Providing Learning Support for Blind or Visually Impaired Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities
How to Prepare Yourself and Your Colleagues
Increasing awareness — staff development
Why raise awareness?
In a recent survey of over 1000 blind and partially sighted young people, it was found that teachers needed to be made far more aware of the needs of visually impaired students through visual awareness training (Sortit, 2000).
If academics are to respond effectively to the needs of the visually impaired student, they will need to invest time in relevant staff development. All members of the fieldwork team should be involved in awareness raising activities, preferably organised well in advance of the fieldwork, so that new lines of thinking could find their way into detailed fieldwork planning. The department and institution will play a significant part in supporting these activities. (See the Support Network document for details.)
Geography staff involved in fieldwork will probably already have attended a First Aid course. In one sense, learning about visual impairment is on a par with this training — it provides a base level of skill should things go wrong. However, it needs to be much more than this, because it is not only proactive and preventative, but it is intimately related to the creation of an effective curriculum, particularly in relation to the design and delivery of study activities in the field.
Content and approach
The material contained in this guide could form a useful starting point for staff awareness training. Some of it takes a general overview of visual impairment and its relation to fieldwork. Other parts address the more specific issues that are related to undertaking a particular fieldcourse, and may well be used as the basis of a chronologically-arranged checklist, beginning with an audit of fieldcourse venues and accommodation through to the fieldwork activities, the follow-up work and the assessment. Because of this, it might be appropriate to divide staff awareness raising into two distinct phases:
Initial awareness raising
- introduction to visual impairment; general implications for fieldwork; review of available resources
- meet with visually impaired students; discuss issues and approaches with relevant support staff
- how to audit a fieldcourse for visually impaired students; designing fieldwork activities; etc.
Some issues for discussion
Here are some of the questions, some broad and some relatively narrow, that staff could usefully ask themselves in their awareness raising sessions:
- The approach taken in this guide aims to encourage the provision of equal opportunities for visually impaired students. To what extent might a concern with providing these ‘equal opportunities’ be detrimental to the other, non-visually impaired students in the group? Is there a case to be made for the view that changing fieldwork to cater for the needs of a small minority of visually impaired students could compromise the other students' learning experience in the field? (See the broader discussion in the related document: Towards a Generic Approach to Teaching and Learning?.)
- What information is available on living with disability? (See the Resources section of this guide.)
- How many publicity channels do you use to inform students about your fieldcourses? How suited are they to the needs of visually impaired students? Would it be useful to have additional channels that better suit the needs of the visually impaired student — e.g. email or Web, in addition to class announcements or handouts?
- Do you have facilities in your institution for producing information in forms other than paper — e.g. braille or audio-cassette? If so, are these available to staff, students, or both? Are there are any costs involved?
- Do you require students to visit particular Web sites — maybe including your own — to familiarise themselves with the area in which the fieldcourse is being held? People with a severe impairment or who are totally blind may rely on screen reading software to access Web information. Do you know whether the documents they are meant to consult conform to Web Accessibility Guidelines?
- How useful might it be to suggest that your blind and visually impaired students use a student helper or buddy? How could you accommodate such a person in the field to help the visually impaired student?
- Should blind or visually impaired students work alone or in groups on field courses? (See the companion document on Individual and Group Work.)
- Which learning style approach would be most effective for visually impaired students? For example, how appropriate is active learning or problem-based learning, and how far should tutors insist on all students becoming autonomous learners in the field? (As an exercise, create a worst-case scenario for these in relation to visually impaired students.)
- Discuss the issue of self disclosure — how much information should blind and visually impaired students be asked to give about themselves so as to assist in the design and planning of field work to maximise their learning effectiveness and minimise the safety risks?
- In the past, academic staff have been used to delivering a standard curriculum to all students. In the future, will they need to be more flexible and adaptive, fashioning individual curricula for variously impaired students? Should this attitude be extended to all students? (For more on the latter issue see the companion document: A Generic Approach to Teaching and Learning?.)
- Academic staff traditionally regard themselves as guardians of their subject. How far should they also be thinking about being apostles of best teaching practice — e.g. what creative thinking might be necessary to ensure that students with visual disabilities can enjoy a positive and fulfilling learning experience?
- What are the trade-offs between maintaining academic standards and ensuring that blind or visually impaired students can enjoy a positive and fulfilling learning experience? There are some academics who are wedded to the approach prevalent in the past of delivering a standard curriculum to all students, so that everyone received the same education. In the future, how necessary will it be for us to be flexible and adaptive, and can this approach be adopted without sacrificing educational standards?
- Who are the relevant members of support services (Student Services, Student Welfare, Disability Support Unit, etc.)? How can they help in devising fieldwork for blind and visually impaired students?
- Explore various official support schemes and sources of financial support — e.g. the Disabled Student Allowance.
Students as well as staff
It is important that initiatives aimed at raising staff awareness are not divorced from similar initiatives aimed at students. For maximum effect, the two should be developed hand in hand with one another. (See the document on Raising Student Awareness.) At several points in the fieldwork planning process, staff and visually impaired students need to put their heads together, whether it is to decide early on whether certain field activities are viable, or to determine the practicalities of getting from A to B in the field.
© Geography Discipline Network/authors, 2001
ISBN: 1 86174 115 4