Research has demonstrated that technology has made an impact on digital learning for students with disabilities. Students with special learning needs have been identified by using one of the following “subgroups”: those with visual disorders, hearing disorders, specific learning disabilities i.e. dyslexia, slower cognitive functioning i.e. slower thought processes, difficulty in concentration, autism, neurological or other diseases, complex cognitive, emotional and social difficulties, speech and language impairments and several of the aforementioned difficulties (Bjekić Obradović, Vučetić, & Bojović, 2014, p. 130). Is it simply looking at the common gaps; what are the pedagogy needs to include a critical examination of our digital learning tools used for students with disabilities, what can schools and students afford, whom does it exclude? We need to consider what we value, asking our students, what kinds of relationships do they want to develop with other students and educators and how that can be accomplished by incorporating a digital learning environment accessible for students with disabilities.

Even though the use of technology has the potential to support students with disabilities, Burgstahler (2002) raises some key issues and insists the opportunities technologies can afford “will not be realized ... unless stakeholders (a) become more knowledgeable about appropriate uses of technology, (b) secure funding, and (c) work together to maximize the independence, participation, and productivity of students with disabilities as they transition to college, careers, and self-determined lives” (p. 5).

Positive Impacts

Digital education has afforded students with disabilities new opportunities in learning.

  • Simulations allow the practice of everyday life skills and “[t]hey can offer self-pacing, repetitive practice, consistency, immediate feedback, variable conditions, and designs that address all learning modalities” (Zionch, 2010).
  • Digital readers address a number of issues for students with learning disabilities. “For example, text can be displayed at any size on a screen or in print, as speech, in the context of a concept map, or as Braille (either printed or on a refreshable Braille device), among others. An image can be presented in print or on-screen at any size and with colors modified to increase visibility, as a text or spoken description, or as a summary of the image’s importance and implications for the context in which it is found” (Hitchcock, Meyer, Rose, & Jackson, 2002, p. 12).
  • Multimedia offers the ability to present information in many different modes, thus accommodating different learning styles and allowing accommodations for students with disabilities (Sloan, Stratford, & Gregor, 2016).
  • Web 2.0 technologies allow learners to access materials and knowledge in many different ways, thus supporting different learning styles and approaches. Digital technology “can be used to create learning environments which open up spaces to develop creativity and collaboration and which are appealing to learners who have problems in conventional learning/teaching environments; support inclusion through promoting empowerment, self-esteem and confidence-building…” (Bjekić et al., 2014, p. 131).
  • Cullen, Cullen, Hayward, and Maes (2009) identified certain elements involved in the successful learning of all students when e-learning is delivered. They identified “existing levels of basic digital literacy; the cultural and social mix of participating learners; and the presence and quality of support available from other sources, for example, referent social groups (family, peers, classmates) and group interaction and social support”as the key factors for success in digital learning environments (Bjekić et al., 2014, p. 131).
  • Hall, Cohen, Vue, and Ganley (2015) demonstrated the use of Strategic Readers for students with learning disabilities in combination with universal designs for learning and curriculum-based measurements “ improv[ed] reading comprehension for all students ” (p. 80).

In addition to the above impacts in the use of technologies for students with disabilities, we (Clemens, Wimmer, Williams, Fahrenbruch, & Hatzigeorgiou, personal communication, May 30, 2018) identified the following during our discussions:

  • Technology can essentially afford students equal access to otherwise inaccessible curriculum
  • Learning strategies can be developed based on testing supported by technology. It enables the educator to determine where the learner is at and how to support them best.

Other perspectives and implications:

Kaye (2001) named a huge barrier to the effective use of technologies with students with disabilities, stating that “[a]lthough the benefits of technology may be even greater for people with disabilities than for those without disabilities, individuals with disabilities are less likely to own a computer or to use the Internet” (Burgstahler, 2002, p. 3).

