GDN Title

The Experience of Academic Departments and Disability Support Units in Providing Learning Support for Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities: Report on Surveys

Tim Hall, Margaret Harrison and Mick Healey

Geography & Environmental Management Research Unit / School of Environment,
Cheltenham & Gloucester College of Higher Education, Francis Close Hall, Swindon Road, Cheltenham, GL50 4AZ

Tel: +44 (0)1242 532971
Fax: +44 (0)1242 543283

1 Introduction
2 Overcoming Barriers - Survey Findings
2.1 Staff experiences
2.2 Staff actions
3 References
4 Acknowledgements

1    Introduction

This commentary is based on the returns from two questionnaire surveys, one of heads of department (HoDs) of geography, earth and environmental science departments in the UK and one of disability advisors within higher education institutions in the UK. Copies of both questionnaires can be found in the appendices 3 and 4.

In the case of the survey of HoDs the covering letter asked for the questionnaire to be passed on to the most appropriate member of academic staff within the department if this was not the HoD. This produced responses from a range of academic staff including fieldtrip co-ordinators, or those with experience of undergraduate and/or postgraduate fieldtrips or staff with a special responsibility or interest in disability or disabled students.

Overall, the 161 HoDs surveyed produced 89 replies (55 percent) after one chase up letter of non-respondents. In a small number of cases more than one responses was received from departments. Disappointingly, only 19 responses (20 percent) were received from the survey of disability co-ordinators (Table 1).

Table 1: Number of responses per questionnaire

Type of dept.

No.depts surveyed No. responses % returned
HoD 161 89 55
Disability Advisors 95 19 20

From the HoD survey (Table 2) the most common form of disability experienced by responding staff was dyslexia (69 percent) closely followed by hidden disabilities (68 percent). Only half of the respondents (59 percent) had experience of students with mobility related disabilities undertaking fieldwork, or being required to undertake fieldwork. The least common form of disability was multiple disabilities (16 percent). The following tables in this report are based on 86 responses, three more have arrived since the tables were prepared. For the disability co-ordinators the locus of experience was:

No accounts were given for mental disability and only two each for deaf and multiple disabilities.

Table 2: The range of experience

Disability Category No. of depts with experience of fieldwork in stated category

% of respondents with experience in stated category

Mobility 52 59
Blind/visually impaired 18 21
Deaf/Hard of hearing 27 31
Mental Health 27 31

Hidden disability

60 68
Dyslexia 61 69
Multiple disability 14 16

Table 3 shows that there is little significant variation between the disciplines in their experiences of disabled students in different categories undertaking fieldwork. Hidden disabilities, dyslexia and mobility impairment are ranked high across all disciplines, whereas multiple disability and blind / visual impairment are ranked low across all disciplines.

Table 3: Table to show numbers of departments within the different disciplines with experience of disabled students in each category undertaking fieldwork

Disability category Geog. (no.) Rank Earth Science (no.) Rank Env. Science (no.) Rank

Multi-dis. Depts (no.)

Mobility 20 3 5 2 7 2 19 2
Blind / visually impaired 5 6 1 7 2 6 8 6
Deaf / hard of hearing 11 4 3 6 3 4 9 4
Mental health 10 5 5 2 3 4 9 4
Hidden disability 27 2 7 1 5 3 22 1
Dyslexia 28 1 5 2 10 1 19 2
Multiple disability 4 7 4 5 0 7 4 7


2    Overcoming Barriers - Survey Findings

2.1    Staff experiences

Experience of disabled students undertaking, or being required to undertake, fieldwork was common amongst respondents (Table 2). The extent to which these findings can be extrapolated to the wider academic community within the disciplines is unclear. The nature of the questionnaire as primarily a case study gathering instrument may have self selected out those staff with no experience of disabled students on fieldwork. However, with a response rate of over 50 per cent, it is clear that staff experience of students with disabilities undertaking fieldwork within the disciplines is extensive.

Within each category, the nature and severity of disabilities reported varied enormously. Staff cited examples of students undertaking fieldwork ranging from those with severe, permanent disability requiring the use of wheelchairs or full-time dedicated helpers, to those with minor or temporary disabilities. The category 'mobility impairment' was a good example. Staff experiences ranged from students who were permanently wheelchair bound, those who suffered mobility impairment due to conditions such as dyspraxia or visual impairment, elderly students less physically fit than younger students and students with more minor, temporary conditions such as sports injuries. The category mental health was similarly diverse and included many minor unspecified conditions, various forms of depression, manic depression, a student prone to self-mutilation and a student unable to cope with the change of environment. A large number of hidden disabilities were also reported, detailed in Table 4.

Table 4: Hidden disabilities reported by staff

No. of respondents Hidden disability
16 Asthma
9 Diabetes


4 Food allergy


Dietary disorders, Agoraphobia, Antibiotic allergy, Bee allergy, Haemophilia, Hay fever, ME, Renal dialysis

While staff experiences of students with multiple disabilities was relatively uncommon, on four occasions respondents indicated that these disabilities were so severe that students were exempted from the requirement to attend fieldwork. On a further occasion a dedicated helper accompanied a student on fieldwork. Although dyslexia was the most commonly experienced disability few staff reported that it caused them any problems specifically related to fieldwork that were not covered by general support programmes for dyslexic students.

