Office of Civil Rights: Ensuring equitable access to online learning


by Kelsey Ortiz

As online learning and digital applications expand into almost every aspect of a student’s education and as fully online, blended, and supplemental online course programs continue to expand, state departments and school districts must consider how implementation of this wide range of digital options impacts equity in educational opportunities for families and students with disabilities.

When I interviewed nineteen parents of children with disabilities attending virtual schools in ten states, parents revealed that none of the children received assistive technology assessments to identify barriers to access computer hardware or software. This was especially concerning since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) clearly states that “each public agency must ensure that assistive technology devices or assistive technology services…are made available to a child with a disability.”

During one of the interviews, I spoke to a parent of a child with a disability attending a virtual school, and she said her son was unable to interact with his peers during a synchronous online discussion because the chat box was too small for him to see and type in. Unable to enlarge the chat box because of system constraints, her son was limited in the interactions he could engage in with his classmates during the live lessons. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only issue that was brought up during the parent interviews.

The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) (2011) ensures access and equity for students with disabilities in digital learning environments by requiring that they have full access to all technologies so they can “acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services” as students without disabilities. The guidance urges schools against the use of technology unless first considering those who may need accommodations in order to access digitally-delivered academic material. If the school does use digital tools, then the school must ensure that students with disabilities are provided necessary accommodations and modifications that allow them to receive comparable educational benefits intended by using the technologies. Pressure from OCR may prompt schools to review existing practices and future initiatives through a more refined lens, resulting in equitable and inclusive learning environments.

Some of these recommendations are available from OCR findings, as shown in the bulleted list below:  

  • Online schools and digital programs should have a website where information is perceivable, operable, and understandable for all users. Even a program as respected as Florida Virtual School (FLVS) ran into issues with parts of its site not being compliant.

  • Online schools and digital programs should make accommodations to ensure all digital content can be accessed by students with disabilities. A virtual school in Washington was cited for implementing a discriminatory policy that limited the type of student accommodations the school would provide. 

  • Online schools and digital programs must provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) by implementing specially designed instruction. A virtual school in California was cited for failure to provide this.

These OCR guidelines can be used by educators as road signs, pointing programs and schools toward deeper discussions and more comprehensive policies, particularly in the areas of assistive technology, website accessibility, and special education provisions.


Resources for Online Programs and Schools

Web Accessibility Initiative -

Center on Technology and Disability -

U.S. Department of Education Individuals with Disabilities Education Act -

About the Author

Kelsey R. Ortiz is the founder and director of the Inclusive Digital Era Collaborative (iDEC). She hopes to inspire states to have deeper policy discussions around digital learning and equal access for all students. Her work with state education agencies includes IDEA policy development in online learning environments, IEP compliance and training in virtual schools, and advocacy for parents seeking equitable school choice options.