Accessing Ability Through Digital Means


Carl S. Moore, PhD, Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning Faculty Member (2015 Graduate), @carlsmoore

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Items created for marginalized people are now being used for everyone to succeed. This blog discusses variations of ability and ways we can extend access to all learners through digital means. Both are topics discussed in detail among members of Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning. Applications for the IELOL 2022 Program are open until April 29.


Variation of Ability

During a meeting, a colleague joked stating, “More than likely, we all were born in the 20th  century. Yet, many of our students were not.” Though stated sarcastically, I immediately recognized the significance of the statement. Not only are we from different centuries, we are still using 19th century structures and approaches to educate learners to be successful in the 21st century. I’ve spent my 20+ years in higher education working to improve outcomes for learners. Though I have been on the cutting edge of leveraging progressive frameworks such as Universal Design for Learning and Culturally Responsive Teaching to inform ways that we can value diverse learners, I may have still been viewing both learners and educators through an outdated lens. Though, please do not be mistaken. I am also a huge advocate for leveraging a wide range of digital tools to promote learning outcomes. However, the statement regarding our methods being 20th century made it even more of an imperative to change our approach. Yet, there is not only a need to modernize instruction. There may be a need to also view ourselves more broadly as professionals.

A traditional view of teaching and learning defines a learning disability as, “A condition giving rise to difficulties in acquiring knowledge and skills to the level expected of those of the same age, especially when not associated with a physical handicap.” There are many limitations with this definition—one major element being the use of the word “disabled”. The prefix “dis” is problematic as it usually communicates a deficiency. I like to use the words “differently abled” and view individual ability on a continuum where all people have a variation of ability depending on the environment that they are in. This view focuses more on the environment and does not view the person through a deficit-based lens. I’ve been promoting this perspective since my dissertation work and was pleased to discover that the World Health Organization recently changed its definition of disability to state the following:

“Disability is part of being a human. Almost everyone will temporarily or permanently experience disability at some point in their life… A person’s environment has a huge effect on the experience and extent of disability. Inaccessible environments create barriers that often hinder… full and effective participation…”

It is very refreshing to understand that society is starting to have a more capacity-based lens of people in a way that holds systems more accountable for individual barriers. The definition also recognizes that everyone will experience a “disability” at some point or another, allowing us to view ability even more so as a variable. I do understand there are a significant number of people with abilities that “experts” would still render as inferior to others. However, holding the environment accountable for the barrier is critical to improve outcomes for all. 


Beyond semantics, in this article, I would also like to offer an expanded lens on ability using neurodiversity as a guide. The work of Harriman (2001) on learning disabilities is rooted in the field of neurology. Their research investigates differences in how the brain processes information, highlighting that acquiring skills is not caused by lack of intelligence. Through the lens of neurodiversity, it is understood that regardless of a person’s ability label, all people have different brain imprints. The ways that people are wired vary according to an interplay of nature versus nurture. Even if trauma occurs in a person’s life that impairs their innate ability, one’s capability still exists along a continuum. When neurodiversity is applied to the higher education environment, we can better highlight where learning and ability intersect for students, faculty, and staff.

Student Support 

As a Student Support Counselor for a TRIO program in the early 2000s, I would assist students in obtaining accommodations so that they could have assistance with participating in class to enhance their success. For some, there was a need for a notetaker. For others, they may have needed more time to take exams. Over time, I learned that even students who did not have a documented need could also benefit from the same modifications. At the time, I began to question why this was the case. Since then, my career as a researcher of learning science has enhanced my understanding of the learning variation. I now firmly understand that everyone’s brains process information and interact with the world in different ways. In the same way that some of my students thrived off audio recorded notes, I have a wealth of colleagues that prefer audiobooks over physical text. Still, even people without a documented “learning disability” can benefit from accommodations targeted towards people with documented disabilities in classroom settings. In modern day, digital tools are not only being used to advance learning in the classroom but also productivity in the business world. 

Beyond Students 

It is clear that people across variation of ability can benefit from leveraging technology. Therefore, it is important to consider the neurodiversity that our students, faculty, and staff possess. Immersing a person in a virtual reality device may be the experience a leader needs to promote understanding. Whereas, using a tablet or mobile device could be used to increase learning engagement toward any given outcome. The University of the District of Columbia recently created a Center for Digital Access & Learning to provide more access to digital tools for students, faculty, and staff. The center provides the campus community with the opportunity to learn 21st century technology skills. When building the center, the university also understood increasing emerging technology can inadvertently marginalize those who are not as digitally literate. With this understanding, the university balances providing access to digital tools with teaching the process and approach for learning about new digital tools. In doing so, the institution is growing a culture of people who are learning how to learn so that they are able to grow in capability as technology continuously changes.

