The most well-known global image that invokes awareness of disability is probably that of the wheelchair, despite the actual percentage of wheelchair users amongst those with disability being small. For example, of the 22,500 undergraduate students in the UK who self-assessed themselves as having a disability in 1998/9, less than 5% were wheelchair users or had mobility difficulties (Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) Statistics. See also the Overview guide in this series). Despite this, wheelchair users will probably form an important proportion of students with mobility impairments likely to be encountered by many academics facilitating fieldwork.
Wheelchairs come in many shapes and forms, from basic self-propelled models to powered ones, and many types of optional attachments are available, including trays that fit over the arms to provide a writing surface. A wheelchair user may need to have access to a different variety of wheelchair for field use from that used normally. Wheelchairs appropriate to a variety of purposes may be obtained on loan or hired. Most wheelchairs require additional assistance to cross rough terrain, for example by additional helpers, and/or by using slings. So-called all-terrain wheelchairs are being developed. For example, the Landeez all-terrain wheelchair was designed specifically to roll easily over sand, snow and gravel, using soft plastic pneumatic tyres. It can be dismantled for transport in seconds, as the frame uses quick release pins, so tools are not necessary. However, such wheelchairs are not widely available as yet. Information on wheelchairs, including powered wheelchairs, scooters and buggies is available from RICA.
In planning fieldwork which includes a wheelchair user there is a whole range of other considerations which need to be made, including:
Note that not all wheelchair users necessarily use their wheelchair all of the time. Students are not "confined" to wheelchairs. They often transfer to cars and furniture. Using a wheelchair for only some of the time does not mean that the student is faking a disability. It may, for example, be a means of conserving energy or moving more quickly. There is also a protocol associated with wheelchairs, with which staff and abled students might need to become familiar.
An interesting innovation is the introduction of service or independence dogs. They are much more common in the United States, but could be encountered in the UK, and the needs of the dog (e.g. accommodation, food, exercising) would need to be taken into account in making arrangements, in a similar way to those of guide and hearing dogs.
Page updated 14 December 2001
GDN pages maintained by Phil Gravestock
© Geography Discipline Network/authors, 2001
ISBN: 1 86174 114 6