Issues in Providing Learning Support for Disabled Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities

Setting the Scene

Abstract: This section sets the scene by discussing the case of the golfer who successfully sued his professional association for refusing to allow him to use a golf cart in a tournament. It draws some parallels with this experience and the attempts to develop an inclusive fieldwork curriculum. The aims of this guide, its intended readership and the funding source, are all identified. Two case studies covering the experience of disabled students, who wished to participate in fieldwork, are presented. One had a positive outcome the other negative.

Should a golfer be allowed to compete professionally, even if s/he can't walk properly and needs a wheelchair? Casey Martin successfully sued the US Professional Golfer's Association when they refused to allow him to use a golf cart in a tournament. (

Looking at issues of disability and fieldwork from this golfing context suggests a range of issues connecting these different worlds, including:

Internationally these issues are now being considered and resolved through legislation and discussions with professional bodies.

Some tentative answers to some of these questions begin to emerge if we look at the experience of disabled students undertaking fieldwork. Two case studies are presented in Boxes 1 and 2. Both speak of the excitement and benefits of participating in fieldwork. One, despite this experience, relates how on changing schools at 16 he was prevented from taking geography A-level because of the perception of the head of department of the difficulties of taking a disabled student on fieldwork. Working to prevent this kind of experience reoccurring is one of the stimuli behind undertaking this project. The second case study shows how, with imagination and willingness, severely disabled students may still participate and be integrated effectively with other undergraduate students in fieldwork.

Box 1: Supporting the learning of disabled students: the situation in 1989

I attended what was referred to then as a special school for disabled students in East Sussex. Geography was my best and favourite subject. I vividly remember the geography field trips to both Bodmin Moor and the Yorkshire Dales as part of my GCSEs. Abseiling down a viaduct was not a problem for me (I was very trusting of the guy holding the rope!). Visiting china clay quarries was also a challenge but most interesting.

It was these experiences that decided my academic career. I attended a mainstream 6th form college in Hampshire but resided at the specialist college nearby. At my interview I met with the assistant principal and told her that I wanted to do geography A-level. She said she wouldn't be a minute and that she would get the head of geography to come and talk to me.

Five minutes later he poked his head around the door and disappeared. It transpired that he didn't know how to handle disabled people, the field trip element of the course would be impossible and, therefore, he wasn't going to allow me a place on the course. The response from the assistant principal was 'I must be used to disappointments'!

This was 1989, and I am glad to say that this attitude is not as prevalent today. My career path was changed because a key person felt they couldn't/or I couldn't cope with being on the course.

What was needed: A change in attitude - an opportunity to demystify disability, creativity and innovation in thinking about those parts of the course which may or may not have been a challenge - the concept of widening participation was not a seed that had been sown in Lord Dearing's mind at this point.

Mike Adams (May 2001)

Director of the National Disability Team (NDT)

Box 2: The experience of undertaking fieldwork: a disabled student's perspective on geological fieldwork with the Open University


My interest in geology started at primary school, where I met a like-minded individual of my own age. By the time we reached senior school we were actively involved in fieldwork and our holidays became intensive geological expeditions. In a spirit of competitive co-operation we taught ourselves to GCE level. My friend went on to university and is now a Doctor of Geology, whilst I became an insurance underwriter, relegating geology to a hobby.

However, in 1990, at the age of 39, the long-term complications of diabetes forced me into early retirement. Since then I have had renal dialysis and subsequently, a kidney transplant, my right leg has been amputated below the knee and I am registered as partially sighted. I found the frustration of being unable to read and take an active role in life intense.

The Open University (OU) was my salvation. Over the last ten years I have been able to study a variety of subjects, using audio tapes provided by their Office for Students with Disabilities and the RNIB, together with computer technology (courtesy of a grant from the RNIB) and an array of magnifying lenses.

Many OU courses include Residential Summer Schools. My first two attempts at attending these were abortive due to health problems, but fortunately the OU adopts a flexible attitude to this and I was able to seek excusal and complete the courses. Similarly I have been able to take special late examinations.

Fieldwork and summer school

The OU Geology course, S236, involved a small amount of fieldwork at local level, with group outings to nearby sites of interest. Being centred on Essex these weren't too demanding and my wife accompanied me on them as my helper. However, Summer School was a different matter, but I was determined to get there this time. The OU operates a Special Support Summer School week for disabled geology students, based at Durham University. I opted to go on this, not least because it was only months since my amputation and although I could walk reasonably well with my prosthetic leg I really wasn't sure how I and it would stand up to tramping across the moors. As the time approached my trepidation grew, but this time my brittle health held out. My wife accompanied me again - you can take your own helper or the OU will provide one if required. We weren't quite sure how this would work out, but it seemed the best option for us personally and we had some practice on the local field trips. The OU also kindly paid my wife's expenses.

