Printer Friendly


THE ACCOMMODATION NEEDS of students with disabilities has been a subject of concern to social work educators for at least two decades (see Alperin, 1988; Cole & Cain, 1996; Cole, Chirst, & Light, 1995; James & Thomas, 1996; Madden, 1995; Weinberg, 1978). With the passage and implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, social work educators began to articulate the unique learning needs of their students with disabilities in the language of "reasonable" and "appropriate" accommodations. The intention of such accommodations was to remove barriers to access and to equal participation in the educational process (see Cole & Cain, 1996; Cole et al., 1995). At the same time, a technological revolution was taking place in the domain of information technology with broad implications for social work practice and education (e.g., Cwikel & Cnaan, 1991; Marson, 1997; Marson, Cogswell, & Smith, 1994; Nurius, 1995; Schoech, 2000; Visser, 1995; Weinberg, 1996).

Computer-mediated communication in the form of Intranet-based (proprietary agency computer networks) and Internet-based information exchange and retrieval has become an increasingly prevalent resource for social work practice (Finn, 2000; Henrickson & Mayo, 2000; Holden, Bearison, Rode, Kapiloff, & Rosenberg, 2000; Marson, 1997; Weinberg, 1996). Over one quarter of all social work education programs have websites, as do a number of private practitioners (Marson, 1997). In a survey of social workers who regularly use the Internet, almost 94% reported that online services improved their professional capabilities (Marlowe-Carr, 1997). However, the Internet's potential as a resource for social work practice is just beginning to be developed (Marson, 1997). The Internet provides a promising new learning media for social work education, and a new context for the accommodation of students with disabilities.

The Internet has only recently been explored as a learning medium in the research literature on social work education (e.g., Faux & Black-Hughes, 2000; Latting, 1994). It has also recently been examined in other areas of higher learning, such as education (Murphy & Collins, 1997), educational psychology (e.g., Anderson, 1996), student affairs (Strange & Alston, 1998), organizational psychology (Hantula, 1998), human sexuality and research (Rosen & Petty, 1995), psychology (Krantz & Eagley, 1996), and sociology (Southard, 1997). These studies tend to describe a single course and relate the experience of students and faculty newly introduced to the Internet as a learning and communication medium. Most examine student receptivity to the medium and chronicle their acclimation over time while monitoring the quality and degree of student interactivity with Internet-based resources (e.g., on the World Wide Web) and with each other (e.g., real-time or asynchronous "chats"). Although several investigators have raised the issue of ensuring the pedagogical integrity of computer-mediated education (e.g., Anderson, 1996; Hantula, 1998; Johnson & Huff, 2000; Latting, 1994; Schoech, 2000), the context of these discussions has often been a concern for preparing instructors and students for online research or collaborative learning online. Less consideration has been given to the challenge of preparing the educational medium for the learner.

The underlying assumption in most discussions of Internet learning seems to be that computer-based communications provide a transparent, or universally comprehensible and accessible, medium for learning, provided that the student is appropriately trained and skilled. There appears to be a notion of a "generic" or "universal" user (learner) behind the notion of a transparent medium. Similarly, the notion of a generic or universal user has led to the creation of both public and private facilities and services that have proven inaccessible to individuals with disabilities who do not fit the "mold." In this respect, the accommodation of students with disabilities taking Internet-based courses is at much the same stage as the accommodation of individuals with disabilities prior to the passage of legislation recognizing the discrimination inherent in public services designed without regard to disability-related impairments.

Legislatively Mandated Academic Accommodations

Two key pieces of federal legislation have recognized the right of individuals with disabilities to participate fully in society, and the corresponding responsibility of private and public entities to create accommodations that make such participation feasible. Those pieces of legislation are the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the ADA of 1990. Both acts have been applied in the context of higher education. The guidelines for accommodating students with disabilities are grounded in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the ADA (Cole & Cain, 1996; Scott, 1994). The language of accommodations is largely drawn from the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. That act covers many, if not most, institutions of higher learning because it prohibits discrimination against individuals with a disability within any organization receiving federal assistance, such as grants and contracts (Cole & Cain, 1996). The ADA is the direct descendant of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and uses the language of the earlier Rehabilitation Act. The ADA is chiefly distinguished from its predecessor by the scope and depth of its charter, which forbids discrimination against persons with disabilities in many public and private entities, and across a wide range of activities, from employment to telecommunications, public services, and transportation.

The Rehabilitation Act requires "appropriate academic accommodations" for all students who are "otherwise qualified." Appropriate academic accommodations are those adaptations to the style or mode of instruction, course content, or assignment deadlines that will permit an "otherwise qualified" student with a disability the same access to educational activities as those enjoyed by nondisabled students. "Otherwise qualified" refers to a determination by the educator, the institution, or both that the student is able to meet the academic and technological standards required for participation in a program of study, with or without appropriate academic accommodations. Some examples of appropriate academic accommodations include allowing more time for completion of an assignment for students with a traumatic brain injury, employing an interpreter for students with a hearing impairment, providing typed lecture notes for students with learning disabilities, and using large type on handouts for students with visual impairments.

