Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2004, Volume 24, No. 3
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Learning Support for Disabled Students
Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities

A project of the Geography Disability Network (GDN)

Reviewed by
Cathleen McAnneny
Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Maine, Farmington
Email: mcanneny@maine.edu


This is a review of the six Web-based guides for fieldwork, a product of the Learning Support for Disabled Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities project of the Geography Disability Network (GDN). The GDN is a consortium of Higher Education Institutions based at Cheltenham & Gloucester, College of Higher Education, and eight other universities in England. The aim of the project was to "identify, promote and transfer the principles and good practices of how to provide learning support for disabled students undertaking fieldwork and related activities" (http://www.glos.ac.uk/gdn/disabil.htm). The individual guides may be reached through the links below:


The role of fieldwork in academic disciplines varies. Pub crawls, hiking over rugged terrain, and staying in rough accommodations contributes to learning, but may not be necessary to understand the academic material. In some disciplines, these are time-honored traditions intended to build camaraderie among students, and promote the exchange of ideas. However they can serve to exclude rather than include. These six guides fill a practical need of faculty and administrators who are not experienced in working with students with disabilities, as well as disability specialists, by addressing issues in inclusive fieldwork at the university level.

The first listed guide provides an overview of fieldwork in geography, earth and environmental sciences, and then addresses disability: its various models, barriers and strategies to reduce those barriers, and disability legislation in the UK. For educators unfamiliar with disability concepts, the presentation of disability as a social construct is a great way to help faculty and others challenge their assumptions and lend credibility for changing venues and/or assessment methods. The definitions and explanation of disability law are particularly helpful, but could be improved by including links to disability laws of other countries, although it is recognized that this was not the intent of this project. The introductory guide presents an outline for making an inclusive fieldwork curriculum, and includes "Good Practices" to illustrate more clearly what is meant by an inclusive fieldwork curriculum.


Written by different members of the project and with the involvement of students with disabilities, the other five guides are disability-specific and offer practical step-by-step approaches to assessing and developing a curriculum for its inclusiveness as well as considering issues that pertain to the particular type of disability, such as disability etiquette, assistive technology or equipment, transportation, and travel. Disclosure and issues of confidentiality need to be dealt with more effectively, especially as they pertain to students with learning disabilities or mental health issues. These limits are not necessarily obvious to others, and often, unless the student requests help through the local learning assistance center or disability office, an instructor may not be aware the student's disability. While visible disabilities may elicit spontaneous offers of help that would not be the case with someone with invisible disabilities.

As these guides illustrate, the issues confronted by faculty and university administrators are different. Assistive technologies exist to create the possibility for someone who is blind, deaf or limited in mobility to participate in all but the most physically challenging field work. However, learning disabilities and mental illness present a different set of challenges in the field. Issues of confidentiality are of special concern because of the stigma still attached to issues of mental health, yet at the same time, instructors need to be made aware of health issues that field course participants may face. How this is accomplished differs from country to country and among disciplines.

The guides are very well written, brief yet comprehensive, with examples and scenarios coupled with thought-provoking questions. "Boxes" in each guide contain examples to illustrate the topics under discussion. The guides are very well written, brief yet comprehensive, with examples and scenarios coupled with thought-provoking questions. "Boxes" in each guide contain examples to illustrate the topics under discussion. Not surprisingly, useful sections of each guide are those that deal with practical matters in field activities and references for suggested reading. Some of the guides address the role and experiences of students without disabilities, recruitment of students with disabilities, and the use of virtual fieldwork. All the guides include many links to useful Internet resources, although most of the guides were last updated in 2001.


Overall, the guides offer a practical means to evaluate the role of fieldwork in a variety of disciplines. They support the validity of such experiences and helpful suggestions that recognize that fieldwork functions at many important levels. Building student's academic skills along with their confidence are as important as developing relationships among classmates. Indeed, by making field course more inclusive, help students with and without disabilities broaden their view of what is possible.

While this set of guides was produced in the UK, they can easily be used for developing fieldwork curricula in other countries. In addition, this set of guides goes beyond fieldwork by presenting information about including students with disabilities in any education setting. These guides are a useful contribution to the field of education.