Improving Outcomes

A popular saying in UDL is that when you plan for those that are marginalized, you also help those that are within the margins. Similarly, items created for marginalized people are now being used for everyone to succeed. For example, the talk-to-text feature on a mobile device can be used to compose a document. The speak selection feature on mobile phones and computers allows text to be turned into audio and read aloud. I use both tools regularly when composing and editing text. My ability to process information audibly has been noticeably strong since my youth. I was able to hear and decipher song lyrics that some of my peers could not process. With this understanding of my capacity, as a person without a documented disability, I’ve been able to excel at certain administrative tasks that would’ve been more cumbersome without the use of talk-to-text and speak selection accessibility features. 

Universal Design’s curb-cuts thinking is a perfect example of extending access for all. Curb cuts were originally created for people who could not step on the sidewalk. Now, everyone uses them. There are plenty of “digital curb cuts” such as adaptive learning features in Learning Management Systems, having a large cursor enabled in PowerPoint, and transcripts activated via virtual meetings that can be used for notetaking purposes. These are a few of a host of tools that were originally created for accessibility that are now commonly used by everyone. This reality continues to blur the lines between accessible, usable, and universally-designed tools that help everyone succeed. 

Accessing Ability 

Using a 21st century lens can help better view the environment as a proxy for achieving outcomes. Technology can be leveraged to help promote the success of a person whether they be a student or faculty member. Over the past few years, this idea has grown with the increased use of digital means. There are now more people who can access new abilities that they were unable to access before. For example, a person can use their proprioception to navigate new spaces using virtual reality devices; and there are other individuals that may be able to leverage augmented reality to understand and investigate in ways that might not have been available to them otherwise. The big point here is that there are abilities we can unlock with digital tools. Further, through digital education we can empower learners – moving them beyond digital literacy to digital agility. You also can enhance the ways in which students, faculty and staff participate in practicing and gaining confidence to thrive in the 3D world that we live in. As we work smarter and more efficiently, hopefully our understanding of intelligence continues to be reimagined. With the proper framing, we can leverage technology as our bionic arm to access abilities we would’ve never imagined.  

Key Questions

How does your institution allow learners to access their true abilities? Do you have a digital literacy plan that accounts for faculty, students and staff in your learning ecosystem? How might you systematically promote this in ways that don’t advantage some while disadvantage in others? These are the types of questions that we dance with during IELOL. Bringing minds together to really be nuanced around how we are improving outcomes for everyone. As a 2015 Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning graduate and now faculty member, I am fortunate to have my IELOL network to work through answering some of these questions and the administrative implications. Join us this summer if you are also interested in extending the ways we provide access to learning and ability through digital means.


Black, S. E., & Lynch, L. M. (2001). How to compete: the impact of workplace practices and information technology on productivity. Review of Economics and statistics, 83(3), 434-445.

Grönvik, L. (2009). Defining disability: effects of disability concepts on research outcomes. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 12(1), 1-18.

Hardiman, M. M. (2001). Connecting brain research with dimensions of learning. Educational Leadership, 59(3), 52-55

Kavale, K. A., & Forness, S. R. (2000). What definitions of learning disability say and don’t say: A critical analysis. Journal of learning disabilities, 33(3), 239-256.

Warschauer, M., & Matuchniak, T. (2010). New technology and digital worlds: Analyzing evidence of equity in access, use, and outcomes. Review of research in education, 34(1), 179-225.

Yudkowsky, E. (2007). Levels of organization in general intelligence. In Artificial general intelligence (pp. 389-501). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

One Response to “Accessing Ability Through Digital Means”


    As an educator of a non-academic subject (instrumental music), I understand more than most that no two students learn the same. In my 17 years of teaching, I have also seen what core academic teachers are having to deal with. Students and teachers were shortchanged dramatically when the “No Child Left Behind” movement began in the early 2000’s. I agree that teachers should be evaluated, and student knowledge should be tested. However, this has led to the best students being ignored because they could already pass standardized tests and the students with the worst grades being discarded since teachers and administrators felt those students would never make it anyway. Too much time and effort has been spent teaching to the test that students are being “left behind” which is what this movement was supposed to prevent. If what is being taught was delivered more diversly, using technology, then maybe all students would have better results when it came to testing. Too much time is being used to just “teach to the test” that so many students are losing out on a solid education. I use technology daily with my students. I am constantly using multiple ways to teach the same fundamentals to ensure that all my students understand the material. Students are diverse and so should be the education they receive. I am currently pursuing a master’s degree in IDT with the hopes that I will learn ways to design better instructional tools to serve students. I genuinely enjoyed reading your article.


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