There is mounting evidence that computer technology promises to broaden the experience of student learning by using dynamic new interfaces with materials, instructors, student peers, and others (Burgstahler, 1995; Finn & Smith, 1997; Nurius, 1995; Rosen & Petty, 1995; Sticks & Freddolino, 2000; Visser, 1995). Students with disabilities also stand to benefit from the educational potential of computer-mediated education (Lathrop, 1996). Moreover, because of its global reach and potential for interactivity, the Internet is an appealing medium for conducting social work education (Marson et al., 1994; Latting, 1994; Wernet, Olliges, & Delicath, 2000). However, an examination of certain aspects of the medium suggests that social work students with disabilities will face new challenges concerning course work accommodations online. In this article, the phrase "online course work" refers to Internet-based courses using electronic mail (email), and electronic bulletin boards, as well as information and assignments posted on the Web. A brief consideration of some limitations in the accessibility of online course work for students with disabilities follows.

Limitations to Online Accessibility

Although it has been theorized that email communications will make students feel safer to self-disclose than face-to-face communication, that effect may be conditional. A number of investigators have reported an increased willingness of email group participants to self-disclose (e.g., Rosen & Petty, 1995; Weinberg, 1996; Weinberg, Schmale, Uken, & Wessel, 1996), but in each instance trust was developed early in the group formation process. That trust appears to have played an important role in participant readiness to self-disclose. Unfortunately, it cannot be assumed that the online medium is inherently conducive to building trust because it can eliminate self-consciousness, geographic, and social categorization-based barriers to open communication. In fact, because of the medium's more limited set of cues and constricted social context it may, under some circumstances, actually hamper the development of a trusting environment. For example, anticipated levels of self-disclosure and open communication failed to appear in the context of a computer-mediated social work course. Students in the course reported the formation of divisive subgroups due to the misinterpretation of several instructor postings as evidence of favoritism toward a small "in-group" of students (Latting, 1994). The lack of contextual cues together with varying aptitudes for self-expression among students using email led to a widening rift between the so-called in-group and their peers that was difficult for the instructor to address. Both email content and its absence was interpreted by the so-called out-group as further evidence of inequities (Latting, 1994).

There is also some question about the robustness of the tendency toward online self-disclosure in the absence of certain preexisting aspects of community--specifically, shared experiences-- among participants. Participants in several of the studies claiming to find an increased willingness to self-disclose online (e.g., Rosen & Petty, 1995; Weinberg, 1996) had some face-to-face contact to complement their online encounters. Moreover, the participants in the Weinberg and associates (1996) study on emotional support online all shared the same (and significant) problem: breast cancer. Breast cancer provided a strong basis for an instant communal bond, and thus may have compensated for the social distance that might come from exclusively computer-mediated communications. Similarly, in an empirical study of home email users, Stafford, Kline, and Dimmick (1999) found that relationship maintenance via email was associated with strong preexisting relationships, such as friendships and family relationships.

When physically dispersed individuals who share a significant relationship (e.g., friends), or share a significant common concern (e.g., breast cancer), exchange support and converse using computers, they create a "virtual community" (Wellman & Hampton, 1999; Wellman, Salaff, Dimitrova, Garton, Guila, & Haythornwaite, 1996). Much like geography-based communities, such virtual communities may create "social capital," or resources for cooperative action, through the development of instrumental aid, bonds of affiliation, social exchange, and support among members. In their discussion of virtual communities and social capital, Blanchard and Horan (1998) suggest that virtual communities are more enduring and robust when supplemented with face-to-face interactions among members. An empirical study of computer-mediated social networks among a university research group conducted by Haythornwaite and Wellman (1998) similarly concludes that face-to-face encounters provide the context for email-based exchanges and relationship building. Hence, it appears that social work educators will need to provide opportunities for group members to develop bonds through face-to-face interactions, if computer-mediated exchanges are to provide the benefits of mutuality, safety, and reciprocity that are characteristic of community.

The social cost of anonymity on the Internet is particularly poignant in the context of students with disabilities, because computer-mediated communications render the very notion of disability abstract and intangible. With a dearth of face-to-face contact and direct experience, the learning challenges and strengths of students with disabilities may be rendered invisible to classmates and instructors. Opportunities to create relationships based upon mutual knowledge and respect may be lost with a false presumption of sameness. Paradoxically, the opacity of the medium to certain disability-related characteristics of individual learners has the potential to actually decrease the likelihood of the student receiving an adequate and appropriate accommodation.

There are several reasons for anticipating accommodation challenges in the new learning medium of computer-mediated communications. To begin with, students with invisible disabilities may be less likely to get the accommodation they need, and more likely to demur from asking for needed supports (Cole & Cain, 1996). In the context of computer-mediated communications, social work educators may be unaware of the challenges around making Internet-based materials accessible and appropriate for students with disabilities. For instance, social work educators may falsely assume that Web-based materials are always useful and comprehensible without translations or adaptations. The assumption that Web-based materials are immediately accessible, or transparent, might lead social work educators to underestimate the need for building Internet-based accommodations into both course design and implementation.

