Policy & strategy Practical / fieldwork

Between a rock and a hard place – making fieldwork accessible to disabled learners

Image of rock pinacle with person standing on a nearby cliff with a chasm between.

Fieldwork is often the high point of a course but for many learners it is also most challenging, taking them beyond their comfort zones. Stepping up to – and overcoming – the challenges often contributes to the sense of personal achievement the learners gain. This is especially the case with disabled learners. Alistair McNaught explores the territory…

Why field courses anyway?

The literature on the value of fieldwork is wide. The benefits stated include:

  • skills development, appreciating environments, understanding other peoples and cultures and taking responsibility for learning leadership and teamwork (Royal Geographical Society)
  • exploration of three and four-dimensional relations in nature, engaging in authentic activities, making observations and decisions to order experiences and set priorities and the integration of cognitive, affective and psychomotor skills (National Association of Geoscience Teachers)
  • training experts to serve science and society through research; educating …[on the] fundamental processes of scientific investigation; preparing citizens of the future for responsible management of their environment (Royal Society)
  • when planned and implemented well, learning outside the classroom contributed significantly to raising standards and improving pupils’ personal, social and emotional development. (Ofsted report: Learning outside the classroom 2008).
  • fieldwork provided opportunities for the development of understanding that could not be achieved in the classroom or laboratory. It also encouraged teamwork amongst students, and helped integrate course materials with practical experience.  It reinforced good rapport between academic and technical staff and students. (HEFCE report on Earth Sciences 1995 quoted in Issues in Providing Learning Support for Disabled Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities).

Given the value of fieldwork for non-disabled students it is hard to argue that it would be less valuable for students with disabilities. However, there can be a reluctance to adapt field courses for disabled learners. There may be a perception that it’s less risky, or less or less difficult to give them ‘alternative’ lab or virtual experiences when the real thing might be provided with a bit of creativity and compromise.

The balancing act

Image of a balancing rock in a desertSuccessful fieldwork requires a high degree of planning, preparation and often cost. It is easy to regard “reasonable adjustments” as an additional administrative or financial burden. But the reality is that your normal risk assessment already needs to take account of temporary disabilities such as somebody spraining an ankle and being unable to walk for a week. Inclusive fieldwork can introduce risks or limitations that need to be mitigated but (i) the process can improve the experience for all learners and (ii) the biggest limitation is often to do with attitudes more than realities. Steve McDonald, a visually impaired explorer tells this story: “

During a safety drill for the crossing of the English Channel in a Chinese Dragon Boat the captain of the safety boat said, on seeing me climb onto his boat “I thought there were only experienced people on this safety drill, why is one of the visually impaired crew here?” Apparently the fact that I had a visual impairment over-shadowed the fact that I had spent the previous six months in a Sea Kayak circumnavigating Britain.”

Attitudinal change is exemplified in the Higher Education Academy’s Inclusive, Accessible Archaeology guide where one of the outcomes was “A change of emphasis from ‘disability’ to ‘ability’: rather than excluding or categorising individuals, all students would be engaged in evaluating their own skills. A self-evaluation tool kit was developed to encourage students to reflect on their own ability.” This is a good example of accessibility considerations leading to a paradigm shift with benefits for all participants.

Depending on the disability that is being accommodated, accessible field courses may need adaptations to the itinerary. Stokes and Aitchison describe adapting itineraries and resources to create a more accessible experience. It is worth reflecting on your current choice of fieldwork sites Adapted resources, for example tactile maps, can also prove popular with non-disabled participants by providing them with an alternative – and sometimes more meaningful – way of conceptualising the landscape.

Different disabilities can provide different challenges and opportunities and field courses may require more or less adaptation depending on the individuals concerned. The Geography Disability Network has an excellent series of practical guides covering the sorts of adjustments that may be required for different disabilities.

The role of technology

Much of the high quality guidance on accessible field courses predates recent advances in technology. What sort of role can technology play and how can we harness it to maximise opportunities and minimise barriers?

The connected learner

Many learners have smart phones and are happy to use online tools and social media. This offers potential accessibility benefits – connectivity permitting. Live data collection and collation using Google Forms can benefit students with organisational difficulties; mobile friendly tools like Today’sMeet allow easy communication and allow staff to post links to useful back up resources – for example YouTube videos illustrating fieldwork techniques. Tools like Padlet allow photo and video observations to be shared in a timely way that supports those with short term memory issues. What’sApp can allow voice and image recording of observations and sharing with a group. Connectivity may be unreliable in the valleys of North Wales but other field sites, particularly urban areas, have scope for significantly enhancing the inclusion of disabled learners.

The supported learner

The learner’s own mobile devices may support notetaking with onboard Voice Recognition, support planning with mindmapping tools and reading preparatory notes using in built text to speech or affordable apps. Instead of carrying around sheaves of paper learners can have a wide range of resources stored locally on personal devices.

The prepared learner

It has long been noted that the ‘novelty space’ of a field course (the unfamiliarity of the context or the concepts) can reduce learning[i]. Preparatory activities that orientate learners and reduce the novelty space significantly benefit the learning that takes place in the field. Simulations are excellent for this purpose and can provide significant added value for disabled learners for whom field sites can be significantly “novel spaces”.

Alternatives for all or some?

Nearly 20 years ago, Cooke et al (1997) made the point that “While the mandate to create accessible field exercises may seem like a great burden in order to accommodate a relatively small number of students, we have found that the redesign of the field exercises results in a better learning experience for all students”. The technological advances of the last 20 years do not make rocky shores or mountain ridges any more disability-friendly than they were before but they do give us more ways of communicating, collaborating and participating in an appropriate way from appropriate locations.

The changes that make field courses more accessible do not necessarily make them more tame and many adjustments to support disabled learners will benefit all participants. Lawrie Phipps argues persuasively that virtual fieldwork should supplement not replace actual fieldwork wherever possible. Virtual fieldwork can consume considerable time, effort and resources. Redirecting those resources might reduce barriers to participation in the real world experience.

Academic competences

A stumbling block for some departments may be associated with competence standards. The University of Strathclyde’s guidance on Creating accessible placements, study abroad and field trips for disabled students gives this advice:  Universities should be careful to avoid creating the impression that such standards are more rigid and inflexible than they absolutely need to be. Equally, any non negotiable, essential competence standards should be made known in advance so that all students can gauge whether this is the course for them, and so that disabled students in particular find out about where adjustments they might need are, exceptionally, not possible.

The last word

In responding to changes to the Disabled Student Allowance, many universities are realising that the adapted practices that meet the needs of disabled learners also have benefits for a wide range of non-disabled learners. Accessibility, if it is about any one thing, is about creativity and problem-solving. I leave the last word to Dr Karen Darke, quoted in the Royal Geographical Society’s publication Inclusive Fieldwork and Expedition Practice:

It’s not about equal opportunities or discrimination, it’s about optimizing the people resource, with their wide variety of attributes, concerns, values and needs.”

[i] Cooke, M.I., Anderson, K.S. and Forrest, S.E. (1997) ‘Creating accessible introductory, geology fieldtrips’, Journal of Geoscience Education, 45, 4-9


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