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

Geography, Fieldwork and the Visual

The importance of sight to humans has been discussed in the Introduction to this Guide. Here, the significance of being able to see is discussed in relation to geography and fieldwork.

Vision and geography

Until relatively recently, when maps and map making began to lose their eminent place in the discipline, geography (along with its cognate disciplines), has traditionally been an intensely visual discipline. Many of the subject skills acquired by geography students, from map reading to field recording, lab work to sketching, all demand visual skills. And even the modern technologies that are increasingly used to supplement or enhance field study, particularly multimedia CAL (computer assisted learning), desktop mapping, GIS (geographical information systems) and remote sensing software all make heavy demands on the student's visual information processing system. (See Shepherd, 1995 on the visual discrimination of GIS technology.)

Sight plays a significant role in many aspects of classical geographical discourse, and has made a central contribution to mapping, graphics and visualisation. (It was a geographer, W.G.V. Balchin, who put the key skill of ‘graphicacy’ on the map.) However, sight also makes a not insignificant contribution, albeit rather more metaphorically, to the ‘gaze’ of modern human geography.

In terms of the craft of the modern geographer, sight is intimately related to most learning activities, including reading, writing, sketching and drawing. Few skills, whether key or specialist, can normally dispense with the faculty of sight, whether it involves calibrating a strain gauge in a geological laboratory or maintaining eye contact during inter-personal exchanges.

Although the nature of the field experience is typically taken as synonymous with the sighted fieldworker, it is worth enquiring as to the exact nature of this relationship, and asking whether fieldwork is impossibly difficult for the visually impaired student.

Vision, fieldwork and visual disability

Various visual skills are deployed/required for fieldwork, including:

However, it is important to recognise that not all field study situations are alike. Indeed, field study takes a number of forms and guises, each of them posing a different mix of problems for the visually impaired student. Here are some typical examples:

These are discussed further in the Overview Guide (Healey et al., 2001). The mix of study activities, and this the relative disadvantage to visually impaired students, can vary considerably between these formats. We can go further than this, and suggest that the field experience of visually impaired students varies along a number of dimensions, including:

the educational context of field work
e.g. whether it is compulsory or optional
subject mix
e.g. whether it is human, physical or a mixture of the two
skills mix
e.g. whether the students are required to walk across difficult terrain or merely to stand in a street interviewing shoppers
nature of learning style
e.g. whether the focus is on passive observation or active exploration
expected learning outcomes
e.g. whether the learning is subject- or skills-focused
curricular links
e.g. whether the field experience is tied to broader learning objectives built into the entire curriculum, or whether it is a stand-alone activity.

Overcoming barriers — lessons from elsewhere

One indication of changing social attitudes is that blind people, and those with a visual impairment, participate in a wide variety of pursuits that might previously have been thought out of bounds. These include: blind sports (BSI, 2000; IBSA, 2000), mountain climbing (NFB, 2000a) and exploration (Ananova, 2000a). Geographers have a lot to learn from these activities, not only in terms of the narrow practicalities of 'how to do it', but also in terms of the broader motivational factors involved. The participation of the blind or visually impaired in these pursuits suggests that we should not longer ask the question 'Can they do it?' when considering visually impaired students undertaking fieldwork. Rather, the question should be: 'How shall we do it?'.

Page updated 14 December 2001

GDN pages maintained by Phil Gravestock