The actual state of Internet-based accommodations is improving thanks to recent public and private initiatives announced by the Clinton administration in September 2000. In order to develop guidelines for making the Web accessible, the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research has allocated 2.5 million dollars over five years to a cooperative program with the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) (Daley, 2000). The WAI provides research and development, technology, guidelines, tools, education, and outreach aimed at making the Web more accessible (Daly, 2000).

In support of creating standards for online learning, the U.S. Department of Education is providing 1.8 million dollars to the National Center for Accessible Media (Daly, 2000). Among the private initiatives was a pledge by CEOs of more than 45 technology giants, including Microsoft and America Online, to create corporate policies in support of developing accessible products and services in accordance with "best practices" (Daly, 2000). In the nonprofit sector, the presidents of 25 research universities pledged to expand their commitment to accessible information technology by promoting faculty research on accessibility and by making online services accessible (Daly, 2000).

Despite these hopeful and important developments, the present state of Internet-based accommodations for students with disabilities can still prove daunting. As one writer noted, "For students with disabilities, the Web can be like a classroom without a ramp" (Young, 1998, p.1). The challenges of "ramping up" the Web and other Internet learning materials for students with disabilities vary with the nature of the student's impairment and the online documents. For example, in order for Web pages to become accessible to students who are blind or have a severe visual impairment, specially equipped browsers must be used, and so-called Alternative Text (ALT) must be provided for every image. The ALT text should use discrete lines, punctuation, and symbols denoting separation such as brackets to avoid confusion when two mutually exclusive images are side by side. Moreover, the ALT text should convey the intended meaning or significance of the image and provide both context and particulars as indicated. For example, a photograph of a student reading in the social work library that appears on a school's Web page alongside a figure showing the school's racial and ethnic composition is better rendered as two distinct, contextualized phrases than as one continuous string. Thus, two meaningful and clearly demarcated descriptions of the images--"student reading at Mull Library in the School of Social Work," and "the School has an ethnically and racially diverse student body as indicated by ..."--are preferable to a single ambiguous description: "Student reading a diverse student body."

Descriptions provided by ALT text can then be read aloud or translated into Braille by a machine interface (Young, 1998). This translation process can be accomplished using a refreshable Braille display, such as the Rotating-Wheel Based Braille display. This newly developed unit continuously updates digital input from the computer in the form of Braille cells on a two to five inch wheel, and is read horizontally as the text (raised cells) moves left to right under the finger (National Institute of Standards and Technology, 2000). Alternatively, the translation process can be accomplished using a voice synthesizer (Young, 1998). Unfortunately, descriptive ALT text is seldom included in Web pages for student use (Young, 1998). In another example illustrating the need for technological adaptations, individuals who are deaf may require elaborate transcripts of the verbal narratives attached to texts, or other audio recordings (e.g., recorded sounds from natural environments) that are increasingly integrated into Web pages. In the realm of hardware adaptations, students with a head injury might benefit from a larger (17-inch) computer monitor to compensate for visual problems that can lead to incomplete screen scanning, or spatial neglect, that is, failing to perceive areas within a given visual field (Rattock, 1994).

The way information is presented on the Web can be simplified to accommodate individuals with a variety of disabilities. Young (1998) recounts how a reorganized course page benefited students who are blind (by cueing what information is most important), and students with severe physical disabilities who use a mouth stick (by requiring fewer keystrokes). Similarly, a student with a learning disability would benefit from a more straightforward presentation of information. For example, a course page that contains large blocks of information could be redesigned to provide the same major points with headings, subheadings, and bullets. Rather than organizing the information by subject, the information could be organized by theme, which would correspond to the lecture topic themes.

As the technology for online courses becomes more advanced, interactive graphical and animated features will pose new challenges for "electronic curb cut" accommodations--technological adaptations that remove barriers to the free flow of information (Young, 1998). The guidelines being developed by the World Wide Web Consortium focus on users who are blind, deaf, or have physical disabilities ("New Guidelines," 1998). Those guidelines, although valuable, may not be applicable to all students with disabilites. For instance, students with learning disabilities might require different accommodations. They might benefit from multisensory communications that employ visual and auditory information. For example, a Web page devoted to principles of community development might include photographs of community projects along with brief recordings of community meeting proceedings. Such texts would require considerable adaptation for students who are blind or deaf, particularly with respect to the recorded community meeting proceedings, which would be difficult to capture adequately through a transcription. Individuals who are deaf, and whose first language is not English, might also face challenges with email or text-based Web courses. American Sign Language might be a student's first language, putting them at a disadvantage in an English-only email discussion. A similar dilemma may face students with a physical or psychiatric disability. These students may benefit from courses that involve more social interaction and less social isolation. In this regard, the findings of a recent Carnegie Mellon study on Internet use at home may have sobering implications. The study found that increased Internet use was associated with a decline in social involvement and increased depression (Kraut, Patterson, Lundmark, Kiesler, Mukopahyay, & Scherlis, 1998). Thus, the accommodation challenges facing social work educators and students with disabilities require careful consideration of the specific online medium and the student's particular learning needs.

