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

Strategies for Fieldwork

Wheelchair considerations

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:

  1. Time. It might not always take longer for a wheelchair user to make a specific journey, but it will certainly take longer to load and unload vehicles.
  2. Breaks. Understand the need for appropriate breaks, particularly where there are long sessions, to allow for movement and change of physical position. Access to toilets also needs to be carefully planned in advance.
  3. Weather. Wheelchair users may need to wear more or different clothes, as they can get cold sitting down all or most of the time. If it rains, an umbrella helps only a little, and wheelchair users can get very cold, wet and uncomfortable.
  4. Carrying possessions is not always easy, especially if trying to manage a clip board, field notes and so on. Bumbags and totebags or rucksacks which hang on the back of the wheelchair can be useful - but the later can pose a security risk if potential thieves might be about. An alternative is to provide storage place where books and other equipment can be left by the student rather than carrying these all the time, perhaps in a vehicle, parked in a convenient location.
  5. Space. It is necessary to ensure that suitable space for a wheelchair and/or appropriate seating is available, for example during visits to external organisations, or in classroom sessions. The height of laboratory or computer benches is critical. Where helpers in the form of personal assistants provide support to the student, ensure allowances are made for accommodating additional members in a classroom or during a fieldcourse.

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