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

Models of Disability

What are the implications of the social model of disability for academic staff?


Whilst certain terms have quite rightly been dropped from use, e.g. 'cripple' or 'spastic', the use of language can have powerful effects and staff need to be aware of this. Most people don't like being referred to as medical labels: 'asthmatics', 'schizophrenics', but may find the term 'people with asthma' etc. more acceptable. 'Handicapped' has cap-in-hand associations with charity and is largely out of favour. If you accept the importance of the social model then 'disabled people' is preferable to 'people with disabilities'. This is because, as you will recall, 'disability' is a social created situation. People may 'carry' their impairments around with them e.g. hearing loss, restricted mobility, but disability is the experience of barriers and lack of provision within society. 'The disabled' is a rather impersonal term, which suggests that disabled people are somehow a different species. In certain situations it would be possible for someone to have an impairment, but not be disabled, for example, a wheelchair user in a fully accessible building.

Identification and removal of barriers

The main implications of the social model are that disabled people do not need sympathy or pity, but that the barriers to their participation in mainstream activities need to be identified and overcome. In the context of human environments, disability can be designed out by the provision of level access, ramps, lifts, Braille and speech output devices, text-phones etc. In a teaching context there is much that can be done to ensure that disabled students participate in teaching and learning activities. In the 'natural' environment, as used for field trips, it may be less clear how to make sites accessible. However, creative solutions can often be found, and there are many disabled students for whom limited mobility is not the problem. You will need to consider communication barriers experienced by students with visual or hearing impairments. Students with mental health problems may find new situations anxiety-provoking. We will come back to the subject of making reasonable adjustments for disabled students in the section on the Disability Discrimination Act (see also the section on Barriers).

Disabled people and/or medical professionals as 'experts' on disability issues

Another implication of the social model is that the concern is less with what medical diagnosis is attached to a student and more interested in what they are functionally able to do, and what support they need to overcome any barriers faced. In this instance it is likely to be the disabled students themselves who are the experts on what they need rather than any medical personnel. If an individual student is not sure of the solutions, it may be that another disabled student or staff member has relevant experience that can be shared. There are also a number of agencies set up by disabled people to provide consultancy advice on access issues. Disability Matters ( and Access London ( are two examples.

Page updated 14 December 2001

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