Tips for Accommodating Invisible Disabilities in eLearning

September 27, 2016 BY EMILY GRIFFIN
Updated: June 3, 2019

An estimated 96% of people with chronic medical conditions live with an illness that is invisible. Invisible disabilities can impact student performance, and that staggering stat means that invisible disabilities are more prevalent in classrooms and eLearning environments than you think.

The Online Learning Consortium (OLC) (formerly the Sloan Consortium) presented a webinar entitled Accessibility Specialists: Understanding “Invisible” Disabilities & What this Means for Online Education. This presentation explores how educators can facilitate learning for those students whose disabilities are not readily apparent, but whose condition inhibits their learning. These disabilities can be physiological, cognitive, neurological, or behavioral.

Watch a recording of the presentation below, or read on for highlights.

What Is an Invisible Disability?

An invisible disability is a disability that is not physically apparent, but impacts an individual’s ability to go to work, study, socialize, and otherwise participate in society.

Although the disability itself creates a challenge for the person who has it, they must often deal with how others to fail to recognize, acknowledge, or accommodate their disability.

Some examples of invisible disabilities:

  • Mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc.
  • Learning disabilities like Dyslexia, ADD, ADHD, etc.
  • Neurological conditions like Auditory Neuropathy Spectrum Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injuries, etc.
  • Autoimmune disorders like Fibromyalgia, Lyme Disease, Lupus, HIV, etc.
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Chronic pain from migraines, injury, arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, etc.

Redefining Disability

Why are these invisible disabilities considered disabilities?

What impact do they have in developing university courses?

In 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendment Act (ADAAA) redefined what it means to be disabled.

Today, more people are protected under the ADA and other Federal disability nondiscrimination laws. Educational institutions are federally required to make accommodations for these individuals.

Here are some tips from the experts on how to do that effectively.

Tip #1: Follow Universal Design Principles

Kelly Hermann of Empire State College stressed that universal design has become increasingly important at her institution, both for online courses and on-campus courses.

While some faculty may be intimidated at first, Kelly urges educators to remember that they do not need to be stifled by these restrictions and that their creativity can still flourish within them.

7 Principles of Universal Design for E-Learning Instructors

  1. Equitable Use: design provides the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible; equivalent when not.
  2. Flexibile Use: design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities (e.g., Left- or right-handed access and use).
  3. Simple & Intuitive Use: design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  4. Perceptible Information: design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
  5. Tolerance for Error: design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  6. Low Physical Effort: design can be used efficiently and comfortably (e.g., online classes allow consumption of information with minimal eye strain and fatigue).
  7. Size & Space for Approach & Use: design provides for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility (e.g., LMS system allows for the use/integration of assistive devices such as a JAWS reader).

Tip #2: Design Courses Around Student Personas

Drexel University‘s Michel Miller introduced the concept of developing courses for student personas.

A common concept within product design and content marketing, personas are tools for selling products intended for a specific type of user. Real information is applied to imaginary people who represent their demographic.

At Drexel, the use of student personas have allowed faculty to create courses with the special needs of the student body in mind. Instead of reactively adjusting courses for disabled students, they design them for multiple user sets from the start.

Currently, the Online Accessibility Committee at Drexel has developed five personas:

  1. Student with a cognitive disability
  2. Student with a social or emotional disability
  3. Student with a hearing disability
  4. Student with a visual disability
  5. Student with a mobility disability

The first two personas are examples of invisible disabilities, which Michel discussed in more detail.

Persona Example: Student with Learning Disability

Jenny: 21 years old, 3rd year undergrad, Business Administration major, has difficulty with reading, linguistic, and verbal comprehension. Quote: 'I prefer to take classes on campus rather than online. That way, if I have difficulty understanding an assignment or lecture, I can ask my professor for clarification. I often find online course content confusing.'

Because of her problems with linguistic comprehension, Jenny works best when:

  • Content is structured with headings and bulleted lists
  • Labels are used consistently
  • Page layout is simple, without distracting images and animations
  • Due dates for assignments are clearly stated and easily located in the course
  • Large assignments are broken down into components and feedback is provided on each submitted component before the next one is due

Those are only a few of the ways in which accessibility advocates have come to understand Jenny’s disability.

Michel explains why developing student personas has been helpful for faculty to prepare for accommodation requests. She explains how it used to work, with faculty changing courses in a hurry as students self-identified their hidden disabilities.

“Faculty often share: ‘oh, I wasn’t even aware or thinking about students with disabilities in my course until I encountered a student with a hearing impairment, and then I was back pedaling and trying to redesign my assignments and courses to be accessible.'”

Tip #3: Train Faculty to Recognize and Respond to Disabilities Appropriately

21% of Penn State’s World Campus online students request extensions for mental health reasons
Because instructors interact with students more than any other university personnel, they are in a unique position to lay the foundation for a universally accessible online campus.

Penn State World Campus’s Keith Jervis observed that students with invisible disabilities were best accommodated when faculty were equipped to recognize and support their special needs. The World Campus achieved this with a few strategies.

First, faculty encouraged students to be open about their disabilities. This made accommodations easier to anticipate.

About 21% of Penn State’s World Campus online students request extensions for mental health problems, as opposed to only 4% of brick-and-mortar class attendees. Invisible disabilities can be even harder to detect in eLearning courses, where the need for extensions could be confused with laziness. As such, Penn State encourages students to be proactive and disclose disability at the time of admission.

Next, academic advisers of the World Campus were trained to identify language that might mean accommodation will be necessary in the future; phrases like “It takes me more time to do my assignments,” or “I had an IEP (individualized education program) in high school,” help tell the story. Identifying these students helps Penn State make sure they get the support they need.

All Penn State faculty must include a syllabus statement informing students about the Office for Disability Services.

And finally, Penn State offers an online training program that familiarize faculty with six common scenarios of teaching students with disabilities.

Tip #4: Design Accessible Websites

WebAIM’s Cyndi Rowland approaches online accessibility from the perspective of a technologist, considering some of the ways students interact with an institution before class has even begun.

Inconsistencies in web design can be annoying for anyone. Imagine having a cognitive disability that makes busy navigation confusing or distracting.

Cyndi calls for everything on the technical side to be “natively accessible,” following the WCAG guidelines. University web developers can lend some of the most comprehensive support for students and faculty with disabilities.


“Some of our students, frankly, are feeling like they’re in their own little foreign language with some of our content.”

Cyndi Rowland
Director, WebAIM


What can web developers do?

Ensure websites are designed with these characteristics:

  • Assistive Technology Compatibility: Form labels; alt text, table headers; logical heading structure; logical reading and navigation order; keyboard accessible; caption and transcripts.
  • Transformability: Support enlarged text images; support disabling of styles and images; support enabling of user styles or contrast changes.
  • Multi-modality: Content in multiple mediums; use images, audio, or video combined to enhance content comprehension; captioning and use of transcripts.
  • Logical Semantic Structure: Headings, tags, lists, and chunking.
  • Consistency: Navigation; structure; interface elements; interaction elements.


Providing support to students with invisible disabilities takes several forms.

It can be counseling and resource driven: identifying and enabling students as soon as they enroll.

It can mean training faculty and educating instructional designers.

It can mean building accessibility into the university website and learning platforms.

The bottom line, is you should assume that all students have different needs, whether they broadcast these or not.

Download the white paper: Roadmap to Web Accessibility in Higher Education

This post was originally published by Shannon Murphy on April 30, 2103 under the title “Accessibility Specialists: Understanding Invisible Disabilities and What this Means for Online Education.” It has since been updated.

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