Another challenge posed by the electronic medium to making appropriate accommodations arises from the fact that social work educators may not have the additional context ordinarily provided by face-to-face communications to enrich their assessment of the learning accommodation needs of a student with a disability. This could be particularly vexing in the case of students with learning or psychiatric disabilities, whose impairments could be mistaken for poor work habits in the absence of additional cues provided by interpersonal interactions.

Target Areas for Internet Accommodations

Clearly, computer-mediated education involves some potential pitfalls, as well as benefits for students with disabilities. The challenges associated with online accommodations can be addressed by social work educators in terms of four key issues: student privacy, online class etiquette, instructor ethics, and pedagogical integrity.

Student Privacy

Because of the ease with which Internet messages can be copied and transmitted, the potential exists for sensitive disclosures relating to a student's disability to be distributed without that student's knowledge or consent. Although the same potential for breach of confidence exists in the context of any classroom disclosure, the impact of a confidential statement copied from the student's personal communications via the Internet could be far more devastating to the privacy of that individual. For example, a student with a disability who has chosen not to disclose his or her disability to the class as a whole may have mentioned an activity related to that disability in an email to a particular classmate. That email could then be copied as part of a longer dialogue to everyone. Inattention to a seemingly innocent remark could lead to involuntary disclosure of disability.

For this reason it is critical that class members agree to abide by strict guidelines about the storage and distribution of sensitive class discussion emails. Due to the fact that students will sometimes simply append new messages to old ones when using the reply button, the distribution of appended messages should receive special care. Faculty and students should contract around these issues at the beginning of a course, both to invest students in the rules and procedures and to allow the students' unique conceptions of online classroom etiquette to shape the final product. Students' conceptions of fair and appropriate classroom procedures may differ from those of their instructor (Tom, 1998), and need to be taken into account.

Just as the Internet has the potential for threatening the privacy rights of students with disabilities, it also has the potential for bringing about the reverse situation: a strengthening of student privacy. The medium makes possible user anonymity, permitting a student to disclose a disability and to engage his or her classmates in a discussion under the cloak of complete privacy. Anonymity can be achieved by giving students numbered temporary email accounts at the beginning of the semester, with the key known only to the instructor. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that anonymity in a classroom setting is not always desirable. In fact, under some circumstances, anonymity can work against the kind of trust-building that contributes to sharing ideas and experiences, so the cloak of anonymity needs to be used with discretion.

Online Class Etiquette

The contract of online etiquette has some important repercussions for guarding the privacy of disabled student disclosures. At the same time, the issue of online etiquette extends beyond strict privacy considerations. Online etiquette must also take into account the unique challenges facing individuals with a disability as they negotiate a digitalized landscape designed for nondisabled users.

Previous authors have noted that online class etiquette needs to go beyond rudimentary issues of "netiquette," which typically prohibits "flaming" (personal attacks) and other forms of uncivil discourse (see Hantula, 1998; Latting, 1994; Murphy & Collins, 1997). Inappropriate email content or destructive email postings that contain personal slurs or barbs are clearly unacceptable, but certain other behaviors can also be unacceptable. For example, engaging in "side conversations" by using personal posts during group posting sessions, or dominating conversations by bulk of text, as in the case of asynchronous discussion (Latting, 1994) ought to be unacceptable. Most especially in consideration of students with disabilities, speed of reply in the case of synchronous "chats" (Murphy & Collins, 1997) should not be a criterion for either participation or evaluation. Thus, online etiquette must comprise content and behavioral concerns alike; both of which could be banded together under the title of "good citizenship" behaviors in online communities (Blanchard & Horan, 1998).

However, in the context of accommodating students with disabilities, good citizenship behaviors, while necessary, are not sufficient. An historical analysis of the treatment of persons with disabilities reveals that their wishes and aspirations have been subordinated to those of the nondisabled majority (Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 1996). Mackelprang and Salsgiver (1999) attribute the unjust treatment of people with disabilities in part to an assumption on the part of nondisabled individuals that people with disabilities value "help" or "fixing"--normalization--more than autonomy or self-determination. In essence, they propose that the belief among many nondisabled people that individuals with disabilities cannot adequately care for themselves or create meaningful goals contributes to the treatment of disabled people as second-class citizens.

A recent study comparing Swedish and English adolescents' attitudes toward the presence of people with intellectual disabilities in the community provides some indirect support for Mackelprang and Salsgiver's proposition. The investigators found that the beliefs that nondisabled individuals hold about the care needs of people with intellectual disabilities influences their willingness to consider them worthy of equal treatment (Hastings, Sjoestroem, & Stevenage, 1998).

