Providing Learning Support for Blind or Visually-impaired Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities

Introduction to this Guide

General introduction

The significance of vision

The visual system can be justly considered as the dominant sensory modality in humans. Almost half the brain is devoted to sight, and about 70% of the total capacity of the brain devoted to processing sensory information is devoted to handling visual information. Studies of visual perception have revealed that there tends to be an attentional bias towards the visual modality (Shams, 2000). Less well known, perhaps, is that where there is conflict between visual inputs and other sensory inputs, either the overall percept is determined by vision, or else the nature of the percepts in the other conflicting modality is modified by the visual information, rather than vice versa (Shore, et al., 2000).

In addition to these biases in the human sensory system, there are also visual biases in the languages used by humans to describe the world. Valkenburg & Kubovy (2000) suggest, for example, that notions of objecthood have traditionally been framed in visuocentric terminology. Others argue that much of modern culture asserts the primacy of the visual, and downplays the role of the other senses. It has been suggested, for example, that Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in the sixteenth century played a major role in shifting the transmission of textual information from a shared, communal multi-sensory experience to a private and largely visual experience. (Marshall McLuhan, in his 1967 classic The Gutenberg Galaxy, argues that "manuscript culture is intensely audio-tactile compared to print culture (p.28), and that the "transformation of the audible into the visual world was the prime effect of typography" (p.123).)

With so much of human experience and culture bound up with vision, it would seem that students who are visually impaired have a mountain to climb in making the most of their fieldwork experiences, particularly since so much fieldwork experience is traditionally linked to visual experience, from 'look-see' trips to observational studies in which the 'observation' is more often than not visual.

The significance of fieldwork

Fieldwork provides a significant learning opportunity for disciplines such as geography, earth and environmental sciences. The basis of its appeal and its educational effectiveness lies in its adoption of experiential study, in which students learn first hand about natural and human environments and processes. Many undergraduates find this form of learning both challenging and fulfilling, often reflecting later in life on their abiding memories of 'learning in the field'. It should not be forgotten that the field is not only used to introduce the subject matter of spatial disciplines, but it also functions as a kind of laboratory in which students can acquire and practice various skills, including: investigation, observation, recording, data collection, the use of specialist equipment, etc. The process of field investigation usually involves the use of various key skills, including: communication (e.g. interviewing), interpersonal (e.g. teamwork), numeracy (e.g. analysing survey results), and ICT (e.g. data logging).

Although there are financial pressures to reduce or eliminate fieldwork from the curriculum, it is likely that it will enjoy a continuing and significant presence, not least because of the considerable store placed on this form of study by various government bodies — including, in the UK, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). Appropriate arrangements should therefore be in place to ensure that students with a visual impairment benefit as much from fieldwork opportunities as do their fully sighted peers.

Further ideas on the role of fieldwork are outlined in the Overview Guide to this series (Healey et al., 2001).

Aims of this guide

The main aim of this guide is to identify the problems that visually impaired students encounter when undertaking fieldwork, and to suggest ways in which they can overcome these difficulties. An attempt will be made to answer questions, such as whether field work is different for visually impaired students and, if so, what are the implications. Some of the advice and guidance offered will be generic, but some of it will apply to specific visual impairments. Because every student is unique, it is important to recognise that most of what is discussed here must be made relevant and personal to the individual involved. There can be no blanket approach to managing the needs of visually impaired students undertaking fieldwork.

The main part of the guide takes a roughly chronological approach to fieldwork, and is structured around the various stages of the fieldwork experience. It outlines the activities involved at each step, and the implications for visually impaired students. However, the guide does not focus exclusively on the student. Recognising that successful fieldwork requires a partnership between students and staff, the guide also discusses awareness raising and support provision activities needed by teachers who are charged with developing effective fieldwork experiences for visually impaired students. It also considers how other students can be sensitised to the needs of the visually impaired, and how they can be encouraged to provide some of the necessary support structures.

A considerable amount of the guide is necessarily skills focused. A broad distinction is made between general-purpose skills (i.e. those which the visually impaired student might be expected to have mastered already), and field-related skills (i.e. those which the student may not have met before). The guide will concentrate on the latter.

Towards a student-centred approach

This guide makes no attempt to be exhaustive. Not only is every teaching situation and learning environment different, but each visually impaired student is unique. We have also refrained from being too prescriptive — we do not pretend to know all the answers, or to be able to provide the best advice for each and every situation, or each and every student. However, it is hoped that the issues raised and the advice provided will help you to think through the potential problems that might prevent your visually impaired students from gaining the best study opportunities possible, and achieving the very best that they are capable of.

There is no substitute for talking with your students. This is essential if you hope to identify the student's real concerns and develop an approach that meets with their approval and consent. With this in mind, we have developed what we call the 'mutual adjustment' approach to learning, which is discussed elsewhere in this guide. The main principle behind this approach is that visually impaired students, together with staff and other students, need to negotiate a set of accommodations to ensure they develop the most effective learning environment for their needs.

At any particular time, the number of visually impaired students undertaking fieldwork in your department is likely to be very small. This reinforces the need for an integrative approach in which the visually impaired students are treated as no different from other students, and that they are fully socialised within their peer group. This should be encouraged from the first day of the degree programme, and reinforced at every stage of the fieldcourse. Fieldwork must be recognised as among the more academically social activities in a degree course, and it is important that the visually impaired student partakes fully in this social event, and is not singled out for apparently 'special treatment', or treated with kid gloves.

Page updated 14 December 2001

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