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

Barriers and Strategies

Overarching strategies embracing the whole curriculum

Silver et al. (1998, p.47) argue that accessibility issues should be placed "as an integral component of all instructional planning". With inclusivity at the heart of curriculum design, tutors would include into their curriculum, course delivery and learning environments many of the modifications that students with disabilities would typically request (Parker, 1999). Ideally this should occur either implicitly or explicitly when courses are at the design stage and their objectives are being agreed. Subsequent reflection of course objectives in the learning outcomes of individual modules, and in the assessment design, then follows. In theory this removes much of the need for disability to be raised as an issue by individual students. However, in the face of the many influences on curriculum design (such as overall aims and objectives, linking teaching and research, the resources available and, in particular, staff time) (Jenkins, 1998), to establish an inclusive curriculum, some compromises may have to be made, or particular arrangements negotiated for individuals.

Facilitating access to the full curriculum needs to consider each key element of the formal and informal curriculum, so that discussion of appropriate arrangements and expectations can take place with full knowledge on both the part of the whole staff team, and the disabled student(s). Thus the formal curriculum might at present require students to carry out an analysis of river chemistry. Considering whether that activity is the only, or even the best way of achieving the disciplinary knowledge might suggest alternative exercises for all or some students. Offering students a degree of choice in the fieldwork, so that their particular needs can best be matched, is very helpful. Thus in the case of river chemistry a video or reading supported by laboratory or statistical analysis might provide a suitable alternative to physically collecting samples personally for some students. To go beyond this, the need for physical accessibility (in all of its manifestations) needs to be put higher up the planning framework for deciding on locations and activities for fieldwork. Sometimes it may be possible for large departments to offer a range of fieldclasses to all students, so they can choose the most suitable one for their discipline, domestic arrangements, financial situation or disability as appropriate. For individual elements of assessment a different type of activity may be made available. Other strategies include cooperative learning using a team approach, which draws on the individual team member's abilities. Thus it may be acceptable to devise an activity that requires some in the team to analyse the chemistry and for others to compare the published results from another location. Such 'alternative' arrangements might include the use of ICT and technological innovation, for example in producing accessible materials such a large format print, or extended handouts for reading and assimilating at a later stage (handouts are particularly helpful for students with dyslexia and d/Deaf or hearing-impaired students). The design of high-quality accessible courseware (http://www.disinhe.ac.uk/resources/guides/accessible_courseware/) is naturally not only a requirement for field-based studies, but responds to the needs of all students in all their learning activities.

The key is discussion between the fieldwork organiser and the student to establish what is critical, important and unimportant for both parties. It is important that the negotiation process is built into individual institutional practices, since individual students with disabilities of relatively low incidence (such as visual or hearing impairment) may only be studying occasionally in any one department, and the changes in staffing and institutional organisation may allow knowledge to be lost. The approach, nevertheless, needs to be embraced by all staff.

Figure 1: Spectrum of approaches

Spectrum of approaches between an inclusive and exclusive curriculum. [d]

The curricula provided by individual departments vary in their starting positions on a spectrum from inclusive to exclusive (Figure 1). Some departments have already embraced diversity and inclusivity as part of their course philosophy, and have built curricula, including fieldwork experiences, around this concept. Disabled students are encouraged to apply, can be reassured that their disabilities will not be an impediment to fulfillment of the course requirements, and that appropriate physical and organisational support is available. For other departments there may be a longer journey, which may begin by offering disabled students surrogate or different field experiences, or providing physical support to particular styles of activity, whilst considering more fundamental changes to fieldwork expectations over a period of time. Many of the adjustments to be made will nevertheless benefit all students undertaking fieldwork, not only disabled ones.

Page updated 14 December 2001

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