The Regional Office at Newcastle sent me a Summer School handbook in large print. When we arrived at Durham we were greeted and shown around. We had expected Spartan accommodation, but were given a pleasant double room on the campus. There was always a choice of at least two wholesome meals from which I was able to find something to suit my diabetic diet. For those on more restrictive diets, special arrangements could be made by prior notification.

The days were divided between tutorials, laboratory work and each day a coach trip to some geologically interesting part of the north of England for fieldwork. At the first tutorial I was given a large print copy of the Summer School Notes and each successive days handouts were provided in this format. Although probably only about 10% of course members were disabled, a wide variety of disablements was represented. A range of special needs equipment was available from which I took advantage of a sturdy walking stick (I normally just use a white cane).

In the field the less mobile of us tended to work together in groups with our helpers. This built up bonds of mutual support and encouragement between us. We were always helped on and off the coach. Easier, shorter routes were found for us where possible, even to the extent of having a car follow the coach on one occasion, so we could be ferried down the last steep section of road that the coach couldn't manage. There were always extra demonstrators on hand to give help and encouragement if and when we needed it. They might describe something we couldn't see or even give a bodily push over difficult terrain. Safety was always borne in mind and we were discouraged from taking dangerous routes.

We visited a variety of outcrop types, quarries, cuttings, sea cliffs with wave cut platform, limestone pavements and riverside exposures, all of which presented different visual and physical challenges. We were taken up close to the outcrops for the best visibility where possible and encouraged to feel sections to examine texture and grain size.

My wife acted as my amanuensis and drew field sections for me, so that I could examine them later in the laboratory. We both learned a lot of geology and a lot about ourselves as well (even after some 25 years of marriage).

The tutors, demonstrators and counsellors were all very helpful and concerned, but we were not patronised or made to feel awkward because of our disabilities in any way. We were accepted as equals by the other students, even though they sometimes had to wait for us to catch them up. In fact they were not all always aware of our difficulties; after one particularly strenuous day I was asked if I had a blister as I limped down the corridor. And I think I surprised a few people when I arrived in shorts on the final day.

The social side of Summer School is traditional and we were able to join in the quiz night, disco and ceilidh. If someone had told me a few months earlier that I would be dancing at a ceilidh (albeit the more restrained numbers) I don't think I would have believed them.

Although there were inevitably a few moments of frustration at the things I wasn't able to do or see, these did not diminish the elation and sense of achievement I felt at the things I was able to do. The week was enjoyable, stimulating and informative for both my wife and me. I felt that going on the Special Support week was beneficial and increased what I was able to get out of the course.

At the end of the year I passed my Geology examination with distinction and have since graduated with a BSc degree. My Summer School experiences did give me the confidence to start independent fieldwork again, with my wife's sterling assistance, of course. On a recent visit to Yorkshire we did the several mile traverse at Ingleton and the High Force unconformity, and went down White Scar caves, both of which had featured in OU Geology TV programmes.

I am continuing with my OU studies and am currently taking AA309, Culture, Identity and Power in the Roman Empire, a very different challenge to geology.

Alan Totham, Chelmsford (May 2001)

Need for this project

Although there is a small, but rapidly growing literature on disabled students and their use of space (e.g. Gleeson, 1998; Golledge, 1993, 1997; Imrie, 1996; Kitchin, 2000; Lawrence, 1997); only a handful of studies have been published which examine issues in teaching geography, earth and environmental sciences to disabled students (e.g. Boyd, 1993; Cooke et al., 1997; Desforges, 1999; Travis, 1990). There is also an extensive literature about fieldwork in geography, earth and environmental sciences in higher education (Cottingham et al., 2000) and several recent guides and reviews about fieldwork have been published (e.g. Jenkins, 1997; Kent et al., 1997; Livingstone et al., 1998). Yet, with a few exceptions (Grant & Higgitt, 1994; University of Strathclyde, 2000), very little has been written previously about supporting disabled students undertaking fieldwork in higher education (Hall et al., 2002).

Providing appropriate learning support for a disabled student on a fieldcourse can seem a major challenge for the staff involved. Departments running field courses are likely to experience such challenges more frequently in the future as universities in many countries respond to legislation aimed at answering equal opportunities for students with disabilities. In the UK, for example, universities are faced with the government's expansion and access targets and the need to meet the Quality Assurance Agency's (QAA) Code of Practice relating to Students with Disabilities (QAA, 2000c) and the Disability Rights Commission's rulings and Code of Practice associated with the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (HMSO, 2001). However, there are also opportunities to be grasped in widening the participation of disabled students to the curriculum. As we become more sensitive to the diversity of student needs we may modify how we teach and facilitate learning in ways that will benefit all our students.

Page updated 14 December 2001

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