As a counterweight to this societal normalization bias, several authors have proposed practice models that emphasize the strengths of individuals with disabilities (e.g., Gilson, Bricout, & Baskind, 1998; Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 1999). A consumer-driven perspective is proposed that seeks to affirm the autonomy of individuals with disabilities in a social work practice characterized by facilitation, advocacy, collaboration, open-mindedness, and active listening. Nondisabled persons are urged to collaborate with individuals who have a disability on facilitating change in either those individuals' personal life circumstances or in societal structures and practices, rather than to direct such change. Perhaps most fundamentally, social workers are encouraged to attend to individual needs and aspirations rather than preconceived categories of need associated with a disability type or diagnostic category (Gilson et al., 1998; Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 1999). In the context of online etiquette this may mean honoring the expression of opinions and preferences on the part of students with disabilities that may run counter to the previously contracted guidelines for disclosure of disability and disability-related information.

In other words, if a student with a disability prefers to disclose his or her disability, or to discuss some aspect of his or her experience without using the cloak of anonymity, that preference should be honored, even if it contradicts a rule mandating anonymity for such disclosures. The reverse also holds true; persons with disabilities should not be expected to self-disclose under the cloak of anonymity, but must reserve the right to determine if and when they might wish to confide such information. The social work educator has the responsibility to uphold the rights of students with disabilities to define themselves and their experiences, even if that self-definition runs counter to convention or to formulaic responses to disability.

Instructor Ethics

Fairness is a paramount value for instructors conducting online courses, particularly given the high visibility and durability of electronic discourse (Latting, 1994; Murphy & Collins, 1998). Ill-considered words and behaviors do not simply hang in the air, they burn on the screen. In the context of making accommodations for students with disabilities, fairness takes on a more formidable aspect because other students may find such accommodations discriminatory against them. Or they may view certain accommodations as a form of favoritism. For instance, exempting a student with a physical disability who uses an infrared pointer from participation in synchronous online ("live chat") discussions might raise a question of fairness for students who are particularly slow typists, or whose first language is not English. The social work educator must then be able to satisfactorily differentiate the challenges faced by the student with a physical disability from those of the other students who are experiencing difficulties learning. At the same time, he or she must make it clear to the nondisabled students that the purpose of accommodations is to facilitate participation to the greatest degree possible, not to create different standards of behavior. Such an exchange could provide the vehicle for a learning opportunity and discussion for the entire class. When a disabled student desires to self-disclose free of the cloak of anonymity, contrary to the guidelines established by the preexisting class contract, other students may question why the contract cannot be breached to accommodate their needs. Again, a clear exposition by the social work educator of what accommodations mean in the context of the online classroom would be warranted.

In these situations, social work educators take on an advocacy role, not only for the disabled student in question, but also for the principle of accommodations in the classroom. Advocacy, as it concerns online classroom accommodations, extends far beyond the class roll to include school and university administrators, parents, and service providers. Devices that make it possible for persons with disabilities to participate online, such as voice synthesizers, head pointers, Braille keyboards, and text magnification screens, are also considered "assistive technologies," or devices that facilitate the participation of persons with disabilities in life activities. Some potential funding sources for assistive technologies include the state or federal departments of rehabilitation services, Medicaid, and the Veterans Administration. The Social Security Administration funds the Individualized Written Rehabilitation Program which can include assistive technologies under the rubric of rehabilitation technologies (Armstrong & Wilkinson, 1998). Alternative sources of funding include private insurance, civic or religious groups, and philanthropic organizations (Armstrong & Wilkinson, 1998).

For additional information on how to secure needed resources and supports, social work educators can turn to the emerging published literature on Internet accommodations and support for guidance (e.g., Burgstahler, 1995; Hadjadi, Bouzidi, & Burger, 1998; Kapperman, Hahn, Heinze, & Dalton, 1997; Wisor, Miller, & Kreutzer, 1998). Social work educators can also consult a variety of Internet-based resources (see Appendix). In addition to providing guidelines for general classroom accommodations, these online resources provide links, information, and assistance for educators wishing to learn about accessible Web-based instructional materials.

In their advocacy efforts, social work educators must also respect student confidentiality. Should the social work educator be in search of information, funding, or any other support on behalf of a student with a disability, it will be important to carefully guard confidential information about the student. In this regard, the social work educator should keep confidential the student's academic performance to the greatest extent possible, in order not to bias perceptions of need. When academic confidentiality is breached, a student who needs a screen text magnification device may only be given a modified magnifying glass because she is doing well academically and is not presumed to need more costly aids.

Reasonable Accommodations to Make Computer-Mediated Learning Accessible

Assistive technologies are one element of the reasonable accommodations required by the ADA for students "otherwise qualified," but these technologies will only be effective if an instructor has clearly identified the essential components and requirements of the online course (Cole et al., 1995; Scott, 1994). Knowing what the essential components and requirements of a course are, and knowing how students with disabilities might achieve them--with or without reasonable accommodations--are pedagogical concerns.

Pedagogical Integrity

It seems clear that an instructor must consider the unique needs of his or her students with disabilities when making accommodations. But even prior to this stage, before any students with disabilities have been identified, it is important that an instructor use sound pedagogical principles to plan a course that will generally accommodate potential students with disabilities. To begin with, it is helpful to consider some of the broad challenges of computer-mediated technology to accessibility and equitable participation in the learning process for students with disabilities. There is an imminent threat to sound pedagogical principles in what is termed "technological determinism," or the tendency for technology-related values (such as speed and efficiency) to overshadow values related to the task at hand: in this instance, social work education. It is in this manner that the medium (computer-mediated education) does indeed become the message. Computer-mediated education offers the potential of ever-greater levels of interactivity, but only at the price of making corresponding demands on the user, for whom no adaptive devices may yet exist.

