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

Barriers and Strategies

Abstract: This section presents some examples of the complex issues which may be faced by different types of staff when a disabled student presents themselves prior to a fieldclass. Drawing from these examples it summarises the barriers to participation under three headings - attitudinal, institutional and organisational, and physical - and begins to suggest overarching strategies for removing or reducing them.

Access issues

Any classification of the wealth of issues surrounding equality of access to fieldwork opportunities is fraught with difficulty. The generic issues are similar to those encountered in developing a policy for equal opportunities in education generally, but there are particular combinations of circumstances that can appear particularly daunting to both potential disabled students and the fieldwork organisers. The examples in Boxes 8-11 suggest some of the range that may exist.

Box 8: An issue for the University Disability Advisor

A mature student aged 55 suffers from arthritis, but wishes to participate fully in a geological mapping field class. The class has traditionally included only relatively fit young people in their late teens and twenties. Normally it goes to the Scottish Highlands since the lecturer running the visit is a specialist on metamorphism, and this is where the best rock exposures are found. The accommodation has been in rather rudimentary mountain chalets. The student hates to be the centre of attention, and is very keen that her presence does not compromise the experience of the younger cohort.

Question: As the University Disability Advisor you have been monitoring her progress during the course. What advice do you give her and the department organising the field class?

Box 9: An issue for a lecturer assisting with a fieldcourse

A student with severe dyslexia is about to visit a local recycling facility, as part of a final level module on waste management in his Environmental Management HND programme. Just before the minibus leaves the campus, he is given a set of paperwork relating to risk assessment of the site, and asked to complete the relevant forms quickly as the visit is running behind schedule. The originals of the forms must be left with the Departmental Office, and copies made for the administrator of the facility to be visited; this is a legal requirement. The Departmental Administrator is agitated and in haste, and everyone else has their heads down filling in the names of their next of kin, and the agreement that they have read and understood the risks involved on the site.

Question: You are a member of academic staff who has volunteered to drive one of the two minibuses. You notice that the student, who you do not know, appears to be having difficulty completing the form. What do you do?

Box 10: An issue for a fieldcourse tutor

An introductory environmental sciences field excursion will be examining the pattern of vegetation colonisation in a conservation area on the Pembrokeshire coastline, considering the linkages between soil development and the presence of particular plant species. The tutor also intends to bring specimens of plants and invertebrates back to the laboratory for microscopic examination later. The group includes a partially sighted student who normally travels with a guide dog, and is starting to use audiotapes and large print to support her study in the classroom and library.

Question: You, the tutor, meet the student for the first time two weeks before the class is due to go. What do you do?

Box 11: An issue for the head of department

A College's compulsory residential fieldcourse in geography normally takes place on the Mediterranean coastline, where students are often involved in independent group projects investigating patterns of in-migration of English-speaking residents. One young student has identified to the College that he suffers from depression and panic attacks, although the depression is managed through prescription drugs. He does not appear anxious about participating, but the lecturers taking the trip are concerned that the student may either apparently behave irresponsibly whilst away or be unable to cope with the intensity of the work and the social life after days in the field. Their initial view is that his presence may compromise the work of other students, or that there may be a problem through over-indulgence in alcohol taken in combination with his medication.

Question: They approach you, the head of department, with their concerns. What advice do you give them?

Elements of these situations will probably be familiar to those of us involved in organising and running fieldwork, although most of us have encountered students with significant disabilities only occasionally, and then most frequently those with various hidden disabilities or dyslexia. This absence of experience is an interesting question in its own right, given the extent of disability in the population at large. Possibly tutors may not realise that students on their field visits have disabilities, at least until some incident raises questions. There can be no single defined approach to addressing individual circumstances. The most usual response to the situation when there is advance knowledge is an attempt to discuss sympathetically with the students what barriers may exist to their participation in the fieldwork and how these might be reduced or overcome. In some circumstances alternative learning experiences may be discussed. It is frequently thought to be important to establish the nature of the disability, through requiring students to complete confidential paperwork for consideration by the host department, prior to some decision being taken about what is 'possible' to offer given the students' circumstances. However, this in itself may be prejudicial to the student.

In an ideal world, it may be considered that the curriculum should be designed holistically from the outset to maximise inclusivity (Parker, 1999). This approach responds positively to the diversity of learning needs of all students, including those not describing themselves as disabled. In theory too it enhances students' understanding of the diversity of the human condition and experience. However, there are other meta-strategies which address specific issues where inclusivity is not the only driving force in the design of a curriculum, and which can suggest solutions which may be regarded as 'reasonable' within the terms of legislation. Some relate simply to the provision of specific support to the disabled student to allow them to benefit from the field experience alongside others. Other approaches may involve more significant adjustments such as alternative destinations (for the group or for individual students), locally-based options, or replacement of the field experience with some classroom-based activity with similar learning outcomes, perhaps supported by the use of 'virtual' environments and examination of real samples or data. Where the intended learning outcomes of being in the field personally are judged to be critical for achieving professional competence, and this places potential barriers before disabled students, approaches based on best practice must be adopted. Naturally, opinion on best practice, and what is reasonable, will shift over time in the light of experience.

Page updated 14 December 2001

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