There is some evidence that blind and visually impaired students steer clear of geography at secondary school level. For example, in a recent survey of over 1000 blind and partially sighted young people, it was found that geography, science and physical education appeared less accessible subject areas (Sortit, 2000). The results of a recent GDN survey into geography department experience with disabled students (Hall et al., 2000) reveals that only 20% had experience of visually impaired students undertaking fieldwork, which seems to indicate that proportionately fewer visually impaired students are coming through to take geography compared with students with other disabilities.
These findings make it important that positive messages are provided at induction and enrolment, but also earlier in the recruitment process, when tutors attend recruitment fairs or make presentations at schools. If fieldwork is perceived by visually disabled students as being difficult or impossible, then it is likely they will avoid taking subjects in which field study is an integral part.
Academic staff should adopt the default view that a student with a visual impairment can undertake fieldwork, unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary. Only when the risk assessment has been completed, and the resource and health and safety options have been considered should the possibility of saying 'no' be entertained. As we have said elsewhere in this guide, it is of paramount importance to discuss the issue with the student involved, so that a joint decision can be arrived at. The costs of saying 'yes' and then not being able to deliver what has been promised — whether explicitly or implicitly — must also be weighed carefully.
However, it is essential to recognise that visually impaired students, no less than other students, have high hopes of a fulfilling education. In the rush to recruit as many students as possible for a particular degree course, tutors need to be scrupulously honest with visually impaired students about the realities of their future studies. It is no good promising the earth or hiding problems from view — these problems will come back to haunt you. Even worse, they may prejudice the achievement of a fulfilling educational experience by the visually impaired recruit. So, encourage visually impaired students to ask probing questions at open days and recruitment fairs, not only about your course — and specifically the fieldwork components — but also of the learning environment generally on the campus at which they will be based. And do not duck the difficult questions; be as honest as you can — it will usually repay dividends.
One way of being open about the nature of study on your courses is to provide students with information about the visual demands likely to be placed on them if they decide to enrol on the specific course they have applied for. For example, will they encounter:
During the recruitment and admissions process, subject staff can benefit from liaising closely with admissions staff and others — e.g. specialist staff with responsibility for fieldwork, the institution's Disability Adviser or Officer, and the local Health and Safety representative. This liaison can be beneficial in several ways:
Several other issues need to be discussed jointly between subject tutors, recruitment staff and student welfare staff. For example, visually impaired students may not want their condition to be publicised. Most university student records systems have a field in which the impairments may be recorded, but it is important that they can record whether or not they wish this information to be made known to other staff and/or students. If students are required to disclose their visual impairment, then this brings with it a responsibility for maintaining confidentiality, if they so wish. (If the student states a preference as far as disclosure is concerned, then this information should be made readily available to all staff who are involved in teaching them.) Students with visual impairments must recognise the possible consequences of non-disclosure, and that such an attitude risks not only the safety of others on the fieldcourse, but also might be in breach of departmental and institutional safety policies.
Many students do not want to be treated as 'special cases', or given preferential treatment. Nevertheless, the special demands made by field study may make it necessary for visually impaired students at recruitment to be made fully aware of the need for full disclosure, at least to subject staff, so that their needs can be built into the decision making process when fieldwork is being organised. (This issue is discussed from another perspective in the companion document: Learning from Recruitment.)
When a visually impaired undergraduate student applies to UCAS, then they must declare the nature of their disability on the application form. Similarly, if they decide to enrol on your course, then they should consider applying for a Disabled Students Allowance (DSA). (See the companion document on Allowances.)
Page updated 14 December 2001
GDN pages maintained by Phil Gravestock
© Geography Discipline Network/authors, 2001
ISBN: 1 86174 115 4