “level the playing field” for students with disabilities and provide students with disabilities equal access to educational opportunities, programs and activities.  At most post-secondary institutions, students are expected to self-disclose their disabilities so that an individualized assessment can be made to ensure appropriate academic accommodations are granted. Here at U-M, completing the Student Intake Form is the first step in the process for students to register their disabilities with the Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD). 5


As an instructor, am I allowed to encourage students to indicate their disability-related needs so that I can be better prepared?

Yes, you are able to encourage students to indicate their disability related needs. Appropriate ways include:

  • Introducing the Student Intake Form and the process to register with SSD in early stages, such as during the first class, in language including in a course syllabus, or during orientation
  • Cultivating an inclusive learning environment so that students feel comfortable to ask for help
  • Making it clear to students that they need not wait until just before the accommodation becomes necessary to register with SSD
    • Students can activate the accommodation any time after registering, and by reaching out to SSD earlier, they can expect a quicker turnaround
What are some examples of accommodations that can be requested by students in online and hybrid programs?

Accommodations can vary widely depending on the disability, its severity, and the student’s unique needs and preferences but may include:

  • Allowing additional time for completion of exams
  • Modifying attendance and participation policies for students with chronic health and/or mental health conditions
  • Modifying performance evaluations (e.g., performance in a verbal presentation) for students with speaking disabilities
  • Providing live captioning or qualified interpreters for students with hearing disabilities
Where can I find additional resources on this topic?

The Center for Academic Innovation maintains this Collection of Additional Resources.