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

Examples of Good Practice in Higher Education Institutions Offering Field Classes

Preparatory meetings, discussion, explanation and materials

The importance of early contact, negotiation between the academic staff and the disabled student about the intended learning outcomes and the optimum way of facilitating the student to achieve them, and agreement on the assessment arrangements, is critical. The tutors and the student will need to share their understanding of what is possible, impossible and reasonable. Tutors may not initially realize the most significant issues for particular students, but conversely may be surprised by the experience of their own condition which the student can bring positively to bear. The student will normally have the greatest understanding of their capabilities and this experience will need to be harnessed in planning. Provision of material on video or imagery based on previous visits may be particularly helpful at this stage, for example showing access points to proposed sites, previous groups of students undertaking activities such as field sampling or recording, or the general characteristics of the accommodation previously used.

This will be a good time to review the general guidance provided by departments on the expected conduct and responsibilities of students and staff on field classes, and mutual expectations about behaviour. Sufficient time should be allowed to do this, and to assess any medical needs. The standard health and safety guidance should be explored, and any specific points about activities reviewed. The same general approach is applicable to the provision of documentation as to other areas of the curriculum, namely that it should be as accessible as possible, and made available in different formats if necessary. Excellent practical guidance on this is contained in HEFCE's 'Guidelines for Accessible Courseware' (February 1999), which explains both the barriers to accessibility, and gives extensive practical advice on overcoming them, particularly through the use of technology. Bold typefaces, large print, or audio-based instructions are examples. Specific issues relating to different impairments are also contained in the other guides in this series. Detailed planning will then be underpinned by appropriate understanding. A general discussion of the extent to which it is reasonable to expect the student to make arrangements, and those matters which will be covered by the department or tutor's plans, will reduce any later misunderstandings. This should include the breakdown of costs between the two parties, general principles of which are covered by the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act (1995).

This is also the appropriate time to discuss any specific equipment needs, personal assistance requirements, and medical issues. It might be appropriate to include the institution's Disability Advisor who will be able to provide guidance on the financial support which the student can obtain to support their attendance. Any modifications to the transport arrangements will need exploration, for example the provision of an adapted minibus for a student with a mobility impairment, or the use of a subsidiary vehicle and driver to provide a ferrying service, or maintain equipment close to hand. Arrangements for parking (space, displaying an orange-badge, directions), and maintaining contact between vehicles may be important. In the case of students who work with personal assistance from a helper (or from a guide dog, in the case of blind students), discussion of the their optimum deployment will be necessary, and a clear understanding developed of what the student will be expected to undertake personally, and what can be assisted. The Expedition Advisory Centre at the Royal Geographical Society also holds useful information, particularly on physically challenging destinations (exploration, mountains, the tropics) but also on more general matters. The accommodation and social arrangements will need similar analysis to the field sites.

Box 26: University of Brighton School of the Environment's document sequence, flow charts and review

The School publishes (and maintains on an information server) a comprehensive set of documentation relating to student declarations of special needs, health and safety management (both for staff and for students), guidance on completing risk assessments, a field survey safety code of conduct, health surveillance, an overseas visit code of conduct and accident report forms. Brighton also publish an interesting, comprehensive and well-illustrated A5 sized Safety Handbook for students and staff, dealing with fieldwork and laboratory safety, although printed with a rather small typeface. The identification of students with disabilities and special needs, based on their early declaration, is followed through by actions which follow a published flow chart. The chart identifies responsibilities, places where documentation is to be lodged, information found, and specific courses of action to be followed in particular circumstances. The lines of responsibility leading from the Head of Department to course leaders and other supporting staff, are also clarified.

The discrete needs of disabled students are flagged up specifically in most of the documents but in the fieldwork safety code of conduct a useful check list is given to students who may declare in confidence any disabilities, whether or not the they are registered as disabled.

This documentation has been supported recently by an extensive review of 'Special Needs and Disability' in the School of the Environment, one of the outcomes of which was to move the School from being largely reactive to specific situations arising (a student with a disability presenting themselves for inclusion in a field class, for example), to a more planned and proactive stance. The review was appropriately self-critical, and provided a basis for development of additional services and a stronger pastoral commitment. It also flagged up a desire for clearer guidance at institutional level, for example from the Registry in the form of a University Guidance paper dealing with admissions, and procedural matters.

Box 27: University College London prepare their students for fieldwork through a series of classroom familiarization exercises and lecture

University College London prepare their students for fieldwork through a series of classroom familiarization exercises and lectures.

Geology at University College London has moved away from introducing the use of items of field equipment exclusively in the field. The emphasis has shifted towards careful preparation based either in a laboratory, or done through self-tutoring using a Web-based guide. First steps in the environment beyond the classroom can be undertaken by drawing on the 'exposures' found in city streets and buildings, rather than students having to cope both with unfamiliar terrain as well as new technology.

In addition, prior to the field course a short health and safety workshop, including first aid training, is provided by St John's Ambulance Brigade (a voluntary agency) and students are taught how to do risk assessments in an appropriate way.

These preparatory sessions allow all students to appreciate what will be required during the actual field class, and disabled students and tutors will be able to explore appropriate ways of proceeding safely and effectively.

Based on King (1997)

Page updated 14 December 2001

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