Providing Learning Support for Students with Mobility Impairments Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities


The need to provide learning support for students undertaking fieldwork is driven by legislative, financial and moral imperatives. When the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) came into force on 2nd December 1996, Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) were exempt from its legal requirements, but were required to record their commitment and services to students with a disability by producing a Disability Statement, available to all staff and students. Since the Special Education Needs and Disability Act was passed in May 2001 higher education is no longer exempt (see the Overview guide in this series). In addition, the 1998 Human Rights Act (which came into force in October 2000) ensures equal human rights for all, including those with a disability. Although not having the status of law, but admissible in law, the precepts of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) also require HEIs to make adequate provision for students with a disability, most notably through its Code of Practice for the Assurance of Academic Quality and Standards in Higher Education: Students with Disabilities (QAA, 2000). Precept 11 of this sets out in no uncertain terms the need for institutions to consider how they can best facilitate the participation of disabled students in fieldwork:

Institutions should ensure that, wherever possible, disabled students have access to academic and vocational placements including field trips and study abroad.
(QAA, 2000)

In financial terms, HEIs in 2000/2001 received for the first time mainstream funding 'disability premiums' to support provision for disabled students. This was based on the numbers receiving the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) in each HEI, and is an important recognition that the existence of a disability carries a cost implication for the HEI as well as for the individual student. At the same time, the availability of DSAs was broadened, by the abolition of means testing, and by the inclusion of some postgraduate and part-time students within the scheme.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is a strong moral imperative for the inclusion of all people in higher education, and disability should not be a bar to this. Social inclusion is a relatively new concept in higher education, although some would argue that it is merely making explicit that which was already the case in the best practice. It is used (for example by the European Union) to signify a commitment to equity in policy formulation. It is not however merely a re-packaging of the "equal opportunities" concepts used previously, but is much more focussed on the processes and forces which embed groups or individuals in, or detach them from, the social and economic mainstream (Giddens, 1998):

"Inclusion refers in its broadest sense to citizenship, to the civil and political rights and obligations that all members of a society should have not just formally, but as a reality of their lives. It also refers to opportunities... access to work is one main context of opportunity. Education is another."
(Giddens, 1998, pp. 102-3.)

Social inclusion clearly embraces a wide range of factors, of which disability is just one. The Human Rights legislation can perhaps be viewed as the legal mechanism for enforcement of an undoubtedly moral obligation, conceptualised in terms of social inclusion.

The Overview Guide in this series (Healey et al., 2001) provides a summary of models of disability and introduces appropriate terminology. Following the World Health Organisation's (2000) web site for the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICIDH-2), the present guide is about providing learning support for students with mobility impairments, and who experience disability as a result of the interaction between their impairment, the learning environment, and its social organisation. Some other forms of disability have national bodies recognised by Royal patronage, such as the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) and Royal National Institute for the Deaf and hearing impaired people (RNID). However, there is no similar over-arching body for mobility impairment, and there is arguably a greater degree of ignorance of such impairment amongst both the population as a whole, and amongst academics who might find themselves in the position of having to provide support for students with mobility impairments. A mobility impairment is one which effects the bones, joints, muscles or nerves that effect movement. The term mobility impairment does not only apply to students who use wheelchairs, but also to those with upper limb disorders such as repetitive stain injuries (RSI) and arthritis, and those with medical conditions limiting mobility. A wide range of conditions may limit mobility, including hand function. These include paralysis, cerebral palsy and amputation. This guide should be treated as applying to the widest definition of mobility impairments, ranging from limited manual dexterity to paraplegia.

To ensure an inclusive approach to the curriculum for students with mobility impairments demands considerable planning and consultation at all stages from validation, through fieldwork planning and execution, to follow-up work. This guide outlines broad strategies to be followed and gives suggestions as sources of further information and assistance. It, hopefully, identifies some of the issues which arise. What it cannot do in its limited length is to provide a ready answer to every problem likely to be faced. Each student and each situation is unique, and demands unique consideration. One of the difficulties facing academic staff is that the actual number of students with mobility impairments in one department is small, usually in single figures. Thus good practice developed and experience gained in catering for their needs is both to some extent idiosyncratic to specific students, and developed in isolation.

The guide is not prescriptive, nor does it aim to provide the 'right' answers. Instead it is a guide that should enable staff to develop learner support where it is needed, or to improve the quality of existing learner support. Since the impairments and related impact on the needs of the learners will vary, it is critical that direct communication is established with the student(s) concerned and that the support provided has the approval/consent of learners. The onus is how the learning environment can be enabled to become inclusive for meeting the needs of learners: whether it's to do with attitudes; improving physical access; introducing new forms of learning; or creatively using enabling technologies and raising self awareness through personal development opportunities.

This guide is also most assuredly not a collection of handy tips. We will not tell you how to get a student in a wheelchair up a mountain. But we will guide you in thinking about the issues which have to be faced in accepting a student who uses a wheelchair on the course, in planning and executing fieldwork for that student, and in making appropriate arrangements, both academic and non-academic. This might involve getting the student in a wheelchair up a mountain…but it might not.

This guide is divided into five main parts, considering:

Page updated 14 December 2001

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