Furthermore, we (Clemens et al., personal communication, May 30, 2018) identified, through our combined learned experiences working within the education field, the following barriers for students with disabilities:

  • In order for students to be able to access accommodations for learning a diagnosis is necessary (BC Ministry of Advanced Education, 2011, p. 8).
  • Within BC, if the diagnosis is not established before the age of 19, testing will be expensive and create a barrier for many students (Popova, Lange, Burd, Chudley, Clarren, & Rehm, 2013, para. 3).
  • A diagnosis before the age of 19 is often hindered by parents due to potential issues with shame because of self-disclosure (for FASD) or simply admitting to disabilities (Popova et al., 2013, para. 17).
  • Administrative issues (not agreeing to testing) or having to work with third parties is often difficult (Clemens et al., personal communication, May 30, 2018).
  • The need to be labelled with an identified disability in order to receive support makes it difficult to actually help someone (Clemens et al., personal communication, May 30, 2018).
  • In BC a considerable gap exists between the 0-5 early education field and the K-12 system. Children that are identified and diagnosed in childcare have a strong team of educators, health professionals and parents working with them. These teams meet every six months to create individual education plans. Once children enter kindergarten these supports get reassessed, which takes time, and can cause children to fall through the cracks due to the difficulty of getting the supports reinstated to the same level. This move from one type of care to another can often mean that students are potentially lost in the system without help (Clemens et al., personal communication, May 30, 2018).
  • Different education ministries run differently and this means standards are different across Canada (Clemens et al., personal communication, May 30, 2018).
  • In order for technology provisions to be successful, there is a need for support from all levels of education. This includes the learners, guardians, educators and administration (Clemens et al., personal communication, May 30, 2018).
  • To address the introduction of technology supports, first guardians need to feel safe and supported to disclose potential information leading to correct diagnoses. Once these factors are met the educator has the ability to work towards using the correct technology in facilitation (Clemens et al., personal communication, May 30, 2018).
  • The Individual Education Plan (IEP) should be viewed as a working document. Adjustments to any annual program goals, learning expectations, teaching strategies, individualized equipment, and levels of human support should be noted as they occur and shared with both the parent and the student (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2018, par 2, p. 47).


As educators, we have an ethical responsibility to evaluate, plan, support and create an individualized learning environment for all students who can be empowered to be agents of change. Digital learning environments will empower students to meet and exceed the Ministry of Education’s standards.

Burgstahler (2002) recommends the full involvement of students during the selection of specific technology tools and suggests “ that they [students] learn to self-advocate regarding their needs for accessible technology in the classroom and workplace” (p. 5).

Bjekić, Obradović, Vučetić, and Bojović (2014) support these views with the belief that inclusivity in teaching meets the needs of all students with disabilities and that every student is part of a diverse community (p. 132). With the use of technology we are able to address individual needs of identified students with disabilities and are able to support them on their journey of learning. A simple digital learning tool, creates confidence, inclusion, and the ability to keep up to their individual education plan (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2018).


Bjekić, D., Obradović, S., Vučetić, M., & Bojović, M. (2014). E-teacher in inclusive e-education for students with specific learning disabilities. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 128, 128-133. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.03.131

British Columbia Ministry of Advanced Education. (2011). The Disability Services Framework: Guidelines for the Accommodation of Students with Disabilities Attending Post-Secondary Education in British Columbia. Retrieved from https://studentaidbc.ca/sites/all/files/school-officials/disability_services_framework.pdf

Burgstahler, S. (2002). Bridging the Digital Divide in Postsecondary Education: Technology Access for Youth with Accessibilities. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED475504.pdf

Hall, T., Cohen, N., Vue, G., & Ganley, P. (2015). Addressing learning disabilities with UDL and technology: Strategic reader. Learning Disability Quarterly, 38 (2), 72-83. doi:10.1177/0731948714544375

Hitchcock, C., Meyer, A., Rose, D., & Jackson, R. (2002). Providing New Access to the General Curriculum Universal Design for Learning. Teaching Exceptional Children, 35 (2), 8-17. doi.org/10.1177/004005990203500201

Ontario Ministry of Education, (2018). The individual education plan (IEP). Resource Guide for 2004. Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/general/elemsec/speced/guide/resource/iepresguid.pdf

Popova, S., Lange, S., Burd, L., Chudley, A.E., Clarren, S.K., & Rehm, J. (2013) Cost of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Diagnosis in Canada. PLoS ONE 8 (4): e60434. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0060434

Sloan, D., Stratford, J., & Gregor, P. (2016) Using multimedia to enhance the accessibility of the learning environment for disabled students: reflections from the Skills for Access project, ALT-J, 14 (1), 39-54. doi: 10.1080/09687760500479936

Zionch, A. (2011). Digital Simulations: Facilitating Transition for Students With Disabilities. Intervention in School and Clinic 46 (4), 246-250. doi: 10.1177/1053451210369514


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