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

Our Approach

Abstract: Our approach emphasises the application of the social model to disability and puts the issues in the wider context of equal opportunities. Provision for disabled students in higher education is shifting away from a stress on physical accessibility to one emphasising an inclusive curriculum. As this happens the issue becomes more part of the mainstream teaching and learning debate.

If you have thought through your responses to the factions in the previous section it is likely that you will have identified a wide range of issues. Some of them will have to do with the nature of the particular disability; others will concern the barriers that disabled students face in accessing the full range of learning experiences. The first approach focuses on the medical condition faced by students, the second emphasises the obstacles which society places in the way of disabled students obtaining equal access to learning opportunities. Both approaches are used in this project, although we emphasise the latter.

Providing learning support for disabled students undertaking fieldwork is an equal opportunities issue and many of the principles of good practice in providing equal opportunities in the curriculum apply (Box 5). Equal opportunities is about managing diversity. This means seeing disabled students as individuals, who have many different characteristics, one of which just happens to be a disability. As the other guides make clear, treating people in categories, such as 'the blind' or 'the deaf' is fraught with problems. Not only are there many different forms and degrees of blindness and deafness, but the needs of any two students with similar disabilities may vary because they are individuals, who may have different learning styles, educational backgrounds, abilities and motivations.

Box 5: Good practice in developing equal opportunities in the curriculum

(Based on Carroll, 1999)

"Equal opportunities is not about treating everyone the same. It is about recognising that people have different needs and that some people suffer greater levels of disadvantage and discrimination than others do. In the curriculum, it is about positively responding to 'diversity' and ensuring equality of opportunities in terms of access, treatment and outcomes" (Ryan, 1997, p.5).

Ryan (2000) went on to produce a guide for teaching international students. Many of the principles equally apply to teaching disabled students. In the following quotes the term 'international' has been replaced by 'disabled' and the term 'home' by 'abled'. The changes are shown in italics.

"It is not about lowering standards or doing more. It is about doing things differently. Take a step back and look at how you can change your practices. Start small making changes with which you feel comfortable. Remember that abled students have needs as well and that these should be balanced with the needs of disabled students" (Ryan, 2000, p.4).
"Universities need to respond to the needs of disabled students by opening not just their doors to them, but once in, making sure that the curriculum is also accessible. Disabled students are too often seen as a 'problem' that needs solving. Instead they should be seen as one group among many in an increasingly diverse student population, with needs that may be unfamiliar. Instead of expecting all students to fit to pre-existing structures, universities need to respond to diverse student populations, including disabled students" (Ryan, 2000, p.5).

A sensible response to recognising this diversity is to negotiate with individual disabled students what kinds of learning support they need and how the barriers that they face to effective learning in the field can be reduced or overcome. This negotiation is a two-way process. Many disabled students may have a stereotyped vision of what fieldwork involves, just as many non-disabled staff (and students) may have a stereotyped view of what disabled students can or cannot do. The aim of such negotiations is to help disabled students achieve the learning outcomes that are associated with fieldwork.

Providing learning support for disabled students is not just a matter of meeting legislative requirements and the Codes of Practice of the QAA and the Disability Rights Commission (see sections on Legislation and Regulation and The Quality Assurance Agency's Framework), important though these may be. It is just as much part of the wider issue of improving learning opportunities for the increasingly diverse student body that is entering higher education. There are many examples in the other guides of how relatively small changes or additions to a fieldwork programme made to benefit a disabled student have also lead to benefits for other students on the fieldcourse or degree programme (Box 6).

Box 6: Examples of modifications and additions to fieldwork that may benefit more than just disabled students

Making special provision for disabled students by providing, for example, alternative forms of assessment, extra examination time, technological assistance, scribes, readers and so on, is a way of enabling them to compete on a level playing field with non-disabled students."Disabled students are fully expected, and indeed themselves expect, to be subjected to the same measurement against academic standards as non-disabled students" (Gosden & Hampton, 2000, p.4).

Provision for disabled students in higher education is shifting away from a stress on physical accessibility to one emphasising an inclusive curriculum. As this happens the issue becomes more part of the mainstream teaching and learning debate.

"At the cornerstone of the debate are two mutually interdependent overriding principles:
- A need for both variety and flexibility in all aspects of teaching and learning.
- A need to ensure quality and parity with students' non-disabled peers.
… whatever the approach undertaken, we must avoid falling into the trap of viewing disabled students as a homogeneous group. The process of designing an 'accessible curriculum' for one disabled student will undoubtedly be different, and in some cases at total odds, with that of other individuals. Therefore, in developing new courses academic staff should be striving to ensure that no 'hidden barriers' are unnecessarily included in the course content and delivery and that the learning outcomes build for both variety and flexibility from the outset."
(Adams, 2000, p.1)

Page updated 14 December 2001

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