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

Appendix 1:

Academic Departments' Experiences of Supporting Disabled Students Undertaking Fieldwork

1 Introduction
1.1 Mobility Issues
1.2 Blind/Visually Impaired
1.3 Deaf/Hearing Impaired
1.4 Mental Health Problems
1.5 Hidden Disabilities
1.6 Dyslexia
1.7 Multiple Disabilities

1    Introduction

This section offers a commentary on question 4 of the survey of heads of geography, earth and environmental sciences, which asks about the staff experiences of disabled students undertaking, or being required to undertake, fieldwork and the issues, barriers, events and solutions that followed. The report follows the format of the questionnaire (Appendix 3) that was sent out to geography, earth and environmental science departments and includes many instances of the responses provided. The aim of this survey was to uncover staff experiences of disabled students undertaking, or being required to undertake, fieldwork in these areas. The survey was designed to collect two types of data. First was a range of statistical data that was intended to allow the extent of the issues of disabled students undertaking fieldwork in these areas to be broadly mapped. These data are summarised where appropriate below. Second, and likely to be of more direct relevance to guide authors was qualitative information relating directly to staff experiences and their responses to these experiences and the issues this raises. This commentary offers a summary of the data. The format adopted in this report is to categorise and summarise this data as far as possible.

The section is organised by the seven classes of disability identified. Statistical summaries of the responses to this question are given in table form at the start of each section.

1.1    Mobility Issues

Mobility Issues No. as a % of total depts with experience in this category No. of respondents with this answer
Alternative venues / routes for trips 39 20
Discussion of individual needs 29 15
Alternative assessment (laboratory work, essay etc.) 29 15
Peer support 15 8
Exemption 12 6
Individual accommodation / transport used 12 6
Extra helpers 8 4

The mobility difficulties identified by respondents spanned a range from severe, permanent difficulties requiring students to use wheelchairs and, in some cases, be accompanied by helpers to temporary injuries and conditions such as sports injuries or back problems that restricted mobility through the necessity to use crutches, for example. Issues also arose with elderly students who were unable to walk long distances or negotiate difficult or hilly terrain. A small number of respondents identified mobility issues stemming from conditions such as visual impairment and dyspraxia. All of the 49 respondents who had experience of students with mobility difficulties undertaking fieldwork, or being required to undertake fieldwork, identified that this had lead to issues which in the majority of cases required action by staff.

A small number of instances identified the layout of the department buildings as posing problems for students with mobility difficulties. Although not directly related to fieldwork one respondent felt that this discouraged students with mobility difficulties from applying.

Planning, Prior Knowledge and Negotiation

A general feeling amongst respondents was that detailed prior knowledge of students' mobility difficulties was essential. This was either identified through required department documentation such as health and safety forms or heath declaration forms which all students were required to fill in. In one case this lead to discussions with insurers.

In the majority of cases respondents identified the benefits of detailed discussions with students to identify their difficulties, likely issues with sites or with module requirements and possible modifications or alternative arrangements. The flavour of these discussions appeared to be one of negotiation. This negotiation in the majority of cases led to modifications detailed in the next section. The outcomes of these negotiations appeared satisfactory from a staff point of view with no reported cases of their failing to overcome difficulties on fieldwork. In some cases the outcome of these negotiations was that the student should not attend the fieldtrip.

There were two instances of involvement of disability specialists in planning and assessing students' needs.


A range of modifications to fieldtrip arrangements was identified by respondents. These included modifications to travel arrangements, accommodation, sites, and assessment. Modifications to sites and on-trip arrangements include choosing alternative more accessible sites, slowing the pace of the activity to accommodate all students, excusing some students from elements of site visits and arranging alternative projects / programmes of work. However, no detailed examples of alternative assessment were given. 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.

There are many examples of support for students with mobility difficulties while on fieldwork. These are detailed in a later section.

Alternative Arrangements

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. Students may also be steered towards fieldwork options that are more 'coach based' .

Provision of on-trip Support

Respondents indicated that on-trip support for students with mobility difficulties was provided both by staff and students. This support included helping with access to sites, mobility around and between sites and monitoring of well being. A number of respondents indicated that dedicated helpers accompanied students with mobility difficulties. These included the students' own helpers or extra university staff. Support from students involved peer support through group-work.

Staff Training

There was only one instance returned of staff receiving special training to deal with students with mobility difficulties. This was from Occupational Health Physicians and included dealing with epilepsy amongst other things.

Students Leaving Course

There was one case returned which indicated that students with mobility difficulties had left courses, possibility because of the difficulties posed to them.

1.2    Blind / Visually Impaired

Blind / Visually Impaired No. as a % of total depts with experience in this category No. of respondents with this answer
Additional learning aids 61 11
Helpers 28 5
Adapted programme 17 3
Discussion 11 2
Peer support 11 2
Alternative assessment method 6 1

Respondents who indicated that they had experience of blind or visually impaired students undertaking, or being required to undertake, fieldwork outlined a number of measures to support these students on fieldwork. Many of these involved the provision of specially developed materials such as large-print handouts, copies of overhead transparencies or taped fieldtrip commentaries. Alternatively adapted technology, such as special computers or video monitors attached to microscopes, was employed. Again respondents returned examples of students receiving support from helpers assisting with travel across rough or difficult terrain, or through working with other students in groups. Instances of modifications to fieldtrip sites or to assessments were relatively rare, although some examples were returned. Although rarer than the case for mobility difficulties, negotiation and discussion of students' needs was mentioned by some respondents.

