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

Legislation and Regulation

Health and safety legislation

Academic staff arranging field visits and Heads of Department carrying institutional responsibilities for health and safety matters in academic programmes often feel that the burden they carry is unreasonable, even without the potential for further complications introduced by more diverse student groups. Interpretation of the UK's health and safety legislation remains a matter partly for judgement, not least because of the (fortunately) limited amount of case law relating to students and staff on field courses. Accidents with serious consequences to date have been few. The Disability Discrimination Act (1995) states explicitly that:

'The Act does not require a service provider to do anything which would endanger the health or safety of any person. A service provider can justify less favourable treatment or a failure to make an adjustment if it is necessary in order not to endanger the health or safety of any person, including the disabled person in question.'

(Disability Discrimination Act, 1995, Section 6.10)

However, the Act goes on to emphasise that spurious health and safety reasons provide no defence for institutions which refuse to meet the reasonable needs of disabled students. Two useful examples are set out in the Act. The first relates to an outdoor venture centre providing training weekends involving some physical effort and some personal risk. Participants are required to undergo a medical examination before they are admitted, and clients who are disabled as a result of high blood pressure or heart conditions are judged to be justifiably excluded under the terms of the Act. However, it is suggested that the venture centre might make adjustments to its policy by admitting disabled clients to parts of the course which do not create a safety risk, either to themselves or other participants. There are some clear resonances here with fieldclass participation in challenging or risky settings by students with known medical conditions, but the onus would be on the institution to justify an exclusion following discussion with the disabled student. It would also be incumbent upon them to provide a reasonable alternative fieldclass or experience, if this were the only venue on offer. In most cases, the student would presumably also not wish to expose themselves to excessive risk anyway, and other students might legitimately object at the programme on offer.

The second example illustrates Section 6.17 of the Act, namely:

'A service provider can justify refusing to provide (or deliberately not providing) a service to a disabled person if this is necessary because the service provider would otherwise be unable to provide the service to other members of the public'.

(Disability Discrimination Act, 1995, Section 6.10)

The scenario outlined concerns a tour guide who refuses to allow a person with a severe mobility impairment on a tour of old city walls because he believes that the help he would have to provide would prevent the party from completing the tour. This is agreed to be justifiable, but only on the grounds that other people (students, for example) would be effectively prevented from using the service (or experiencing the fieldclass) at all, unless the disabled person were treated less favourably than others. Mere inconvenience to others is insufficient grounds for refusing to allow participation, provided the appropriate arrangements to minimise the risk to the disabled person (student), and to others, can reasonably be made. In this case, the provision of a helper would probably be judged to be reasonable, or permitting the student to examine the urban morphology from some other more accessible vantage point, with or without personal support. The example in the Act continues by suggesting that the provision of an additional or auxiliary guide should be considered, if this could be done without fundamentally changing the nature of the service. For higher education students, a helper could be provided (see Box 16), thus removing the health and safety-related issues.

One further example is provided in the Disability Rights Task Force (DRTF, 1999) recommendations on post-16 Education (Annex 2), Section 25. This concerns students allowed to work unsupervised in a laboratory, where after a proper assessment the institution decides that there would be significant health and safety risks attaching to a blind student working alone. In the view of the Task Force, if no reasonable adjustment could be made to allow sole working, this refusal to allow participation would be judged reasonable. The given example does raise a further interesting issue however, which is whether any student should be permitted to work in specific types of laboratories without supervision of some kind. In the case of laboratories covered by COSHH regulations, the answer would certainly be no, and in this situation the blind student might be little differently placed to other students. Supervision would be required, and the financial entitlement of the disabled person could be used to facilitate an additional helper to work alongside them, taking guidance from the laboratory supervisor in the normal way.

Page updated 14 December 2001

GDN pages maintained by Phil Gravestock