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Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet FS1333

Engaging Individuals with Developmental Disabilities in Virtual Programming

  • Jeannette Rea-Keywood, 4-H Agent, Department of 4-H Youth Development
  • Michelle F. Brill, Family and Community Health Sciences Educator, Mercer County
  • Brittany Libby, Graduate Student, School of Social Work, Rutgers University

Extension educators creatively and successfully adapted many in-person educational programs to virtual formats in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, taking advantage of continuous technological advances. Virtual platforms offer many advantages that have proven to be effective in reaching clientele, especially when the platforms include accessibility features to meet the needs of individuals with developmental and other disabilities. It is important to be aware of the needs of all learners, and to utilize methods and strategies to effectively engage everyone in the learning experience.

Developmental Disabilities

According to the World Health Organization, disability is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. Developmental disabilities are a group of conditions due to an impairment that is related to learning, behavior, language, and/or communication. More than six million individuals in the United States have developmental disabilities. About one in six children between the ages of 3 and 17 in the U.S. has one or more developmental disability or developmental delay (CDC, 2020).

Developmental disabilities include but are not limited to learning disability (LD), attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD) including Asperger's syndrome, intellectual disability (ID), sensory processing disorder (SPD), and Tourette syndrome (TS). While honoring the strengths of every person with developmental disabilities, knowledge of the challenges faced by individuals with these diagnoses is important to support access and inclusion.

Generally, all types of disabilities can fall into one of two categories: hidden or visible. Hidden disabilities are not visibly apparent, whereas visible disabilities are immediately apparent (Terras, Anderson & Grave, 2020). Expanding upon this idea, the Rutgers University Office of Internet Technology Accessibility (OITA) identified that disabilities may be visible, not visible to others (invisible), and/or not self-apparent to the individual experiencing the disability. Learners with developmental disabilities often fall into the category of learners with invisible disabilities.

When planning educational programs, promotional materials should include a statement that encourages participants to contact the program organizer to share any information regarding their disability and learning needs. Program participants should work with the program organizer to arrange the best means to meet their needs.

Laws and Web Accessibility Guidelines

The law requires that virtual programming utilize methods which do not discriminate and therefore must effectively engage individuals with developmental disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-325), and Section 508 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as well as state laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. Specifically, Section 508 requires federal agencies to provide individuals with disabilities equal access to electronic information and data comparable to those who do not have disabilities, unless an undue burden (e.g., significant difficulty or expense) would be imposed on the agency. Though not required, many state agencies have incorporated these provisions into their accessibility policies.

Although the ADA does not have a defined accessibility standard and Section 508 does, the legally binding provisions do not specify guidelines for online education platforms. The ADA applies to education settings, both private and public. As a result, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has published essential guidelines regarding online inclusion of people with disabilities. Since 1999, WAI’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are considered the foundational resource for the accessible design of all online platforms (WAI, 2021). Given the continuous development of online technology, the WCAG are updated on a semi-annual basis. It is imperative that all online platforms adhere to the WCAG standards.

Inclusion of Online Learners with Developmental Disabilities

Inclusion means to involve individuals with disabilities in the same clubs, events, activities, and programs as individuals without disabilities. It is vital that all participants are provided with equitable opportunity to learn and develop their skills. Inclusion results in a rewarding experience for all involved, including greater self-reliance and self-confidence, a dynamic learning experience, and increased engagement for participants with and without disabilities.

While all online learners need varying levels of support to be successful, learners with disabilities need more purposeful and intentional support (Terras, et al., 2020). Challenges faced by learners with developmental disabilities will present differently depending upon an individual’s diagnosis, their specific needs, as well as any former experience with online learning. Educators’ understanding of each participant may then inform the educational approach, methods, and tools used to engage online learners.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is widely considered the most effective tool to “level the playing field.” UDL is intended to enhance access to learning by reducing physical, cognitive, intellectual, and organizational barriers and other obstacles to learning. It is a way of thinking about teaching and learning that helps give all students an equal opportunity to succeed. UDL allows educators to accommodate individual learning differences and include all learners through flexibility in teaching. It gives learners the opportunity to access materials and engage at their own ability. A learning environment where learners feel supported and successful will lead to a more beneficial experience and positive outcomes. The three principles of UDL include:

  1. create (or use) multiple means of representation (content);
  2. create multiple means of engagement (activities); and
  3. provide multiple means of actions and expression (assessment).

Identification of Learner Needs and Abilities

Assessing a baseline of needs and expectations prior to the start of educational programming will be an asset to the integration of inclusive tools and to the promotion of online accessibility for learners with developmental disabilities. Tools such as registration forms, questionnaires, or “lesson zero” (introductory or preparatory session before a lesson series formally begins) can give learners and their parents/guardians, the opportunity to self-identify disabilities, learning styles, need for accommodations, learner’s expectations, social needs, as well as a baseline for future lesson content. For example, online educators may discuss with learners whether they require online accommodations, are able to read written text, whether they are able to independently send an email with an attachment, or need handouts or slides ahead of time (WAI, 2021).

