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

A Generic Approach to Teaching and Learning?

From special case to general practice

It is a common experience in education that when the spotlight falls on one group, technology or educational approach, it often illuminates those beyond the immediate target. The adoption of computers in education, for example, has led to undertake a wholesale re-examination of other educational approaches, such as experiential learning, or distance and open learning. Similarly, the current interest in the educational needs of students with various impairments can — and should — lead to a re-evaluation of how all students are handled during their years in higher education.

McKendrick & Mooney (2001) argue that education providers need to be sensitive to the specific needs of various client groups. In their paper, they focus on the needs of non-geography students studying geography at Glasgow Caledonian University, while Maguire (1998) has written about the needs of women in relation to fieldwork. By attending to the needs of minorities, it can be suggested that we not only broaden access for particular groups, but also pave the way for a more flexible and sensitive approach to meeting the educational needs of all students.

One of the principles of good practice advocated in this guide can be summed up as: listen to the (visually impaired) learner. But should we only listen attentively to the visually impaired learner? And how far do we restrict our collaborative approach to planning field courses to students with special visual needs? Could there be generic principles of good practice embedded in our approach to this particular student minority? As the authors of one of the companion guides point out: "Many of the measures needed to assist students with hidden disabilities are, however, no more than the delivery of general good practice." (Chalkley & Waterfield, 2001). The authors of another guide take a similar view: "good learning for d/Deaf students is to a large extent a subset of good learning for all" (Clark & Wareham, 2001).

At a practical level, consider the issue of choosing specific field site visits and activities. If the presence of a visually impaired student on a fieldcourse leads staff to reappraise the visit to a particular site, on the grounds that although it might be arduous and maybe dangerous for the student to get there, it would not add materially to that student's learning, then perhaps the relevance of that visit should be questioned for all students. If the site visit does not provide added value when compared with a standard lecture (whether back on campus or at the field study centre), then maybe it should be dropped from the itinerary. And this principle applies equally to all other field activities. Of course, there needs to be a consideration of both the learning outcomes and the social or personal development outcomes of field activity when arriving at these decisions, but the central principle remains that of maximising the return on investment for all students.

A second example is the extra time given to visually impaired students to transcribe their field notes. This, too, is a activity from which most sighted students could benefit.

Taking a leaf out of the book of those architects who espouse the concept of universal design, Silver et al. (1998) propose a Universal Instruction Design (UID) approach to instruction planning, in which accessibility issues are placed at the heart of curriculum planning and course delivery. The suggestion is made that effective teaching for students with disabilities represents good practice for all students.


Either individually or with colleagues, consider how you might develop a generally flexible and adaptable approach with all your students, based on meeting the special needs of visually impaired students.

For discussion on related topics, see the companion document on: The Mutual Adjustment Model.

Page updated 14 December 2001

GDN pages maintained by Phil Gravestock