GDN Title
in association with the
National Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Learning Support for Disabled Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities

Supporting the Learning of Disabled Students in Higher Education: The UK context

Mike Adams
Principal Coordinator, National Disability Team, Coventry University


It is not often that I begin a presentation by drawing upon personal experiences but on this occasion it is very apt and relevant.

I attended what was referred to then as a special school for disabled students in East Sussex. Geography was my best and favourite subject. I vividly remember the geography field trips to both Bodmin Moor and the Yorkshire Dales as part of my GCSEs. Abseiling down a viaduct was not a problem for me (I was very trusting of the guy holding the rope!). Visiting china clay quarries was also a challenge but most interesting.

It was these experiences that decided my academic career. I attended a mainstream 6th form college in Hampshire but resided at the specialist college nearby. At my interview I met with the assistant principal and told her that I wanted to do geography 'A' level. She said she wouldn't be a minute and that she would get the head of geography to come and talk to me.

Five minutes later he poked his head around the door and disappeared. It transpired that he didn't know how to handle disabled people, the field trip element of the course would be impossible and, therefore, he wasn't going to allow me a place on the course. The response from the assistant principal was 'I must be used to disappointments!'

This was 1989, and I am glad to say that this attitude is not as prevalent today. My career path was changed because a key person felt they couldn't/or I couldn't cope with being on the course.

What was needed: A change in attitude - an opportunity to demystify disability, creativity and innovation in thinking about those parts of the course which may or may not have been a challenge - the concept of widening participation was not a seed that had been sown in Lord Dearing's mind at this point.

That is why I am delighted to be here today at this seminar even though I consider myself a fraud being a frustrated geographer. I certainly do not pretend to know much about earth and environmental sciences.

Since 1989 things have changed quite significantly:

  1. Society is more conscious/aware of disability issues and finds prejudice much more unacceptable. Not to say it doesn't still exist. I have had some interesting experiences. I have lately become much more involved in generic learning and teaching issues. I also co-ordinate the DfEE innovation projects - when I walk into meetings on more than one occasion the first thing they have said to me is: 'this is not for disabled people'. This is not a disability project. Why not, it should be but that is not why I am here?
  2. Within higher education the thrust to widen participation, the introduction of the Disabled Students Allowances (DSAs) have all lead to increasing numbers of disabled students entering HE. For those of you who are not aware - the DSA is available to those students on a HEFCE funded full-time course, and has recently been extended to part-time and post-graduate students. The allowances cover disability related costs and fall into three categories:
  3. - Non-medical help (up to £10,505 per year) - personal assistance - for example, used to support students on fieldtrips.

    - Specialist equipment (£4,155 for the duration of the course) - for example used to adapt a microscope.

    - General (up to £1,385 per year) for example brailling materials.

    This has provided a critical lever in increasing the numbers of students in a range of subjects for people with increasingly diverse support needs.

    The major impact of this is that institutions have had to formalise services to meet students' day-to-day support needs. A growing realisation that although this has lead to comprehensive welfare support; personal care, accommodation, and so on, what happens in the lecture theatre, seminar room and on Bodmin Moor has not been adequately addressed. We shall return to this issue in a couple of moments.

    The HEFCE have proactively supported developments, primarily through the introduction of four special initiative funding programmes. The first two initiatives were one-year pump priming initiatives that were directed towards those institutions with a proven track record of supporting disabled students. Problems with one-year funding are that it doesn't necessarily result in practice becoming embedded.

    The last two programmes have been for three years and have provided funding to individual institutions/collaborative partnerships to engage in disability support and encourage creativity and innovation. The current programme has three strands

    - Base level provision - benchmark minimum services.

    - Explicit collaborative projects, e.g. note-taking course in London region.

    - Development and transfer of good practice.

    The NDT have been established to support, promote and disseminate these projects. The Geography Discipline Network project based at Cheltenham and Gloucester is one of these. It falls within this Strand because although based in the geography, earth and environmental sciences, the principles apply to other subjects which take students outside the classroom as well as to other modes of teaching and learning.

  4. In addition to HEFCE, other key sector wide organisations are also explicitly addressing issues head on.
  5. The QAA has, as part of a suite of codes, a code of practice: students with disabilities. The code can be used as an institutional frame of reference and incorporates 24 precepts which cover:

    Within each precept, there is guidance regarding the types of measure/activities institutions are expected to undertake.

    The Learning and Teaching Support Network is also beginning to address these issues. The LTSN is a major network of 24 subject centres based in higher education institutions throughout the UK and also comprises Generic and Technology Centres. It aims to promote high quality learning and teaching through the development and transfer of good practices in all subject disciplines.

However, I believe the biggest issue to confront higher education, is happening now.

The Government is in the final throes of passing legislation that will extend the current DDA 1995. My understanding is that it will be formally passed next week. For those of you who don't know the DDA was established to end discrimination against people on the grounds of their disability.

The original legislation specifically omitted education and it is this anomaly that is being rightly rectified.

But what will this mean?

Currently the law only covers staff working in HE and those services primarily available to the wider public, e.g. conference facilities.

The extension will cover those services and facilities primarily intended for students. Institutions will be expected to make 'reasonable' adjustments to ensure equal participation by disabled students. What is deemed reasonable will be decided by case law, but two codes of practice published alongside the legislation will provide further guidance on what will be deemed acceptable/not acceptable practice.

In terms of teaching and learning and direct issues for academic staff it will cover:

The likely timetable for the above is September 2002 with physical adjustments in place by 2005, certainly not much time.

I was fortunate enough, just before Xmas, to undertake a study visit to Australia. They had introduced legislation in 1993 and it was an opportunity to learn from their experience.

I was able to visit 4 HEI's:

I was also able to visit the HEFCE equivalent.

Their organisation of support for disabled students is remarkably similar to the UK. They have Disability Liaison Officers (DLOs)- similar to our Disability officers/advisors.

Fairly competent at providing day-to-day support for students.

Patches of best practice in terms of teaching and learning, but only patches.

For example, one institution at Griffith University appointed academic liaison officers in each department who have responsibility for supporting the DLO on curriculum issues and determining appropriate 'accommodations' time bought out properly resourced. Furthermore these staff and the DLOs work with course designers so that the learning needs of students are considered from the outset and any unnecessary barriers affecting students' learning are removed at an early stage. This has involved academic staff having to think through and make explicit from the outset the learning objectives and the range of tools (including C&IT) required for delivering and completing the course. The result has been a significant reduction in modifications being required during assessment and examinations. An evaluation of this work has clearly shown that the flexible approach taken has brought benefit to all students and not just those with a disability.

The issue of quality was paramount.

But overall approximately 90% of the cases that reached court and where judgements were made against the institutions directly related to Learning and Teaching issues. Either:

However, as I have said, where it worked, it worked well. The central players in this innovation were academic staff teaching the particular subject, supported by disability practitioners and students themselves. I believe very strongly that this is the right approach and the approach the UK should adopt. This is why events like this are important. Again this project has done this, and done this very successfully - bringing together academic staff and disability advisors to develop the guides.

I have been delighted to be involved in this project. It is interesting to note that this is the only project which is discipline-based and I would strongly encourage other subjects/disciplines to adopt this type of approach. The work has involved:

I'm sure that everyone will benefit from today; some people will challenge, some will be challenged.

Before finishing I'd like to throw in a couple more challenges/thoughts: Where do we go from here - some initial questions/ideas.

  1. How do we develop teaching and learning - practices to make them more inclusive - not an option as it is the law.
  2. The importance of utilising existing subject discipline communities.

I'm very pleased that this type of event is taking place and look forward to listening and participating in discussion.

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