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The Big List: Resources for Grad Students with Disabilities

Graduate students with disabilities may need extra support navigating grad school online, but with the right tools and resources they can find success. This list of resources is a great place to start for students with a variety of disabilities.

Author: Michael Hoffman

Editor: Staff Editor

When a student with a disability starts an online graduate degree or certificate program, it’s possible they may face more challenges than their peers. But with the right tools and resources, they can find success. According to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, nearly 12% of all grad students in the U.S. reported having some form of disability. Grad students with disabilities often require extra support from their schools and others. Fortunately, colleges and universities are getting better and better at providing grad students with the services, tools, and technologies they need to succeed.

This guide lays out our big list of great resources for students with a variety of disabilities. You’ll also find lots of useful information on the rights of students with special needs and the wide range of services provided by colleges and universities to meet those needs. We’ve also included an interview with a college disabilities services expert offering insight into how online grad students can make the most of the services provided by their online school and program.

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Interview with Natalie Burick

Natalie Burick

Natalie Burick is the director of Disability Services and Rock Life at Slippery Rock University (SRU) of Pennsylvania. She works with students with disabilities to ensure equitable access and removal of barriers throughout their college career. Burick is the recent winner of the SRU Breaking Barriers Award, which recognizes one staff member each year for demonstrating advocacy, leadership, and empowerment for students with disabilities.

Q. What are some of the advantages to online study for students with disabilities compared to traditional on-campus study? What are some of the disadvantages?

A: One of the advantages is that students can work at their own pace from the comfort of their home. This is especially important for students with physical disabilities or complex medical needs. Students with various learning disabilities or processing disorders may also benefit from being able to work at their own pace in an environment they are familiar with. I also see many advantages of online programs for students who are neuro-diverse and prefer the quiet environment of their own home.

One of the disadvantages is that students with disabilities may be lacking in social interaction due to feelings of isolation. They may find value in connecting with on-campus organizations, clubs, staff, and faculty. Students with disabilities who choose an on-campus education may also be able to better connect with other students who have disabilities or allies to the disability community.

Q. What’s the most important thing (resource, student service, technology, etc.) that a prospective grad student with a disability should look for in selecting an online graduate program?

A: The most important thing students with disabilities who choose an online education should immediately consider is the accessibility and quality of a school’s disability services office, campus advisor, and faculty who are teaching their courses. It’s important to discuss accommodations, learning styles, and/or challenges before making your decision.

It is also helpful to talk with disability services to ensure access to all eligible accommodations and assistive technology items such as transcription software, virtual testing accommodations, and/or electronic books/reading software systems.

Q. What are some of the biggest problems or challenges students with disabilities run into once they’ve started their online graduate programs?

A: In my experience, it’s the lack of structure. I think students tend to get too far behind because they lack structure in their own day, have issues with executive functioning, and/or lack of support at home. When taking classes on-campus, there is a support network for students with disabilities. We offer students the opportunity to come through our doors as often as needed to ensure they are on track for the semester.

There are also a lot of other resources on campus that disability services can connect students with such as success coaching, student support, health services, etc. Even if you’re an online student, it’s very important to stay as connected to your campus as possible. Through many conversations with students, I find that they often believe they are not eligible for services because they are an online student. That’s often not the case at all. At Slippery Rock University, we work with all students (virtual or in person) and connect them to campus resources.

Q. What are some of the biggest additions or changes colleges and universities have made over the last several years to improve online study for students with disabilities?

A: I can’t speak to the academic side of things, but within our Office of Disability Services and Rock Life, we have created online testing rooms for testing accommodations, offer Zoom meetings for virtual students or for students who wish to meet from the comfort of their home during a break in their work day, etc. There’s been much more of a focus to change how we work to make it more convenient for the students vs. the other way around.

Q. What’s the single most important piece of advice you have for a student with a disability on how to best prepare for and succeed in an online graduate program?

A: I want to make sure that students with disabilities understand that they’re not in this alone. Many universities have offices like ours specifically focused on ensuring student success, both on campus and off. My advice is to connect with your disability services office as quickly as possible, even if you don’t think you need them—you may be surprised at how they can help!