Providing Learning Support for Blind or Visually Impaired Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities
Geography, Fieldwork and the Visual
Visual impairment impacts on fieldwork
When attempting to relate visual impairment to fieldwork, the following principles are important:
- From an educational viewpoint, what matters most is not so much the eye condition which produces the impairment, but the functional effect the impairment has on fieldwork activities, as these can vary from student to student, depending on the coping mechanisms they may have developed.
- Most eye conditions can vary considerably in severity — it is not enough simply to know which condition a student has.
- It is essential to talk to students to identify the potential impact of their condition on proposed fieldwork activities.
- The impacts of a visual impairment can be positive as well as negative.
There are a number of ways in which eye conditions can impact on fieldwork
activities. Mann (1999) indicates some of these:
- Ocular albinism
- difficulties with scanning, tracking, depth perception, rapidly shifting visual points, reading
- wide variation in visual acuity (though full visual field usually maintained), and near and far vision often adversely affected
- Diabetic retinopathy
- fluctuating visual acuity, distortion of vision, and possible impairment of visual field
- progressive loss of visual field, poor visual acuity, impaired peripheral and night vision, and difficulty in adapting between light and dark
- Macular degeneration
- loss of central vision (hence reliance on eccentric or sideways looking), difficulty in discerning fine detail and reading, and problems in colour discrimination (especially reds and greens)
- blurred vision, difficulty in scanning and tracking, and problems with depth perception
- Optic atrophy
- variable loss of vision and/or total blindness
- Retinitis pigmentosa
- night blindness, narrowed field of vision (resulting in tunnel vision).
According to the Scottish Sensory Centre (SSC, 2000a; 2000d), visual impairment impacts are likely on the following visual capabilities:
- ability to see details
- contrast sensitivity
- colour vision
- accommodation to changing light levels
- width of visual field
- changing focus
- seeing moving images
- sensitivity to glare.
Staff responsible for designing fieldwork will need to determine which field activities are likely to be compromised by deficiencies in any of these visual capabilities. They should then consider adopting a suitable course of action. (See the accompanying document on Field Study Strategies.)
Fieldwork difficulties due to visual impairment
There is no single universal difficulty; each visual impairment will impose its own set of demands and limitations. When undertaking fieldwork, visually impaired students may experience difficulties with a variety of tasks, including:
- taking accurate notes in non-classroom environments
- multi-sensory tasking — listening, observing, recording and reading
- speed of handwriting and legibility
- organisation of time
- orientation, reading maps
- slow reading speed for accurate comprehension
- visual perceptual difficulties with poorly photocopied material, particularly black print on white background
- group work
- recording data and making mathematical calculations.
On the positive side
It is important to recognise that visually impaired students may have counter-balancing strengths in other areas. Staff as well as students should therefore do their best to discuss with the student their particular strengths, and to harness these abilities during field work. For example, groups should consider using the visually impaired student's abilities to compensate for weaknesses in other members of a field work team.
Other advantages include the stimulus given to staff to rethink the accessibility of the fieldwork experience to all students, not simply to those with a visual impairment. (This point is discussed further in the document on A Generic Model for Learning?) Finally, as mentioned in the introduction, the experience of having a visually impaired student undertake a geography course and participate in fieldwork can enthuse and inspire staff and fully sighted students alike.
© Geography Discipline Network/authors, 2001
ISBN: 1 86174 115 4