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

Barriers and Strategies


The impediments to individual disabled people accessing fieldwork and related opportunities have been classified in a non-medical way (see Models of Disability), using three broad conceptual groupings of the barriers which society creates:

This categorisation also reflects the fact that students or potential students currently face multiple impediments to their participation, which potentially exclude them from undertaking study at many stages of their academic careers. For example, an admissions tutor might unwittingly assume that courses including fieldwork are inappropriate or impossible for students with particular medically-defined disabilities, and advise them of this at the time of application. There may be an impression given through publicity materials that only able-bodied people would be able to take up a particular academic discipline because of a requirement for high levels of physical fitness and mobility, or a requirement for visual acuity. Or it may be thought by course tutors to be impossible for a student with a speech impairment, although well advanced in a humanities-based course, to be involved in personal project work with human subjects off-campus. These are examples where attitudes, organisational characteristics and physical settings all pose barriers. The barriers to participation will also be apparent differentially for different types of activities, and different disciplines, as traditionally interpreted.

Attitudinal Barriers

This refers either to attitudes held by staff responsible for coordinating or organising field visits, or to the attitudes of those who students would encounter during field visits, perhaps as colleagues or the subjects of research projects or the presenters of information. This barrier has the potential to affect the experience of all disabled students and be discriminatory, even if unintentionally. Staff may typically not have received training on how to teach to accommodate the diverse needs of all students in higher education, and may resent potential encroachments onto their perceived academic freedoms of how, what and where to teach. They may adopt an attitude of 'blaming the individual' disabled student for apparently posing them a problem, and feel themselves incapable of responding positively. Some basic training courses are usually available as part of staff development at institutional level and academic and support staff need to be encouraged to participate.

The attitudes of fellow students sharing the visit may also be an impediment to effective participation by disabled students. The disabled students' colleagues may unintentionally be over-protective or do too much of the work for them. Alternatively some of their colleagues may, through lack of prior experience, feel uncomfortable and display this through avoiding contact with them. These are the same set of barriers which students face in everyday life, but perhaps are apparent more acutely because of the lack of familiarity of the setting, the potentially close personal associations which occur between participants (staff, students) on field visits, and the semi-enforced contact with a particular set of other people as part of the 'field experience'. Where disabilities are visible (through wheelchairs or walking frames, white canes or dark glasses, hearing aids, facial disfigurements) these can lead to students being faced with exclusion, infantilisation, being patronised or stigmatised. Where the disabilities are less apparent initially, or less well understood by the public, staff or fellow students (such as medical or dietary requirements, unusual behaviour including speech patterns or movements, evidence of undue anxiety), people may be surprised and respond by appearing alarmed, embarrassed or repelled. This clearly reduces the capacity for sensible communication to take place amongst field trip participants or the subjects of field-based enquiries, let alone meaningful intellectual discourse or academic inquiry.

It is possible that during the field visit, as indeed at other times during the student's everyday life, that they will be affected by the operation of cliques and power groupings that are exclusive, and from which they are informally isolated or excluded. Students with low-incidence disabilities, such as blindness or deafness are also often unique anyway on their course, and will inevitably feel somewhat isolated. This has the potential to be particularly problematic if students are working in, or being assessed in groups, and if there is any reluctance to include the disabled student as a team member.

Moreover, it should be remembered that a disabled student, as indeed any individual, may not share the same value systems as the majority of participants in the fieldwork experience, whether staff or fellow students. They may not feel that personally ascending a high peak, walking through a complex labyrinth of small passageways in an old town, observing the detail of soil or vegetation coloration in a river valley, or spending periods of time socialising in a bar, is a valuable part of the fieldwork, or that it is a legitimate expectation. From this perspective, there may potentially be a conflict of views with field visit organisers (and in some cases with professional bodies), particularly where the intended learning outcomes for such experiences are spelled out in terms of the 'length' of the field visit (e.g. 'at least eight weeks field mapping') rather than characterising the development of skills or understanding which is expected as an outcome of the activity. Further thoughts on this are given in the section below. This raises issues of wider concern, for example whether all students have the right to negotiate their curricula, or the limits within which this might justifiably take place, which although interesting are largely beyond the scope of this study.