2.2    Staff actions

The issues that staff encountered on fieldwork with disabled students and the actions they took in response can be grouped under four headings: teaching, learning and assessment issues, practical or negotiation issues, support issues and emergencies. Broad categories of staff action to accommodate disabled students are detailed in Table 5.

Table 5: Staff actions / responses while on fieldwork

  Mobility Blind / visually impaired Deaf / hearing impaired Mental health Hidden disability Dyslexia Multiple disability
Modification to teaching / learning / assessment 15 15 11 - - 43 4
Modification to travel / accommodation / sites 26 - - 3 8 - 2
Ensuring extra / appropriate on trip support (overt and covert) 12 7 8 14 26 4 -
Discussion of individual's needs / disclosure of disability 15 2 - 4 25 2 -
Exemption from fieldwork 6 - - - 2 - -

Modifications to teaching, learning and assessment were a concern particularly where dyslexic, mobility impaired, blind or visually impaired or deaf or hearing-impaired students undertook fieldwork. The first step that staff tended to ensure was that neither the teaching and learning materials used, nor the mode of teaching, learning and assessment, imposed a barrier to the participation of disabled students. A number of respondents indicated they used modified materials or adapted technology to overcome these barriers, for example producing large print handouts, copies of overheads or taped fieldtrip commentaries for blind or visually-impaired students, or using special computers, video monitors attached to microscopes, transmitting microphones or hearing loops. In some circumstance modifications to teaching situations took place. These were typically minor and involved, for example ensuring that deaf or hearing-impaired students were standing close enough to staff to hear or to lip-read.

Table 6: Extracts from survey responses, teaching, learning and assessment issues.

"Regional Access Centre provides scribe to accompany students on fieldwork" [Deaf / hearing impaired]

"We have had a number of visually impaired students for whom we have taped material and provided enlarged photocopies of diagrams. The university's support group has special computers and a range of aids. We have taken care that such students are allocated the easiest terrain and one in the company of those who understand their limitations. An assistant escorts them across rough ground"

"Lecturers wear microphones connected to student ear pieces" [Deaf / hearing impaired]

"Very difficult for the students who are deaf on field courses and staff are addressing largish groups in high winds - radio microphones do not necessarily work well. Staff with moustaches make lip reading difficult! Very important for deaf student to be associated with a good note taker"

"Dyslexic students are identified as soon as possible after the commencement of their studies. Staff are informed of students with particular difficulties. A generous write up time is given for the fieldcourse assessments which allows dyslexic students to use the software tools and fellow students to improve their written work"

"In recent years only one case has arisen and while it was possible to accommodate the student on the first year field class by including the family, it was not possible for the student to attend the continental field class. In lieu, a special set of tasks were made available locally, and were completed over the Easter vacation" [Multiple Disabilities]

"Within the group work elements of fieldwork we would expect 'buddying' to take place if other students are aware of student's dyslexia"

The use of such materials, arrangements and technologies usually followed detailed prior discussion and planning with students of their needs or, in a small number of cases, seeking specialist advice, for example from local deaf organisations and university disability advisors. If overcoming these barriers was not possible by these means staff tended to ensure that dedicated helpers, such as note-takers or signers, were included on fieldtrips.

Unsurprisingly, modifications to travel and accommodation arrangements and fieldtrip sites was particularly an issue where mobility impaired students undertook fieldwork. Respondents indicated a range of modifications to overcome barriers of negotiation for disabled students. Modifications to sites and on-trip arrangements included selecting alternative, more accessible sites, slowing the pace of the activity to accommodate all students, excusing some students from elements of site visits, arranging alternative projects or programmes of work and arranging special accommodation or transport. A small number of respondents indicated that students with mobility difficulties had been able to participate fully in fieldwork, particularly through group work where there was an element of peer support. Respondents also returned examples of students who were blind or visually impaired receiving support from helpers to negotiate rough or difficult terrain, or working with other students in groups to overcome these barriers.

Where modifications to existing fieldtrips were not possible, a number of respondents indicated that alternative arrangements had been made to allow students with mobility difficulties to complete fieldwork requirements. The survey indicated this was common practice. Alternative arrangements included alternative fieldtrips to more accessible locations, independent fieldwork, library-based assignments or essays, virtual fieldtrips or exemption from fieldwork requirements, necessitating students taking alternative, class-based modules. Alternatively students have been steered towards fieldwork options that are more 'coach based'.