1.3    Deaf / Hearing Impaired

Deaf / Hearing Impaired No. as a % of total depts with experience in this category No. of respondents with this answer
Additional materials / learning aids 41 11
Signer / note-taker 30 8

Approximately one third of respondents indicated that they had experience of deaf or hearing-impaired students undertaking fieldwork, or being required to undertake fieldwork. Provision for these students involved a combination of provision of learning aids such as transmitting microphones or hearing loops, providing note-takers or ensuring deaf or hearing impaired students are paired with good note takers, allowing students to be accompanied by signers and ensuring lecturers are aware of the needs of lip-readers. Some respondents indicated problems with lip reading in outdoor locations due to variable lighting conditions and issues addressing large groups in exposed and windy conditions. A small number of respondents indicated that they provided extra notes or additional teaching materials. Two respondents indicated they were involved with local deaf organisations either seeking advice on policy or receiving note takers to accompany students on fieldwork. Only one respondent indicated that the issues of deaf or hearing impaired students was necessitating their work programme being checked out in advance and only one respondent indicated that they paid special attention to all oral work.

A number of respondents indicated that the deaf or hearing-impaired students had had no problems on field classes. In other cases only minor provision was required, such as ensuring that students were standing close enough to lip read or to hear.

1.4    Mental Health Problems

Mental Health Problems No. as a % of depts with experience in this category No. of respondents with this answer
Supervision, extra support on fieldtrip 19 5
Special provision on course 22 4
Individual discussion 22 4
Staff made fully aware of student(s) situations 22 4
Individual accommodation / transport used 11 3
Staff first-aid trained 7 2
Monitoring and checking medication 6 1

Experience of students with mental health problems undertaking fieldwork, or being required to undertake fieldwork was relatively common amongst respondents with approximately one third of respondents reporting some experience of this. The mental difficulties of students encountered by staff covered a very large range in terms of severity. Similarly the measures taken to support students varied.

Conditions Encountered

A number of respondents indicated that they had encountered students with conditions that they did not specify but described as 'minor'. The most common condition encountered by staff was some form of depression (four respondents) with an additional respondent reporting having experience of a student on a fieldtrip with manic depression. Other specified conditions reported by respondents were an unspecified brain injury, an attention deficiency disorder, self-mutilation and a student who could not cope with the change of environment.

Issues Manifest on Fieldtrips

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 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. Examples of these are given below.

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 conditions. Two respondents indicated that they had had experience of having to send students home during fieldtrips as a result of difficulties arising which were associated with students' mental health difficulties. Both of these cases involved depressive illness. In one case the illness was known about beforehand and extensive support in the form of discussion and counselling both before and during the trip was put in place. However, following a severe depressive attack the student was returned home. Follow up contact was made with the student to ensure they remained on track with the module. In the other case the respondent was alerted to two separate students' conditions prior to departure fieldtrips. In one case the student failed to take prescribed medication and declined rapidly on the trip, in the other case the student could not cope with the change of environment. In both cases the students were returned early from the trip.

One further severe incident was reported of a student prone to self-mutilation. This required extremely close monitoring of the student during the trip. The respondent alluded to other 'horrendous experiences'.

Precautionary Responses

A number of respondents took precautionary responses to the issues of students with mental health difficulties undertaking fieldwork or being required to undertake fieldwork. In the majority of cases these involved requiring students to alert staff to any such issues at some stage before fieldwork was undertaken.

Support for Staff

Only one respondent indicated that they had been trained or advised in how to deal with mental health difficulties in students.

Support for Students

Respondents indicated a range of support measures for students with mental health problems undertaking fieldwork. These fell primarily into three areas, help with accommodation while on trips, extra pastoral care while on trips and finally support through modifications to assessment.

1.5    Hidden Disabilities

Hidden Disabilities No. as a % of total responses in this category No. of respondents with this answer
Ensuring students disclose disabilities 42 25
Self medication with staff monitoring 20 12
Individual discussion of needs 13 8
Alternative routes / exemption 8 5
Peer support 8 5
Individual accommodation / transport 5 3
Close observation in field 2 1

Asthmatics No. as a % of total responses in this category No. of respondents with this answer
Alternative routes 12 7
Staff trained first aiders 10 6
Resting time 2 1

Experience of students with hidden disabilities was very common amongst respondents with over 60 percent indicating that they have had experience of this. Respondents identified thirteen different hidden disabilities with asthma being by far the most common, followed by diabetes. Details of hidden disabilities experienced by respondents are given below. The diversity of hidden disabilities amongst students necessitated a range of different responses and support measures according to the nature and severity of the condition.