Enhanced public understanding of disability is clearly an issue for everybody, not just participants in field classes, but academic staff have a particular role to play in their teaching. The tone of the relationships which they broker in the classroom or beyond, and the climate of expectations they set in relation to the behaviour of all students are critical issues, and can have a real impact on the experience of disabled students. Research suggests that this is most easily accomplished where there is a commitment to "innovative teaching approaches and self renewal" (Silver et al., 1998). At a practical level there are useful outlines of the etiquette of approaching and talking to blind students and wheelchair users in the other guides.

Perceived attitudes of staff and other students is one of the reasons for the reluctance of students to disclose the existence of disabilities. Such non-disclosure can, however, lead to staff inadvertently being insensitive to a disabled student's situation because of their lack of awareness of the situation faced by the student.

Institutional and organisational system barriers

Institutional barriers to participation may include issues relating to the timetabling or scheduling of field visits (seasonally in relation to climate or weather, during the course of a day or a period of time, or the intensity of activities occurring in a restricted period of time). It may be specified that students have to work independently in the field (for example, mapping work in areas some distance away from the road network, medical facilities and toilets), without the reason for this being clarified. Sometimes the institutional requirements of completing paperwork may prove unnecessarily challenging (a need for health and safety paperwork to be done on site, for example). It may be viewed as a superfluous administrative or financial burden for additional helpers (signers, interpreters, note takers, trained medical carers) to be part of the field visit team, despite the availability of funds from the student's Disability Allowance. Or it may be institutional practice to make arrangements for field classes relatively shortly before departure, thus not allowing the disabled student time to be adequately briefed on the likely demands of the visit, or to make any arrangements that they may require.

Other institutions or organisations involved in field classes can also influence the students' experience through their own systems. Institutions or businesses may operate informal 'quota' systems for disabled students, with the intention of reducing pressures on their staff (for example the higher education institution itself, the residential accommodation or transport used during a field visit, or the sites visited such as show caves, government or local authority offices, or commercial premises). In the past this has frequently been cast as a health and safety issue, in relation to the need for emergency evacuation of premises, but the effect in excluding students is, nevertheless, very significant for the individuals directly affected. Quotas, formal or informal, are more likely to be encountered in some countries than others, and are no longer widespread in the UK (readers may recall the substantial discussions around the implementation of arrangements to accommodate wheelchair users in cinemas and theatres, for example), but other organisational issues, for example an apparent inability or unwillingness to respond to the need for a special diet, are similar in their impact.

Amongst the arrangements for the field class that are within the HEI's remit, inflexibility about the nature of assessment can also create a barrier to the student's success. For example, the assessment specified may include the submission of a personally-written logbook or field notebook completed in the field, or the presentation of a poster, both of which could be challenging for a student with a visual or mobility impairment and which might legitimately be recast as a verbal presentation for example, without detracting from either the intended learning outcomes or the challenge.

Physical barriers

These are usually thought to relate principally to students with mobility impairments (wheelchair or walking stick/frame users being most commonly cited, although people using these aids are not the most common disabled students encountered). The most obvious barriers which disabled students on a fieldcourse might face include steps, doors, steep gradients or settings which are physically challenging and tiring even for able-bodied students (lengthy hikes, mountainsides, river channels, quarries, multi-level buildings without lifts or escalators). This can be compounded by phenomena such as:

But physical barriers can go far beyond this to include:

Time-related problems, such as unusually long (or unspecified) intervals between mealtimes, or limited opportunities to visit lavatories or bathrooms, may also cause difficulties. Lack of mains electricity can create difficulties for students reliant on microcomputer-driven equipment. Wide open spaces, cliffs or high buildings, aeroplane flights, small underground passages, deep water, crowds and the possibility of encountering particular forms of wildlife can also be viewed as posing physical challenges for phobic students.

Page updated 14 December 2001

GDN pages maintained by Phil Gravestock