The dilemma lies not in whether to use computer-mediated education technology, but in deciding how and when to use it. Perhaps one time not to use it would be when the cutting edge of technology has outrun the capabilities of many students with disabilities to engage it. For example, it would be best not to use multisensory Web-based materials when these materials outstrip the capacity of machine interfaces to translate the visual and tactile information coherently into other sensory channels. Alternately, it may be appropriate to replace an online class session with a face-to-face class session. When classes are offered exclusively online, critical face-to-face learning opportunities might be lost--such as when nondisabled students see a peer with a physical disability actually using accommodations and assistive technologies. Again, pedagogical, not technological, priorities must guide course design.

Stewart and Williams (1998) have delineated two aspects of technological determinism of great relevance to online courses and accommodations. They discuss technological determinism in terms of harmful "simplifications," in which multifaceted social choices (e.g., access/ equity/equality) are "simplified" into dichotomous technological options (e.g., old/new; fast/slow). The first simplification they attribute to technological determinism is the extrapolation of technological change as an inevitable and inexorable shaper of events (Stewart & Williams, 1998). This aspect of technological determinism could emerge in online courses designed in a way that forces students to use every available browser (or portal) in the ever-expanding pursuit of new sources of information. As discussed earlier, many of these portals might be inaccessible to students with disabilities for a variety of reasons. This leads to the second simplification attributed to technological determinism by Stewart and Williams (1998): technological change is the legitimate and legitimizing engine of social and economic change. In the context of online classroom accommodations, this suggests that one effect of technological determinism may be to compel students with disabilities to find ways to adapt to the priorities and procedures of their technological tools. Thus, students with disabilities are relegated to the pursuit of ever more sophisticated translators and other adaptations, rather than participating in the design of online materials and procedures that reflect their unique needs and interests, along with those of nondisabled individuals.

Designing the components and requirements of an online course is the same as for any other course, with the crucial exception that some attention must be given to the impact of using a medium that may present information in a manner that is difficult to interpret in the process of learning. The instructor cannot assume a transparent process for the student with a disability when technology is involved. Instead, he or she must ascertain how the online learning process is mediated by the student's abilities and by the available technological tools. In this assessment the student is an invaluable collaborator and co-investigator. In the context of appropriate academic accommodations, it seems most sensible to tweak the process (if necessary) only enough to obtain the desired participation and learning. It may not be necessary to duplicate the experience of the other learners exactly. This is because the goal is to maximize learning outcomes and experience, not necessarily to normalize every aspect of learning. A focus on normalizing every aspect of learning implies that there is only one way to learn. In concrete terms, this means that if a student with a severe physical disability who uses a head pointer to communicate on the Internet cannot participate in a real-time "chat," she nonetheless should be given full credit for participation once evidence is provided that she engaged mentally in the dialogue. The student ought not to be penalized because the available technology could not support her participation in the dialogue, when she was nonetheless able to learn from the discussion that took place online. The goal is, of course, to create new technological interfaces and inclusive educational designs that will allow for more equivalent exchanges, but the objective still need not be exact duplication of process, procedure, or experience.


Several brief suggestions are made to address the issues around accommodating online students with disabilities in social work courses. First, it is recommended that there be opportunities for face-to-face student and faculty exchanges. At a minimum, there should be some kind of face-to-face interaction at the beginning of the semester. This is suggested in order to help create a sense of community, out of which better communications may result. Optimally, the online portion of the course would be supplemented with face-to-face interactions throughout the semester. This would be particularly helpful in providing additional contexts for the interpretation and exchange of sensitive information (e.g., disability-related disclosures). In this fashion misunderstandings arising from a largely decontextualized Internet exchange could be put into context and resolved. Furthermore, social work educators would have additional information on which to base their accommodation assessments and plans of action, while benefiting from student inputs.

Second, it is recommended that the student's request for online accommodations be made in person. Making appropriate accommodations can entail a fairly complex process, even if the outcome is a simple adaptation, adjustment, or change. The iterative assessment process that is critical to finding a suitable accommodation is aided by the additional information revealed in face-to-face communications.

Third, it is recommended that social work educators become familiar with some of the assistive technologies, technical assistance, and online resources for making computer-mediated education more accessible to students with disabilities. It is also suggested that social work educators consider the implications for student learning of a technology calibrated for nondisabled students--for whom it may still be a challenge. By becoming more familiar with some of the practical, ethical, and pedagogical challenges around accommodating students with disabilities online, social work educators may be able to better anticipate those challenges, and to systematically create a more favorable learning environment both online and off.


Alperin, D. E. (1988). The physically disabled BSW student: Implications for field education. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 2(2), 99-111.

Anderson, M. (1996). Using computer-mediated conferencing to facilitate group projects in an educational psychology course. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments & Computers, 28(2), 351-353.

