Providing Learning Support for Blind and Visually Impaired Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities




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3 Approaches to Visual 'Disability'


For me, my disability is a fact and not a problem. I'm not living the life of a disabled person. For sure, I have to handle some things differently from other people. But it's not so different from the life of someone who is not disabled. In any case, who is really not disabled?

Thomas Quasthoff, opera singer

While people have impairments, the environment – attitudinal as well as physical – can be disabling. It is simplistic to attribute problems about disability to individuals who are said to ‘have’ this or that disability when the reality is that many such problems disappear when environments are accessible. And although there is little that staff in higher education can do to change the facts of students’ impairments, there may be scope for altering the environment of higher education, which, like any environment, may be disabling.

Teachability Project (Shaw, 2000)

Reflecting the sentiments expressed in the quotations above, the term ‘visual impairment’ is used throughout this guide, rather than the currently more common ‘visual disability’.

Following the WHO (2000) definitions, the present guide considers the provision of learning support for students with visual impairments, whose experience of disability is as a result of the interaction between their impairment, the learning environment, and its social organisation. In common with other guides in this series, the social model rather than the physical model of disability is seen as the best approach to empowering the visually impaired student in the field. The Overview Guide to this series (Healey et al., 2001) discusses various models of disability in more detail, and indicates their relationship to subject-based and educational issues in the context of student disability.

We have seen in other parts of this guide that taking a flexible approach to the needs of blind and visually impaired students can yield positive dividends. It is argued here that such an approach is also a characteristic feature of an effective curriculum for all students, and that it moves higher education back from being an exercise in mass delivery towards being an exercise in personalised delivery – within a broad set of agreed learning outcomes. (See the related discussion in Section 14.)

Underpinning a flexible approach is the need for clear and regular communication. There is no substitute for talking with your blind or visually impaired students. This is essential if you hope to identify their real concerns and develop an approach that meets with their approval and consent.

All students are unique, and each visual impairment is different from other visual impairments. Because of this, there can be no across-the-board approach or standard template for dealing with the study needs of visually impaired students. Rather, each student needs to be considered individually, and this necessitates individual discussion and negotiation.

3.1 The mutual adjustment model


In order to frame this approach, we have developed what we call the 'mutual adjustment' approach to learning. The main principle behind this approach is that visually impaired students together with staff and other students negotiate a set of 'accommodations' to ensure the most effective learning environment for the student concerned. The principle behind this approach is based on the likelihood that it may not be possible to meet all visual impairment needs in particular departments or on particular fieldcourses.

But why should a student with a particular visual impairment be expected to 'accommodate' – or, more bluntly, to compromise on – their needs? There are several reasons why this may be necessary:

  • resource limitations

  • competing needs of other students

  • safety.

One way that this might translate into action is through an information-sharing exercise. The student would be asked to declare the nature and severity level of their visual impairment, and the staff team would make available a detailed inventory of all of the problems and resources known to them. The information offered by the students should be treated as confidential unless the students have made it clear that they wished information about their disability to be made known to other staff and/or students.

Time allocation is another area in which mutual adjustment could be considered. From the student's perspective, this might mean that they ensure that sufficient (maybe additional) time is given to attend classes and briefing sessions, to read prepared materials, and to make their way to and from fieldcourse venues and sites. From the staff point of view, the time needed to drop off and pick up students may need to be adjusted, the time allocated to group follow-up activities may need to be extended, and handing-in deadlines possibly adjusted. Decisions should always try and consider worst-case scenarios.

Mutual adjustment may also require the design of alternative study activities. Where these are introduced, care should be taken to ensure that the visually impaired student experiences an equivalent learning experience – i.e. is not fobbed off with a time-filling but largely meaningless activity (see also Section 6.1).

Communication is an essential component of higher education. But with visual impairment, it is even more essential for students and staff to confer on a regular basis. This is essential to ensure that all problems have been foreseen, appropriate plans have been laid, and relevant resources identified. Neither party should wait for the other to indicate that things are going wrong. Regular discussion, however brief, will prevent what might be a drama from turning into a crisis. Whether this requires a special tutor to be allocated to blind and visually impaired students – or maybe all students with disabilities – is perhaps for an individual department to decide, based on the numbers involved, and the nature of the fieldwork activities likely to be undertaken by students.

One area where mutual adjustment may be necessary is with those blind students who have a personal guide dog (Section 11.2). Here, it is important that other students recognise that the dog is a working animal rather than a pet, and staff will need to take into account the space and other needs of the dog when planning field sorties. For the blind student themselves, it may be necessary to exercise some patience over the way in which other students attempt to treat the dog.

Another area where there may need to be give and take is with the visually impaired student who works best by recording or transcribing the spoken word during various study encounters, and may need to use special equipment. For example, staff and other students may need to take into account the student who has a hand-held tape recorder, and who needs to be 'close to the action' – whether it is in the front row of the lecture or study room in a field study venue, or close to the person being interviewed in the field. Similarly, where the visually impaired student creates Braille on the fly, allowance will need to be made for the noise of the typing and some planning may be needed to ensure the safe stowage of the portable Braille reader on minibuses, etc. On the part of the visually impaired student, due acknowledgement will need to be made that their needs may at times inconvenience other students – e.g. a blind student may compete with a partially deaf student to be closest to the current speaker.

Finally, on the issue of money, it may be necessary to agree on a cost-sharing approach. For its part, the department should consider spending money to buy specific equipment, or to use external services – e.g. for the production of raised-line maps. In return, the visually impaired student should consider approaching support agencies to fund the acquisition or loan of special equipment for fieldwork, or the purchase of additional computer hardware or software (e.g. facilities for data sonification) (see also Healey et al., 2001).

3.1.1 Flexibility the keyword


Perhaps the most effective mindset for staff to adopt when dealing with visually impaired students is that of flexibility (Shaw, 2000). Individual staff, departments and institutions all need to be able to act flexibly to attract and support the visually impaired student while undertaking fieldwork. This flexibility might include:

  • attendance requirements

  • availability of programme in various study modes (e.g. full-time, part-time, open learning mode, online)

  • choice of modules and/or study elements

  • extensions to assessment due dates

  • scope for transfer to alternative programmes.

Naturally, the issue of flexibility has to be considered in relation to the needs of sighted students – and this raises the over-arching issue of equity of treatment. (On this issue, see Section 14 and the related discussions in Sections 4.1 and 5.3.)
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