Table 7: Extracts from survey responses, practical and negotiation issues

"Full assessment made with disability co-ordinator and course director in context of programme and (for residential week) accommodation. Such action is only taken for serious cases and identified from self-completed 'Health Status' forms completed on enrolment by students. These are checked prior to each residential fieldwork event" [Hidden disabilities]

"Asthma affects several of our students to varying degrees. In the most severe case, the student required hospital treatment on the first trip and has since been excused all fieldwork. Alternative work has been arranged with the proviso that it be practical, not literature / essay type… with an attempt to give projects that involve subject matter similar to the missed field courses. The student's personal tutor co-ordinates the programme. For field courses involving uphill walks, the pace is slackened and staff members or assistants are delegated to accompany asthmatics who might have difficulties, or they are excused that" [Hidden disabilities]

"All students (disabled or not) are invited to inform staff of any mobility / fitness problems they may have. Several members of staff suggested that alternative, low level / easy terrain routes were arranged. This did lead some students to miss some sites, in which case assessment was amended to miss out questions on these" [Mobility impairment]

"Two students have wheelchairs and have two helpers and their own vehicles. We use centres with specially adapted accommodation which can house the whole group. In some places, routes have been altered for these students. Their LEAs have been very supportive in meeting extra costs. All work is done in small student groups so there is peer support to. They follow the same programme as all other students"

"Specially arranged visits which run alongside the main programme" [Mobility impairment]

"We have had several students with ME and have had to structure their trips so that they do not get over tired, either by shortening them, or ensuring that they get a rest in the afternoons and that their companions do not keep them awake at night. In each case the student has told us what they can do and the programme has been designed accordingly"

"We have to tailor the fieldwork programme to meet the capabilities of the student. As much of the coursework is groupwork they have not been disadvantaged by their mobility problems…"

"Special field study locations arranged so that student can work with her supporter provided by the local authority" [Mobility impairment]

"Discussion of student's needs, tailoring of field locations. Adjustment of student's programme of work to produce equivalent value sites and objectives. Teamwork adjustments to allow for students' full participation in team activities" [Mobility impairment]

Ensuring appropriate on-trip support for disabled students was a common concern across a number of disabilities. Support came from both staff and students as well as from dedicated helpers (included both specialist helpers and extra university staff). This support was commonly linked to practical issues and those of negotiation, including helping with access to sites, mobility around and between sites and monitoring of well being. Support from students tended to involve peer support through groupwork. Staff also indicated a range of support issues for students with mental health difficulties. These included help with appropriate accommodation, ensuring special dietary arrangements were met, ensuring the provision of special or adapted medical care and encouraging and facilitating peer support and extra pastoral care. In addition staff often paid special attention to students with hidden or multiple disabilities. Extensive prior knowledge of disabilities and the issues that might arise on trips was deemed essential. This was acquired both through standard departmental documentation, such a health and safety forms, or through discussion with individual students. However, Nairn (1999: 277) found evidence of a reluctance amongst disabled and unfit students to disclose their disability to staff. A number of staff indicated they ensured they were aware of appropriate courses of action should issues arise on trip and that they closely monitored (both overtly and covertly) students with hidden or multiple disabilities.

Table 8: Extracts from survey responses, support issues

"One case, whilst some individual support and discussions, student was unwilling for visible signs of support to be made" [Mental health conditions]

"Student needs discussed. Close observation in the field through staff and student support" [Hidden disabilities]

"We tread carefully and try to help the students all we can. Single room accommodation to reduce pressure. Sense of humour gets most through" [Mental health conditions]

The majority of emergencies concerned students with mental health difficulties on fieldwork. As might be expected given the range of conditions experienced by respondents, the issues that became manifest on field trips were similarly diverse. The majority of staff indicated that they had experienced little, none, or only minor issues with students with mental health conditions on field trips. These were issues that were solved through prior and on site discussion or through staff being generally understanding, sympathetic or having an appropriate sense of humour. A number of respondents, however, indicated that the issues that had become manifest were of a far greater severity and had necessitated major action on behalf of staff. This had included ruling out or advising students not to attend field trips, sending them home early or other close monitoring of students with serious mental health conditions

Table 9: Extracts from survey responses, emergencies

"We have had some horrendous experiences here - almost impossible to get it right for some individuals. Have needed a member of staff to shadow one student to prevent self mutilation" [Mental health conditions]

"Depressive illness - and one case of manic depression. That has been the only instance where much intervention has been required - prior discussion, peer support, counselling while away - but in the end we had to fly the student home early from an overseas trip because of a major depressive attack. Follow up contact helped to keep her on track for that module" [Mental health conditions]


3    References

Nairn, K. (1999) Embodied fieldwork, Journal of Geography, 98(6), pp.272-282.

4    Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the respondents from the academic departments and the disability units for taking the time and trouble to complete the questionnaires. The organisation of the surveys and the analysis was undertaken by Claire Reid and Phil Gravestock.

Appendix 1 Academic Departments' Experiences of Supporting Disabled Students undertaking Fieldwork

Appendix 2 Disability Support Units' Experiences of Supporting Disabled Students undertaking Fieldwork

Appendix 3 Survey letter and questionnaire to academic departments (pdf file - 37KB)

Appendix 4 Survey letter and questionnaire to disability support units (pdf file - 35KB)

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