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

Legislation and Regulation

Extension of DDA principles on employment and provision of goods and services to educational provision: practical implications for field studies courses

Identifying disabled students

Under the DDA, a disabled person is one who fits the definition of having 'a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities'. This raises the interesting question as to whether ascending a mountain or undertaking sub-aqua diving is a 'normal day-to-day activity'. The chances are that such activities would not be so classed. So a student who is merely unfit but can carry out more normal daily activities would not be classed as disabled. Also a student who has a short-term illness, e.g. flu, would not be classed as disabled. The definition would include a wide range of impairments, some more obvious to academic staff than others. Some of the more obvious ones include:

Question: What other impairments might be significant, but not so obvious, if you don't know the student well?

Some examples include:

The point of this exercise is not to make you feel that you must become an expert on medical conditions, but to be aware that it is not always obvious when you have disabled students in your group. Educational institutions need to give thought to how they identify disabled students and how that knowledge is shared with the staff who need to know. Students are more likely to share information if it is focused on the practicalities of how to enable their participation in academic and related activities.

Provision of information

Before enlisting on courses students should be made aware of any fieldwork assignments and what physical and mental demands this might make on participants. This will enable time to explore how, if possible, the effects of any impairment might be overcome or reduced. This early provision of information will also enable students to choose a course more suited to their situation if the difficulties cannot be overcome.

Question: Are there any issues you would like to note about how your institution collects information on disabled students and their needs, and how it provides disability related information to students?

Making reasonable adjustments

"The aim of reasonable adjustment is to minimise disadvantage in the environment and not to provide competitive advantage to students with a disability."
(University of Newcastle, 2001, Part I, p.2)

Following the model of the employment provisions of the DDA, educational institutions will be expected to make 'reasonable adjustments' in order to allow students access to their courses. The Government's consultation paper stated that:

An education provider would discriminate against a disabled person if he (sic) failed to make a reasonable adjustment to any arrangements, including physical features of premises, for services that place the disabled person at a substantial disadvantage in comparison to persons who are not disabled. In judging whether an education provider needs to consider making a reasonable adjustment, a disabled student is compared to his (sic) peers. This is a more appropriate test, when considering access to public sector education, than asking whether the disabled student finds it 'impossible or unreasonably difficult' to access education (which would be the test in Part III of the DDA). This does mean that education providers might have to consider making adjustments in more circumstances than if they had been covered by Part III.
(DfEE, 2000, p.18)

The same paper set out what is meant by 'reasonable adjustment' in this context:

There are a number of factors which, in particular, education providers will have to consider when assessing whether an adjustment or additional equipment or service is 'reasonable':
(DfEE, 2000, p.21)

SENDA requires institutions to anticipate the needs of potential disabled students. Institutions should not merely react to meet the needs of individual disabled students, but should be reviewing how their policies, procedures and practices will impact on the experiences of a range of disabled students.

Disabled students are sometimes excluded from particular courses because they cannot meet the 'essential course requirement', but there are cases where students have successfully appealed against such rulings (Box 15). What is 'reasonable' in terms of cost has been interpreted by Tribunals in employment cases as suggesting that large organisations with large budgets are expected to make adjustments that smaller organisations could justifiably claim to be too expensive. Just where this leaves a small department with a devolved budget, within a large university is not clear. But there is a strong argument for central funding to be made available for the costs incurred in making provision for disabled students.

Box 15: Essential course requirements

Where a student's disability directly affects their capacity to undertake the essential and central components of a course there may be grounds for excluding the student from the course.

An example is a case where a student whose capacity to speak was severely curtailed by a respiratory disability but who wished to enrol in a counselling course. She was advised that is was unlikely she would be able to comply with the essential requirements of the course, which included simulated crisis counselling, and that it would be in the interests of those taking the qualification if she were to be exempted from these.
There is a need to review courses to establish whether all compulsory activities and components are really essential to the particular qualifications. Situations have arisen where a student is unable to comply with a specific compulsory aspect of a course due to a disability, but the student has argued that this aspect is not one which will hinder them from working in that field after graduation.
(Based on University of Newcastle, 2001, Part I, pp.2-3)

Question: In your institution would the inability of a student to fully participate in a compulsory fieldcourse prevent them from taking the course? Is the time spent in the field the essential requirement? Could the learning outcomes of the fieldcourse be achieved in a different way? Could adjustments be made to the fieldcourse programme to remove the barriers which are preventing the student participating? Could the student obtain a job in the field after graduation without that field experience?

The fear which many tutors have is that if they accept that a fieldcourse is not an essential component for a disabled student then administrators may argue that therefore it is not essential for non-disabled students and the financial support for this element of the course will diminish.

Question: Is this a fear that you share? In which case are there ways in which this fear may be overcome, for example, by adding the word 'normally' in the regulation about the compulsory nature of the fieldwork?

On the other hand, if this was seen as an easy way out to exclude a disabled student from a fieldcourse it may reduce the need to examine critically the nature of the barriers preventing the student participating and how they could be reduced or overcome.

If the student is eligible for the Disabled Student's Allowance, this may go some way to covering the costs of any necessary aids, adaptations or adjustments. The Disabled Student's Allowance has recently been extended to post-graduate students (see Box 16).

Box 16: Disabled Student's Allowance, 2001-2002

Full time undergraduates

For part-time undergraduates (on at least 50% of an equivalent full time course)

For full-time and part-time postgraduate students

Question: What sort of reasonable adjustments are likely to be needed to help disabled students participate in fieldwork connected with your course?

As previously discussed disabled students can have a wide range of impairments, so there can be many answers to this question. Adjustments are about overcoming barriers, so you might like to refer to the section on Barriers and Strategies to help you consider the range of options possible.

Question: Are there any aspects of fieldwork for which you think it is not possible to make reasonable adjustments for students with certain types of impairment?

There will be some areas in which it is clearly not possible, for example to accommodate a blind student or a wheelchair user. However, before reaching this conclusion you need to have consulted the student to find out what they know they can and can't manage and if necessary to get advice from others who may have relevant experience or knowledge. These other sources of advice and information could include:

There can be some creative solutions to overcoming the barriers faced by disabled students and as well as learning from others you may well be able to share good practice developed within your own area. The key lesson is to never make assumptions about what is or is not possible when including disabled students in your activities. Make good use of your research and problem solving skills and don't be afraid to seek the advice of anyone who can offer a fresh perspective, especially disabled students themselves.

Page updated 14 December 2001

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