The ADA does not require an individual to disclose a disability unless they are seeking an accommodation or modification. There may be a multitude of reasons that might prevent a learner from fully disclosing their learning style and/or developmental disability in pre-participation questionnaires, registration forms, or discussions. As a result, educators should consistently utilize universal design tools for inclusion in online learning forums by designing online content and communicating program activities in a way that is accessible for all users, with or without disabilities (OITA, 2020).

Educators should utilize the knowledge gained regarding learners' needs for online accommodations. Educators can include tools such as online tutoring and resources that support greater organization and time management to create inclusive online platforms for learners with developmental disabilities (Terras, et al., 2020).

Virtual Program Considerations

There are three learning styles: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. When considering inclusion, educators should note that a large proportion of individuals with developmental disabilities are visual learners (OITA, 2020). Given the dominant reliance upon visual content for online resources, accessible online education can be a powerful learning tool. Being mindful of using visual content appropriately will create a successful learning environment for people with developmental disabilities, however educators need to be aware that a threshold exists for the amount of multimedia content used in any one lesson. Overstimulation is especially challenging for learners with developmental disabilities. As a result, using a variety of online resources for any one lesson should be done with discretion and focus of content.

Determining learners’ success in understanding and applying program content is an important part of program evaluation. Given the diverse styles and abilities of learners, educators should integrate multiple forms of evaluation to determine both learner accomplishments and program outcomes.

Content and Formatting

According to the WAI (2021; 2019), common barriers for people with developmental disabilities include, but are not limited to:

For diverse learners with developmental disabilities, non-flashing and relevant images or graphics can be helpful supplements to text (OITA, 2020). Educators must note that flashing lights and images may trigger seizure for learners with certain disabilities and fast-moving or rapid transition and changing activities may overstimulate learners with some developmental disabilities such as autism and attention deficit disorder. Educators should never rely upon the color of an image or the color of text to communicate key concepts as this would be ineffective for those with color blindness or visual impairment associated with their developmental disability. Reliance upon black and blue colors is most accessible for learners.

When facilitating online programming that utilizes diverse forms of media, educators must embrace a slowed pace, giving directions or procedures one step at a time, provide enough time for learners to read and use content, and to show the work that they have done before moving on to a new activity (WAI, 2021). Slowing the pace of programming will also allow learners to respond to visual cues and to locate important content on the screen or the appropriate speaker during live video calls.

Organization and consistent formatting aid the online accessibility of learners. Educators can support individuals with developmental disabilities through the modeling of consistent organizational skills, scheduling of content, and clearly communicating daily program schedules. Overall, educators should aim not to surprise learners with unexpected content nor diverge from the agenda or plan at the last minute.

Online learners with developmental disabilities can benefit from the slow pace and focused nature of content by ‘chunking’ educational material. Chunking is a process of segmentation or reorganization that results in a reduced number of information units, called chunks. (De Kleine, 2009). Focusing content into chunks will particularly help learners with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, and will prevent too much distraction, overwhelming information, or confusion regarding learning objectives (De Kleine, 2009). By chunking material, educators also exhibit organization, slowed pace of shared materials, and focus upon content for specific themes, as well as the potential for ongoing assessment of learners’ needs.


Agencies and institutions have a legal responsibility to make content accessible through appropriate formatting and delivery. Amidst technological advancements and increased reliance upon online programming, educators must be mindful of the ongoing need to adapt their online programs to ensure accessibility for learners with developmental disabilities.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2020. Facts about Developmental Disabilities. Accessed February 26, 2021.
  2. De Kleine, Elian, and William B. Verwey. Motor Learning and Chunking in Dyslexia. Journal of Motor Behavior 41 (4), 2009: 331–38.
  3. Iowa State University Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. (2015–2021). Universal Design for Learning. Accessed March 16, 2021.
  4. Office of Internet Technology Accessibility (OITA), Rutgers University. PowerPoint Accessibility. Online Accessibility Training Lecture, October 2020.
  5. Terras, Katherine, Sarah Anderson, and Shannon Grave. Comparing Disability Accommodations in Online Courses: A Cross-Classification. Journal of Educators Online 17 (2), 2020.
  6. Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). 2021. Curricula on Web Accessibility: A Framework to Build Your Own Courses. Accessed March 16, 2021.
  7. Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). 2019. Design and Develop Overview. Accessed March 16, 2021.
  8. Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). 2021. How to Make Your Presentations Accessible to All. Accessed March 4, 2021.

July 2021