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Although figures vary between sources and on the base population used, between 6.6 million (DRC, 2000) and 8.6 million (DSS, 1998) people in the UK are classed as disabled, which is almost a fifth of the working age population. Among adults of working age, about 112,000 have difficulty in seeing as their main disability (DRC, 2000). An important fact in relation to mature age students is that some 70% of economically active disabled people become disabled during their working lives and, as more people live longer, so the incidence of visual disability will increase (Employers Forum, 2000).
Worldwide, 45 million people are blind, and 80% of this blindness is preventable or curable. Within this total, about 1.5 million children are blind, mostly in the developing countries of Africa and Asia, and 40% of this blindness is preventable or curable (Sight Savers International, 2000). Avoidable blindness within developed countries is far less prevalent.
Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA, 2000) indicate that in 1998/9 22,500 higher education students self-assessed themselves as having a disability; 3.3% of these students had visual impairments. (The National Library for the Blind (no date) suggests a figure of 513 students.) Within geography, a recent survey suggests that only about one in five geography departments have had experience of blind or visually impaired students undertaking fieldwork (Table 1).
Table 1. Departmental experiences of students with different disabilities undertaking, or being required to undertake, fieldwork (total number of respondents = 86). Source: Hall et al. (2001)
When attempting to relate visual impairment to fieldwork, the following principles are important:
There are a number of ways in which eye conditions can impact on fieldwork activities. Mann (1999) indicates some of these:
Ocular albinism difficulties with scanning, tracking, depth perception, rapidly shifting visual points, reading
Cataracts wide variation in visual acuity (though full visual field usually maintained), and near and far vision often adversely affected
Diabetic retinopathy fluctuating visual acuity, distortion of vision, and possible impairment of visual field
Glaucoma progressive loss of visual field, poor visual acuity, impaired peripheral and night vision, and difficulty in adapting between light and dark
Macular degeneration loss of central vision (hence reliance on eccentric or sideways looking), difficulty in discerning fine detail and reading, and problems in colour discrimination (especially reds and greens)
Nystagmus blurred vision, difficulty in scanning and tracking, and problems with depth perception
Optic atrophy variable loss of vision and/or total blindness
Retinitis pigmentosa night blindness, narrowed field of vision (resulting in tunnel vision).
According to the Scottish Sensory Centre (SSC, 2000a; 2000d), visual impairment impacts are likely on the following visual capabilities:
Staff responsible for designing fieldwork will need to determine which field activities are likely to be compromised by deficiencies in any of these visual capabilities. They should then consider adopting a suitable course of action (see Section 6.1).
There is no single universal difficulty; each visual impairment will impose its own set of demands and limitations. When undertaking fieldwork, visually impaired students may experience difficulties with a variety of tasks, including:
It is important to recognise that visually impaired students may have counter-balancing strengths in other areas. Staff as well as students should therefore do their best to discuss with the student their particular strengths, and to harness these abilities during fieldwork. For example, groups should consider using the visually impaired student's abilities to compensate for weaknesses in other members of a fieldwork team.
Other advantages include the stimulus given to staff to rethink the accessibility of the fieldwork experience to all students, not simply to those with a visual impairment. (This point is discussed further in Section 14.) Finally, as mentioned in the introduction, the experience of having a visually impaired student undertake a geography course and participate in fieldwork can enthuse and inspire staff and fully sighted students alike.
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