Armstrong, A. J., & Wilkinson, M. R. (1998). Assistive technology from a user's perspective. In P. Wehman & J. Kregel (Eds.), More than a job: Securing satisfying careers for people with disabilities (pp. 225-246). Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Blanchard, A., & Horan, T. (1998). Virtual communities and social capital. Social Science Computer Review, 16, 293-307.

Burgstahler, S. E. (1995). Distance learning and the information highway. Journal of Rehabilitation Administration, 19, 271-276.

Cole, B. S., & Cain, M. W. (1996). Social work students with disabilities: A proactive approach to accommodation. Journal of Social Work Education, 32, 339-349.

Cole, B. S., Chirst, C. C., & Light, T. R. (1995). Social work education and students with disabilities: Implications of Section 504 and the ADA. Journal of Social Work Education, 31, 262-268.

Cwikel, J. G., & Cnaan, R. A. (1991). Ethical dilemmas in applying second-wave information technology to social work practice. Social Work, 36, 114-121.

Daly, J. (2000). World Wide Web Consortium works to bridge "digital divide": Web accessibility initiative director presenting at White House digital divide event [Online]. Available at http://www/ w3org/2000/09/wai-whitehouse.

Faux, T. L., & Black-Hughes, C. (2000). A comparison of using the Internet versus lectures to teach social work history. Research on Social Work Practice, 10(4), 454-466.

Finn, J. (2000). A survey of domestic violence organizations on the World Wide Web. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 17(1), 83-102.

Finn, J., & Smith, M. (1997). The use of the World Wide Web by undergraduate social work education programs. The Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work, 3(1), 71-84.

Gilson, S. F., Bricout, J. C., & Baskind, F. R. (1998). Listening to the voices of individuals with disabilities. Families in Society, 79, 188-196.

Hadjadi, D., Bouzidi, A., & Burger, D. (1998). Making the Internet accessible to the visually handicapped. In S. Sprigle (Ed.), The state of the arts and science: Proceedings of the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America 1998 Annual Conference. Minneapolis, MN: RENSA Press.

Hantula, D. A. (1998). The virtual industrial/ organizational psychology class: Learning and teaching in cyberspace in three iterations. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, & Computers, 30, 205-216.

Hastings, R. P., Sjoestroem, K. E., & Stevenage, S. V. (1998). Swedish and English adolescents' attitudes toward the community presence of people with disabilities. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 42(3), 246-253.

Haythornwaite, C., & Wellman, B. (1998). Work, friendship, and media use for information exchange in a networked organization. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 49(12), 1101-1114.

Henrickson, M., & Mayo, J. R. (2000). The HIV Cybermall: A regional cybernetwork of HIV services. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 17(1), 7-26.

Holden, G., Bearison, D.J., Rode, D. C., Kapiloff, M. F., & Rosenberg, G. (2000). The effects of a computer network on pediatric pain and anxiety. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 17(1), 27-47.

James, P., & Thomas, M. (1996). Deconstructing a disabling environment in social work education. Social Work Education, 15(1), 34-45.

Johnson, M. M., & Huff, M. T. (2000). Students' use of computer-mediated communication in a distance education course. Research on Social Work Practice, 10(4), 519-532.

Kapperman, G., Hahn, S., Heinze, T., & Dalton, S. M. (1997). Project vision: Visually impaired students and Internet opportunities now. Sycamore, IL: Research Development Institute.

Kraut, R., Patterson, M., Lundmark, V., Kiesler, S., Mukopahyay, T., & Scherlis, W. (1998). Internet paradox: A social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well-being? American Psychologist, 53(9), 1017-1031.

Krantz, J. H., & Eagley, B. M. (1996). Creating psychological tutorials on the World Wide Web. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, & Computers, 28, 156-160.

Lathrop, D. (1996). Mentoring by modem: The do-it program uses the Internet to nurture a new generation of disabled scientists. Mainstream, 21(2), 25-27.

Latting, J. K. (1994). Diffusion of computer-mediated communication in a graduate social work class: Lessons from "the class from hell." Computers in Human Services, 10(3), 21-45.

Mackelprang, R. W., & Salsgiver, R. O. (1996). People with disabilities and social work: Historical and contemporary issues. Social Work, 4, 7-14.

Mackelprang, R. W., & Salsgiver, R. O. (1999). Disability: A diversity model approach in human service practice. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Madden, R. G. (1995). Disability law and undergraduate social work education: Practicing what we preach. Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work, 1(1), 71-83.

Marlowe-Carr, L. C. (1997). Social workers online: A profile. Computers in Human Services, 14(1), 59-70.

Marson, S. M. (1997). A selective history of Internet technology and social work. Computers in Human Services, 14(2), 35-49.

Marson, S. M., Cogswell, D., & Smith, M. L. (1994). Commonly asked questions about electronic communication and computer networking. The New Social Worker, I(2), 12-15.

Murphy, K. L., & Collins, M. P. (1997, November 3). Communication conventions in instructional electronic chats. First Monday [Online serial], 2(11). Available at http:// index.html.

