A Framework for Supporting Postsecondary Learners with Psychiatric Disabilities in Online Environments


  • Scott Grabinger


cognitive impairments online education, universal design for learning


Elena has a psychiatric disability: bipolar (manicdepressive) disorder. Daniele suffers from depression. Both are serious cognitive disorders that have significant effects on learning, especially learning online. One of the problems students with psychiatric disabilities encounter is finding support in online environments, especially when 10, 50, 100, or even 6000 kilometers from the originating university. Students with disabilities represent a growing number of students in postsecondary education. As the opportunities for online education continue to grow exponentially, so does the number of students with cognitive disabilities, like Elena and Daniele. Unfortunately, this is often a forgotten group because of ignorance and fear in society. Taking online courses is an important option for all students. As we will see, at the same time an online course can be difficult for students with disabilities; it also has advantages. Access to online instruction needs to be made available to students with cognitive disabilities just as it is for students with learning, mobility, PTSD, and traumatic brain injury disorders. The fundamental question, then, of this paper is "what can be done to improve access, retention, and success for the 14% of postsecondary students with cognitive impairments taking online classes?" Targeting specific types of impairments are not an efficient option, given that even the same kinds of impairments often present themselves in different ways. Rather, this paper develops a conceptual framework around work done by the Center of Applied Special Technology in the application of recognition, strategic, and affective brain networks to improve instruction related to cognitive impairments including attention and memory, language, executive function, problem solving, and social interaction. Additionally, I recommend turning the locus of support for students with cognitive impairments 180°, addressing support for students at the instructional level instead of the institutional level, which usually takes the learner out of the classroom. This has the negative effect of making the students feel as if they are not part of the class, and it delays support until the disabilities office has time to help the learners. This just‑in‑time approach based on instructional strategies personalizes instruction, minimizes frustration, and encourages persistence„leading to better learning and success. [Caveat: Statistics and the nature of the problems here describe the situation in the United States of America and are not meant to make assumptions of the postsecondary situation in Western Europe.]



1 Mar 2010