Universities must adapt to give disabled students the chance to study in the field. Pat Leon reports.
Mike Adams is a frustrated geographer. He loved the subject at school, especially abseiling down a viaduct on a field trip to the Yorkshire Dales. So when he applied to sixth-form college, he asked to do geography A level. The headteacher arranged an interview with the geography master.
Adams recalls the geography teacher "put his head around the door, took one look at me and left. The head teacher rushed after him and returned saying 'he doesn't know how to handle disability, he's uncomfortable about it and doesn't think you are up to the fieldwork'".
She was referring to the fact that, physically, Adams did not fit the image most people have of budding 16-year-old geographers. He was much shorter and his limbs were different. "It wasn't that the college needed to review recruitment or its admissions policy but to change its attitude," he says.
Attitudes to disability have improved, but the passing on May 11 of legislation that extends the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act to cover education services and facilities means a lot more consideration is needed. If not, institutions may find themselves at the receiving end of court actions brought by students claiming violation of their civil rights.
"Disability has to be seen as part and parcel of everything universities do, not as a bolt on," says Adams, who is principal coordinator of the National Disability Team, set up by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to support projects into improving conditions for disabled students.
Most projects have looked at provision from the institution's point of view, but geography is an exception. The Geography Discipline Network has published the findings of 18 months' research on fieldwork for the disabled. The geographers argue that many of the accessibility issues raised in fieldwork are as relevant to other forms of teaching and learning such as lectures, small-group work, role play and assessments.
Fieldwork is a component of many subjects such as earth sciences and archaeology. Mick Healey, of Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education, says: "The image of fieldwork presented in prospectuses tends to emphasise masculine, able-bodied people mastering difficult terrain. Fieldwork is seen as an objective in itself in most subjects, but it teaches many things such as self-reliance, getting on in groups and health and safety."
But fieldwork does magnify the difficulties disabled students face, Healey admits. Lecturers have to think beyond the medical condition and take a socially responsible view of disability, he says. They have to adapt their courses so that students can cope.
Judith Waterfield, of the Southwest Regional Access Centre, at the University of Plymouth, says: "Hidden disabilities are the largest category. These include epilepsy, asthma, diabetes, ME, Asperger's syndrome and dyslexia. Students with these conditions often don't come to the attention of the study services, but in fieldwork it is essential for the department to know."
Many people do not report disabilities for fear of prejudice. In 1998-99, some 4.3 per cent of students reported having a disability, but it is estimated that the figure could be closer to 10 per cent. Disability advisers may know about health problems, but heads of department and lecturers may not, because the student wants it to be confidential.
Learning agreements are one way a university or college can set the guidelines for dealing with disability. Liverpool University is running a Hefce pilot project in five departments, including geography. When a student has a disability, a meeting is arranged and everyone who needs to know talks about what can be expected during the period of study.
Hefce requires institutions to write disability statements into their teaching and learning strategies at an early stage. But even positive statements on disability have a flipside.
Jonathan Leach, of Oxford Student Mental Health Network, says: "Legislation is coming in but who pays for the modifications? A small department with a devolved budget may well say 'we cannot afford it', but a tribunal will see things differently. It will look at the university, not the department, and see there is money in the bank."
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, raised the funding issue in the House of Lords in January when she said the cost of complying with the disability and special-needs legislation could cost universities £250 million rather than the £25 million quoted in the bill.
But Adams says no one has the right to blight a young person's prospective career because they cannot deal with disability.
The Geography Discipline Network has six draft web-based guides on fieldwork learning support for students with disabilities.
Details: www.chelt.ac.uk/gdn/disabil/index.htm </a>
What can help and hinder on a field trip
Disabled students on full and part-time courses are entitled to:
- £10,000 a year for non-medical helpers
- A specialist equipment allowance of about £4,000 a course
- A top-up allowance.
All education institutions are expected to make "reasonable adjustments" to allow students access to their courses. Implementation of the law is timetabled for 2002.
Carolyn Roberts, of Cheltenham and Gloucester College's School of Environment, says: "I wanted to take students to look at river dynamics. One student had ME, so we discussed his capabilities and decided to visit a smaller reach. It was rough underfoot and he was exhausted within 100m. I should have checked the terrain.
"The student got high marks without the fieldwork, which made me wonder whether it was essential to take measurements personally. On reflection, most students benefit."
Strict safety regulations at quarries and mines can pose problems. A field-trip organiser for a university earth sciences department, says: "I'd organised a visit to a quarry for geology students. On the day, a temporary quarry manager was on duty. He took one look at our group, which included two people in wheelchairs, and said 'I'm not having those two in here'. They had to stay behind."