Knowledge and Awareness of Hidden Disabilities

The most common procedure for dealing with students with hidden disabilities on fieldtrips or required to undertake field work is based on gaining comprehensive knowledge of what these disabilities are and how they might affect students while on fieldwork. This typically involves some combination of requiring students to fill out medical questionnaires and identify their disabilities and needs, discussion of these disabilities and needs with students and discussion with staff on fieldtrips of the hidden disabilities of the students on trips.

On-Trip Support for Students with Hidden Disabilities

Given the wide range of hidden disabilities identified by the respondents, not surprisingly the range of on-trip support provided for these students was wide and accorded with the nature of particular hidden disabilities. Some support was 'covert' or very low level, involving, for example, monitoring of students with hidden disabilities. In other cases the action necessitated is much greater involving changes to the trip, sites or assessment. A summary of the on-trip support provided by respondents for students with hidden disabilities is detailed below.

Issues Manifest During Trips

Few respondents gave specific examples of actual issues manifest during trips stemming from students' hidden disabilities. However, those that did indicated the potential severity of issues. One respondent reported two issues, one concerned a student with diabetes who suffered severe foot bleeding and required hospital treatment and was subsequently excused further fieldwork. A second concerned a student with asthma who required hospital treatment A further respondent indicated that they had experience of an agoraphobic student whose condition was undeclared until it became serious in a field setting. Finally, one respondent indicated they had experience of a student requiring renal dialysis. They were fortunate to have a trained nurse who was on the staff.

1.6    Dyslexia

Dyslexia No. as a % of depts with experience in this category No. of respondents with this answer
Extra time for exams / assignments, allowances in marking 53 32
Additional materials / learning aids 13 8
Peer support / helpers 7 4
Alternative assessment method 5 3
Individual discussion 3 2

Although the issue of dyslexia amongst higher education students has become widely recognised by institutions and measures put in place to support both staff and students, it has been less recognised and discussed in relation to students undertaking, or being required to undertake, fieldwork. Of the respondents to the survey almost 70 percent reported that they had experience of students with dyslexia undertaking fieldwork or being required to undertake fieldwork. However, despite this high incidence, many reported that dyslexia had caused no particular or specific issues in relation to fieldwork. Some respondents indicated that they either did not feel that dyslexia was a condition that causes any issues with regard to fieldwork or that in their experience it had caused no specific issues in relation to fieldwork. Many others reported that issues had been relatively minor and only necessitated measures such as staff making allowances for student's dyslexia when marking field notebooks or assignments or allowing extra time for assignments or during any exams that might be associated with fieldwork. The general flavour of responses was that normal allowances and support for dyslexic students covered issues manifest on or associated with fieldwork. However, fieldwork assessment often involves forms of assessment such as poster-based presentations. These might not be spell-checked in advance of presentation, especially if they are presented on the fieldtrip. Some respondents indicated that staff must ensure they take account of student's dyslexia when assessing such presentations. One respondent indicated that students alert staff markers to their dyslexia through the use of a university dyslexia sticker put on written. Some respondents indicated that the methods of assessment commonly employed in association with fieldwork, such as oral presentations, were very appropriate for dyslexic students as they put emphasis on thought, critical analysis and content, rather than written presentation. Respondents also indicated that dyslexic students are able to use ICT and software to produce fieldtrip reports and write-ups. Some respondents indicated that they used voice-activated software to support dyslexic students. Such support is now relatively standard for dyslexic students in higher education in the UK. One respondent indicated that they take the advice of their university's specially trained staff. It was not clear if this was specifically in relation to fieldwork issues.

Additional support measures for dyslexic students included modifications to assessment, appropriate counselling to discover needs, modifications to teaching and leaning materials (such as tinted handouts or special recording facilities) and ensuring various forms of peer support to cover, for example, required fieldtrip reading. One respondent indicated that they held individual discussions with dyslexic students undertaking, or being required to undertake fieldwork. One respondent indicated that given the severity of one student's condition, special funds had been made available for a postgraduate helper to sit with the student during certain classes, such as map interpretation. Other respondents indicated that note takers sometimes accompanied a dyslexic student on fieldwork. Details of other support (not detailed in this paragraph) are given below.

1.7    Multiple Disabilities

Multiple disabilities No. as a % of depts with experience in this category No. of respondents with this answer
Alternative assessment 22 3
Individual accommodation / transport 14 2
Adapted programme 7 1

It was relatively uncommon for respondents to report experience of students with multiple disabilities undertaking fieldwork or being required to undertake fieldwork. Approximately 13 percent indicated that they had been involved with fieldwork that included students with hidden disabilities. However, a number of other respondents indicated that they had covered the issue in their answers under earlier headings. A number of those who specifically responded to this heading indicated only one disability in their discussion of their experience. In general respondents discussed the measures taken to accommodate these students during fieldwork. These measures varied according to the nature and severity of the disabilities of students. The most severe cases necessitated the students being excused fieldwork and being assigned an alternative task and assessment.

In other cases students have been accommodated through their being allowed to bring a helper on the fieldtrip, amendments to fieldwork locations and routines, attention to accommodation; transport and through sensitising students to the needs of other students.


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

Appendix 3 Survey letter and questionnaire to academic departments

Appendix 4 Survey letter and questionnaire to disability support units

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