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

Approaches to Visual 'Disability'

We have seen in other parts of this guide that taking a flexible approach to the needs of blind and visually impaired students can yield positive dividends. It is argued here that such an approach is also a characteristic feature of an effective curriculum for all students, and that it moves higher education back from being an exercise in mass delivery towards being an exercise in personalised delivery - within a broad set of agreed learning outcomes. (See the related discussion in the document: A Generic Approach to Teaching and Learning?.)

Underpinning a flexible approach is the need for clear and regular communication. There is no substitute for talking with your blind or visually impaired students. This is essential if you hope to identify their real concerns and develop an approach that meets with their approval and consent.

All students are unique, and each visual impairment is different from other visual impairments. Because of this, there can be no across-the-board approach or standard template for dealing with the study needs of visually impaired students. Rather, each student needs to be considered individually, and this necessitates individual discussion and negotiation.

The mutual adjustment model

In order to frame this approach, we have developed what we call the 'mutual adjustment' approach to learning. The main principle behind this approach is that visually impaired students together with staff and other students negotiate a set of 'accommodations' to ensure the most effective learning environment for the student concerned. The principle behind this approach is based on the likelihood that it may not be possible to meet all visual impairment needs in particular departments or on particular fieldcourses.

But why should a student with a particular visual impairment be expected to 'accommodate' — or, more bluntly, to compromise on — their needs? There are several reasons why this may be necessary:

One way that this might translate into action is through an information-sharing exercise. The student would be asked to declare the nature and severity level of their visual impairment, and the staff team would make available a detailed inventory of all of the problems and resources known to them. The information offered by the students should be treated as confidential unless the students have made it clear that they wished information about their disability to be made known to other staff and/or students.

Time allocation is another area in which mutual adjustment could be considered. From the student's perspective, this might mean that they ensure that sufficient (maybe additional) time is given to attend classes and briefing sessions, to read prepared materials, and to make their way to and from fieldcourse venues and sites. From the staff point of view, the time needed to drop off and pick up students may need to be adjusted, the time allocated to group follow-up activities may need to be extended, and handing-in deadlines possibly adjusted. Decisions should always try and consider worst-case scenarios.

Mutual adjustment may also require the design of alternative study activities. Where these are introduced, care should be taken to ensure that the visually impaired student experiences an equivalent learning experience — i.e. is not fobbed off with a time-filling but largely meaningless activity. (See also Field Study Strategies)

Communication is an essential component of higher education. But with visual impairment, it is even more essential for students and staff to confer on a regular basis. This is essential to ensure that all problems have been foreseen, appropriate plans have been laid, and relevant resources identified. Neither party should wait for the other to indicate that things are going wrong. Regular discussion, however brief, will prevent what might be a drama from turning into a crisis. Whether this requires a special tutor to be allocated to blind and visually impaired students — or maybe all students with disabilities — is perhaps for an individual department to decide, based on the numbers involved, and the nature of the fieldwork activities likely to be undertaken by students.

One area where mutual adjustment may be necessary is with those blind students who have a personal guide dog. Here, it is important that other students recognise that the dog is a working animal rather than a pet, and staff will need to take into account the space and other needs of the dog when planning field sorties. For the blind student themselves, it may be necessary to exercise some patience over the way in which other students attempt to treat the dog.

Another area where there may need to be give and take is with the visually impaired student who works best by recording or transcribing the spoken word during various study encounters, and may need to use special equipment. For example, staff and other students may need to take into account the student who has a hand-held tape recorder, and who needs to be 'close to the action' — whether it is in the front row of the lecture or study room in a field study venue, or close to the person being interviewed in the field. Similarly, where the visually impaired student creates braille on the fly, allowance will need to be made for the noise of the typing and some planning may be needed to ensure the safe stowage of the portable braille reader on minibuses, etc. On the part of the visually impaired student, due acknowledgement will need to be made that their needs may at times inconvenience other students — e.g. a blind student may compete with a partially deaf student to be closest to the current speaker.

Finally, on the issue of money, it may be necessary to agree on a cost-sharing approach. For its part, the department should consider spending money to buy specific equipment, or to use external services — e.g. for the production of raised-line maps. In return, the visually impaired student should consider approaching support agencies to fund the acquisition or loan of special equipment for fieldwork, or the purchase of additional computer hardware or software (e.g. facilities for data sonification). (See also the Overview guide to this series.)

Flexibility the keyword

Perhaps the most effective mindset for staff to adopt when dealing with visually impaired students is that of flexibility (Shaw, 2000). Individual staff, departments and institutions all need to be able to act flexibly to attract and support the visually impaired student while undertaking fieldwork. This flexibility might include:

Naturally, the issue of flexibility has to be considered in relation to the needs of sighted students - and this raises the over-arching issue of equity of treatment. (On this issue, see A Generic Approach to Teaching and Learning?.)

(See the related discussions in Raising Staff Awareness and Raising Student Awareness.)

Page updated 14 December 2001

GDN pages maintained by Phil Gravestock