How Online Learning Benefits Students with Chronic Health Issues

Living with chronic illness or disabilities while going to college can feel like having two full-time jobs. How can a person do both successfully? The key is to balance managing one’s health while managing collegiate demands.

There are a number of terrific resources and guides for individuals with chronic health conditions in postsecondary education, and yet few highlight the significant benefits of enrolling in an online degree program. Rather than leaving one’s existing health and personal support systems to attend college, studying online allows continuity of care while simultaneously responding to increased academic pressures.

According to a 2012 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 1 in 2 adults in the United States is living with a chronic health condition, and approximately 7% of young people (aged 18-23) in the U.S. experience some form of chronic health issue. Many of these health conditions do not prevent individuals from studying or working, however, there may be additional challenges and obstacles that can take energy and focus away from the learning experience.

Continual medical advances and treatment strategies have increased the possibility for numerous individuals living with chronic diseases, mental health issues, and disabilities to continue through high school, graduate, and enter postsecondary education. Colleges and universities are increasingly called upon to respond to this student population with accommodations to make education accessible to all who are qualified. Higher education has had a longer history of accommodating physical challenges, and yet, many postsecondary institutions struggle with how to accommodate students with autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, Lyme disease, Crohn’s disease, IBS, arthritis, chronic fatigue, or epilepsy, diabetes, cancer, asthma, obesity, undiagnosed chronic pain, and other chronic medical conditions. Adolescence is also the time for many psychological conditions to appear, such as bipolar disorder, depression, generalized anxiety, and schizophrenia (McGorry, Purcell, Goldstone & Amminger, 2011), thus increasing the numbers of college students coping with health challenges.

The unpredictability and invisibility of many of these chronic health conditions are perhaps the most challenging for universities to accommodate due to strict attendance policies and student behavior expectations, specific class meeting times and locations, and faculty or classmates who may unknowingly assume all students are healthy due to a lack of visible indications. Online learning eliminates much of these issues as students can work on their courses around their health challenges, and remain engaged without having to deal with inflexible attendance policies or stressful interactions with faculty or peers.

While online learning can ease many issues for people with disabilities, it is still important for individuals to look out for their needs. Many of the same strategies for attending school on campus while coping with chronic health issues ring true for online learners:

  1. Become familiar with your school’s disability services (here is the site for those at Colorado State University). The Americans with Disabilities Act pertains to the online learning environment too, so contact disability services or the department identified to provide these services prior to enrollment to learn about accessing accommodations. Beginning with your first semester, schedule regular check-ins with the disability services staff to monitor accommodations and needs.
  1. Explore your school’s health insurance coverage. It may offer health insurance plans for online learners similar to those offered to residential students. (Students who take more than six credits online at Colorado State University are eligible for student health insurance coverage).
  1. Reach out for support. It may be difficult to share something personal like your health condition in an online environment (or in person, for that matter!), and yet, it is important to have a group of people who care about you, know your challenges, and how you want to be treated. Communicate with your classmates beyond the regular discussion boards to get to know them in a holistic way, and for them to know more about you than your diagnosis. Sharing limited information with your faculty in advance provides an opportunity for deadline extensions or other accommodations if needed later in the semester. Learning to advocate for oneself is a critical life skill.
  1. If you mess up, it’s not the end of the world. We all make mistakes. We all experience bumps along the way. If you miss a deadline or have to stop out for a semester, don’t beat yourself up. Acknowledge what happened and work with your health provider or academic advisor to create strategies for dealing with this situation if it happens again.
  1. Prioritize your health. While it may seem like a good idea to stay up all night to finish a paper or participate in an online meeting for a group project in the middle of the night due to disparate time zones, these choices could derail your ability to physically or emotionally sustain the demands for the full semester. It is also critical to not change your health care routines without advice from your medical professional. Choosing to skip medication or change treatments or providers could negatively impact your health in the short- or long-term.

Lastly, whether you enroll in one class at a time or take a full course load, celebrate small accomplishments along the way.  Each win gets you one step closer to earning that degree or achieving your goal!

Learn more about what it’s like to study online at Colorado State University.

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