Geography and Auditory Difficulties
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Students with Auditory Difficulties and Fieldwork Options
The most successful students are arguably the ones who start by making wise and well-informed choices about potential courses. It is even more important for students with additional needs, such as auditory difficulties, to make the best choice from amongst the array they are offered so that difficulties at a later stage are minimised. In order to make these choices students will need:
- Opportunities to discuss potential need with tutors before signing up to foresee any needs well in advance and plan for them.
- Clear details of the desired learning outcomes, teaching and assessment methods and activities they are likely to encounter on a course, and full details of the fieldwork arrangements particularly where these relate to communication. They will also need to know something about the learning environment (e.g. noisy lecture theatres located on busy main roads) and facilities that will support their difficulties.
- Different routes to this information: textual in handbooks and on Web sites; visual, diagrammatic and photographic. Clarity of language is paramount since Deaf users of BSL have English as their second language. In designing information presentation it might be helpful to test that your use of language is accessible to a non-native speaker of English of reasonable linguistic competence.
- Access to advice: in person with staff; to Frequently Asked Questions sections of Web pages; to students who have done the course before; to reports of fieldwork activities; and to photographic records.
- Information to be consistent between departmental and institutional material and between various support units.
- Assurance that a degree of flexibility is built into the design of fieldwork - alternative approaches negotiated by groups of students, for example.
Institutions and individual academics make many assumptions about student knowledge and experience. However, there is plenty of evidence that students are not at ease with the conventions of higher education and spend some considerable time learning about the culture, language and norms of their environment. This will be particularly true of students who come from backgrounds where going to university is not the norm. What exactly is a lecture supposed to achieve? What should I be doing in a lecture? What are the expectations of me in a seminar group? And, of course, 'What does fieldwork at university entail?'
For students with auditory difficulties it is much more difficult to pick up the clues and cues as they go along, since little is made explicit and a lot is picked up by overheard remarks, chance comments and so on - precisely the kind of thing that these students have difficulty with. It therefore becomes the responsibility of the lecturer to find ways of helping students access this information.
A fieldwork handbook will help - with some basic rules and principles of fieldwork, descriptions of the range of fieldwork that they might encounter. It could also provide pictorial records of previous field work and some informal reports of previous students' experience. As well as the explicit discipline-related goals of the fieldwork an explanation could be given of the ancillary learning which the experience will bring: understanding working in groups, appreciating difference and variety of contributions, and concern for others.
What Hearing Impaired Students Say About Fieldwork
Not all hearing impaired students are the same, indeed generalization is dangerous as to their needs and capabilities. As one deaf geography student wrote, "...the needs of each deaf or hard-of-hearing individual will inevitably be different and those who are organising and participating in field trips should be made aware of exactly what those needs are." So the onus is on staff to find out what the students' abilities and needs are, particularly because fieldwork will present unfamiliar situations to students with auditory difficulties for which they may not have worked out coping mechanisms.
Students may not know what is expected of them and may be unwilling to ask for help. "...I have to admit that I was quite reluctant initially to discuss any needs I had within the department as regards to fieldwork. This may seem strange because I'm sure that most lecturers would do anything to help, but I wasn't keen on being treated any differently than others doing the same fieldwork and I wasn't sure that there would be much in the way of helping me anyway."
As bad as staff who are unaware of the needs of hearing impaired students are staff who think they know all about the difficulties. " ... there is nothing worse than dealing with people who have very little idea or who have preconceived notions about what should be done to help deaf or hard-of-hearing students to participate fully and equally...".
Perhaps the best way round this impasse is to ensure that staff actively seek out students with auditory difficulties well before the fieldwork starts and talk to them about what is going to happen and check that they are happy with this. If they are not, discuss ways around the situation. The aim is a negotiated and mutually acceptable way of ensuring the fullest possible participation while avoiding singling students out for special treatment.
So what aspects of fieldwork do students with auditory difficulties find particularly problematic? Group work is one tricky area. In a lecture theatre there is one professional speaker who stands more or less in one place (though they may talk to the blackboard or out the window!). In group work people talk from all round the room - the flip side of student participation is not knowing where to look to lip read, particularly if several people are talking at the same time in a heated debate. Students' many regional accents and their different lip-shapes make life difficult for lip-readers. "There also seemed to be an epidemic of turning around and facing the other way when they [staff] were pointing at or showing me something, so that meant I couldn't read their lips".
And the best single thing we can do to help students with auditory difficulties? Perhaps it is "...having written information on the field trips, especially the instructions on actually carrying out the work was great because I knew what I was doing and I wasn't panicking about having missed vital information". "All details of the fieldwork should be given to the student in a written form before the field visit so that queries can be sorted out."
A close second in valuable advice from students themselves would be for departmental staff (don't leave it to a disabilities support unit) to seek out the students, explain activities, negotiate actions and generally check that the student is comfortable with the work and following what is going on. After all, you and your colleagues will have been teaching these students for some time before the fieldwork starts so "...staff should [...] have already been made aware, or made themselves aware, of how they should communicate with the student according to the student's needs."
Information taken from Geography Discipline Network (GDN) Providing Learning Support for d/Deaf Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities http://www.glos.ac.uk/ceal/gdn/publications/disability/index.cfm.
The following case studies are taken from: The Geography Disciplines Network (GDN) Inclusive Curriculum Project (ICP) Case Studies, HEFCE Project, University of Gloucestershire , http://www2.glos.ac.uk/gdn/icp/caseintro.htm (information extracted and accessed September 2006).
A deaf student feels that, with sufficient back-up and thought, deafness need not be a barrier to higher education.
A second year environmental sciences student with a hearing impairment has not been contacted to ascertain whether he has any special needs relating to his forthcoming work placement.
A Marine Biology student has dyslexia, Mearles Irlen and hearing impairment. She finds different ways to 'fill in the gaps' when hearing is difficult, and prefers exams to multiple choice as she can use her own words. She finds mind-maps particularly helpful when planning her reports.
A research student speaks about her experiences as a field note-taker for a student with a hearing impairment.
Using online debate to include deaf students.