Creating accessible placements, study abroad and field trips for disabled students

2. Reflecting on practice

Whether particular placements, study abroad, and field trips are accessible to particular disabled students; whether, if not, they can be made accessible; and how far, in the event that they can not be made accessible, the relevant learning experiences can be enabled in some other fashion, may call for difficult judgement. Knowledge of the likely benefits of such learning experiences will assist such decisions:

The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), in Benchmark Statement for Language and Related Studies, lists such benefits for study abroad as 'development of cultural insight ...academic and personal development resulting from extended contact with the target language environment ... development of intercultural awareness and understanding... and the acquisition of vocationally oriented experience.'

The QAA's Benchmark Statement for Earth Sciences, Environmental Sciences and Environmental Studies takes the view that significant exposure to field based teaching, and the related assessment is essential for satisfactory understanding, and attributes much of the advance in knowledge and understanding to accurate observation and recording, skills which are essential prerequisites for careers in these areas.

It would be difficult to overstate the strength of these claims made by QAA for what off-campus learning does for students. It follows that any serious attempt to treat disabled students fairly and avoid discriminating will set equally high standards for the value and efficacy of their off-campus learning. The high standards set by QAA for study abroad and field trips thus provide a benchmark against which proposed adjustments for disabled students should be judged. Where adjustments have to be made, the promotion of the educational benefits for disabled students ought still to be primary, as they are for all students.

Despite the evident differences between placements, study abroad and field trips, many of the issues which arise in the context of disability are general and apply to all off-campus course elements. For one thing, it may be that a disruption of living arrangements, as well as study in the narrow sense, is involved. It may be too that the student has to function in an environment where an employer, or a professional association, makes the rules.

So it may happen that the off-campus element of a course presents difficulties for disabled students, and many of these difficulties may at least appear to be outside of the home institutions control.

But while off-campus studies may be the subject of somebody else's rules, it would nowadays be normal for these rules to be at very least known and predicted in advance.

As part of his education the god Thor was sent to spend time in the house of the giants, so that he would learn cunning by exposure to their hostile and mischievous tricks. There is no suggestion in the story that anyone knew before time that he would meet these potentially catastrophic tests and return wiser and stronger. Such an arrangement falls far short of the practice expected of a modern HEI.

The QAA Code of Practice on Placement Learning underlines as important considerations for the approval of placements, the ability of the placement provider to support students, to provide learning opportunities that enable the intended learning outcomes to be achieved, safely and with regard to students' skill and experience.

Thus students considering a course which included off-campus course elements would reasonably expect to know, inter alia,

And disabled students might reasonably expect to know what scope exists for the achievement of the foreseeable demands and opportunities of off-campus study in alternative, equally valuable, ways. Clearly, the nature, role and importance of off-campus course elements vary enormously from course to course, with consequences for the possible scope for adjustments.

"The scope of the PhD was reconsidered, and slanted more towards the geological angle where fieldwork would involve visiting mines and mining prospects, usually with 4WD tracks and close vehicular access possible." (Inclusive Fieldwork and Expedition Practice, Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographers 2002:

"Should it prove impossible to find a suitable placement, students are given an alternative assignment through which the same learning outcomes are achieved."

In cases of study abroad, it would be expected for the institution to inform itself, and pass on to students relevant information, about conditions in the country involved and about facilities in the host institution. Thereafter, it is a matter of liaising with the host institution about what provision they can make, and with the disabled student about what might be needed.

We have a small number of partner institutions so that very good relationships have been built up over the years."

"The organisation arranging the year in St Petersburg wasn't overjoyed to learn that a student with juvenile chronic arthritis wanted to go! But a student who came back told me that the hostel where students live was in the same building as the teaching block. This meant I wouldn't even have to go outside in the morning to get to classes... I got a grant from SAAS to cover things like extra transport, as well as laundry and cleaning, things I find hard as my hands are weak."

"Since the purpose of exchange is to immerse oneself in the language and culture of a foreign culture, no alternative experience can be offered in the UK. But studying abroad is not core to the course and students are able to take the language and culture modules on offer."

Of course, it may be that technology makes movement in space less necessary. Just as, in theory at least, the Internet, where appropriately accessible, has led to an evening-out of access to information of all kinds, audio-visual technology and accessible virtual learning environments can be said to have made all sorts of natural and cultural environments more accessible.

A review of what has been achieved using virtual field courses (VFCs) in geography and Geoscience, together with searching discussion on the merits of real and virtual field work in these areas, can be found in Issues in Providing Learning Support for Disabled Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities, Healey et al., 2001, a publication of the Geography Discipline Network at the University of Gloucestershire: The broad strategies identified there (and endorsed in the QAA Code of Practice: Students with Disabilities, 1999) for approaching fieldwork are equally applicable to placements:

"One of the key questions which needs to be addressed on a profession wide basis is whether all student nurses need to be able to undertake all nursing tasks."

"We allocated the student to a placement within his comfortable travelling distance."

"We negotiated for the student to be allowed access to patients notes the day prior to working with them to ensure time to assimilate the content."

"Alternatives to site visits include virtual field excursions, video records of field excursions, photographic displays, use of samples collected in situ and core logging."

"Over the next few years, technicians will attend all field courses and generate support material for students unable to access the outcrops. All students will benefit from this approach as it is not possible always to get the best from a field excursion, e.g. in horizontal sleet in the Highlands."

The Royal Geographical Society (op.cit.) has published useful reports of actual experiences of making real fieldwork accessible. These cases cover the experience of wheelchair-using students, students with vertigo, colour blindness, and deaf students, among others:

"Fieldwork and expeditions often conjure images of strong, athletic young white men climbing mountains, scrambling over glacial moraine or wading through torrents of rushing water. In reality the ... people who undertake fieldwork are as varied as the research themes they are following.""

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