National Institute of Standards and Technology (2000). The NIST rotating-wheel based refreshable Braille display [Online]. Available at Braille.

New guidelines aim to make Web pages accessible to disabled. (1998, February 13) The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A29.

Nurius, P. S. (1995). Critical thinking: A metaskill for integrating practice and information technology training. Computers in Human Services, 12(1/2), 109-126.

Rattock, J. (1994). Computer training in cognitive remediation of the traumatic head injured. In W.L. Zagler, G. Busby, & R. R. Wagner (Eds.), Computers for Handicapped Persons. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Rosen, E. F., & Petty, L. C. (1995). The Internet and sexuality education: Tapping into the wild side. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, & Computers, 27, 281-284.

Schoech, D. (2000). Teaching over the Internet: Results of one doctoral course. Research on Social Work Practice, 10(4), 467-486.

Scott, S. S. (1994). Determining reasonable academic adjustments for college students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 2 7, 403-412.

Southard, P. A. D. (1997). Expanding horizons: Electronic communication and classroom teaching in sociology. Social Science Computer Review, 15, 427-430.

Stafford, L., Kline, S. L., & Dimmick, J. (1999). Home e-mail: Relational maintenance and gratification opportunities. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 43(4), 659-669.

Stewart, J., & Williams, R. (1998). The coevolution of society and multimedia technology: Issues in predicting the future innovation and use of ubiquitous technology. Social Science Computer Review, 16, 268-282.

Strange, C., & Alston, L. (1998). Voicing differences: Encouraging multicultural learning. Journal of College Student Development, 39(1), 87-99.

Stocks, J. T., & Freddolino, P. P. (2000). Enhancing computer-mediated teaching through interactivity: The second iteration of a World Wide Web-based graduate social work course. Research on Social Work Practice, 10(4), 505-518.

Tom, G. (1998). Faculty and student perceptions of classroom etiquette. Journal of College Student Development, 39, 515-517.

Visser, A. (1995). Computers in education: Added value leading toward better quality. Computers in Human Services, 12(1/2), 99-108.

Weinberg, L. K. (1978). Unique learning needs of physically handicapped social work students. Journal of Education for Social Work, 14(1), 110-117.

Weinberg, N. (1996). Compassion by computer: Contrasting the supportiveness of computer-mediated and face-to-face interactions. Computers in Human Services, 13(2), 51-63.

Weinberg, N., Schmale, J., Uken, J., & Wessel, K. (1996). Online help: Cancer patients in a computer-mediated support group. Health & Social Work, 21(1), 24-29.

Wellman, B., & Hampton, K. (1999). Living networked on and offline. Contemporary Sociology, 28(6), 648-654.

Wellman, B., Salaff, J., Dimitrova, D., Garton, L., Guila, M., & Haythornwaite, C. (1996). Computer networks as social networks: Collaborative work, telework, and virtual community. Annual Review of Sociology, 22, 213-238.

Wernet, S. P., Olliges, R. H., & Delicath, T. A. (2000). Postcourse evaluation of WebCT (Web Course Tools) classes by social work students. Research on Social Work Practice, 10(4), 487-504.

Wisor, D., Miller, M. A., & Kreutzer, J. S. (1998). Brain injury online: Assessing and using the Internet for consumers and healthcare professionals. NeuroRehabilitation, 10, 67-73.

Young, J. R. (1998, March 13). For students with disabilities, the Web can be like a classroom without a ramp. The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A31.

Appendix: Internet-Based Instructional and Accommodation Resources

Information of concern to disabled students in higher education. (Association for Higher Education and Disability: AHEAD).

Links to disability resources on the Internet. (Rochester Institute of Technology Social Work Department, BPD Home Page).

Faculty guide for students with a disability. (University of North Texas, Office of Disability Accommodation).

Resource list, post-secondary education. (Pacer Center).

Resource list, university/education disability. (Jim Lubin's disability Resources).

Accommodations information for students, faculty. (Stanford University, Disability Resource Center).

Resource list, disability-related higher education issues, links to Gallaudet and other organizations. (National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities).

Disability accessibility guidelines from the World Wide Web Consortium. (Web Accessibility Initiative).

Web accessibility guidelines and design information. (Microsoft Accessibility: Technology for everyone).

Information on Web design and assistive technology for visually impaired and blind students. Also provides links to other Web accessibility sites for people with disabilities. (Texas School of the Blind and Visually Impaired).

Accepted: 2/00.

Address correspondence to: John C. Bricout, Washington University in St. Louis, George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Campus Box 1196, One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO 63130-4899; email:

JOHN C. BRICOUT is assistant professor, George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Washington University in St. Louis.

This project was partially funded by Research Training Grant H133P970003 from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, U.S. Department of Education. It was based upon a conference paper delivered at the Disability Issues Symposium of the 45th Annual Program Meeting of the Council on Social Work Education, in San Francisco, CA, March 13, 1999.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Council On Social Work Education
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:social work education
Publication:Journal of Social Work Education
Date:Mar 22, 2001

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters