GDN Title
in association with the
National Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Learning Support for Disabled Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities

Workshop Report: Disabled Students and Fieldwork: from exclusion to inclusion

Disabled students form a significant but under represented minority in higher education in the UK. Participation appears to be particularly low in disciplines that contain a fieldwork component. Fieldwork has been recognised as a barrier to the participation of disabled students. This workshop was based on the findings of a survey of the experiences of departments providing learning support to disabled students undertaking fieldwork in geography, earth and environmental science departments. It examined the various ways in which the images, spaces, practices and cultures of fieldwork may exclude or marginalize disabled students and the different ways in which fieldwork may be made more inclusive.

A number of crucial concerns and issues were raised by the participants in this session. While participants were concerned about issues such as tokenism and accreditation from professional bodies amongst other things the tone of the session was positive and numerous ideas for the promotion of greater inclusion emerged from the session. It was felt that while overcoming the barriers to greater inclusion was not easy, it was possible and the benefits of doing so enhanced the learning experiences of all fieldwork participants and not just disabled students.

Images of Fieldwork

Rather than focusing on images of youthfulness, masculinity and adventure, the images used to promote the disciplines and fieldwork could focus more on the group work and team building aspects of fieldwork and include images of disabled students within these groups. In addition promotion might emphasise fieldwork as a process that is not just contained in the time spent in the field but also contains pre- and post-fieldwork components. It was felt important that subject pages in prospectuses also contain statements about fieldwork and equality. However, it was felt important that such efforts reflected the deep commitments of departments to the inclusion of disabled students and were not merely tokenistic.

Spaces of Fieldwork

The experience of participants in the seminar was that able-bodied students failing to take the risks of fieldwork seriously was a far more problematic issue than any involving disabled students in fieldwork spaces. Adequate risk assessment and a better knowledge of liability, of which students felt ownership and responsibility, was regarded as a key issue here. Formal training in risk assessment strategies was also felt to be important. The experience of participants involved in organising expeditions for people with disabilities into extremely challenging environments demonstrated that perceptions can be challenged and successfully overcome.

Cultures of Fieldwork

The issue of excessive drinking amongst students while on fieldwork was felt to be a major issue, not just in relationship to its possible exclusionary effects on those students unwilling or unable to join in with such social practices. Suggested ways in which exclusive, 'laddish' drinking cultures might be tempered included linking learning outcomes to teamwork, which encompass the social as well as academic aspects of fieldwork. With reference to disabled students specifically, seminar participants identified the extra personal care time often required as eating into both work and social time while on fieldwork and the need to be prepared to cut work times to allow greater social opportunities, and equality of opportunity generally, for disabled students.

Other Issues

Other issues identified by seminar participants included:

Tim Hall
Cheltenham & Gloucester College of Higher Education

Materials for this seminar were based on the unpublished paper Disabled Students and Fieldwork: From Exclusion to Inclusion by Tim Hall, Mick Healey and Margaret Harrison. A copy can be obtained by emailing

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