Case Study – Geography and Mobility Difficulties

The following case studies are taken from: The Geography Disciplines Network (GDN) Inclusive Curriculum Project (ICP) Case Studies, HEFCE Project, University of Gloucestershire ,  (information extracted and accessed September 2006).

Case A


Alice is a second year student studying Geography and Environmental Science.

Her condition mainly affects mobility but has a range of other symptoms, which sometimes affect study. She arrived through the clearing process and found she had to be very persistent to ensure that she had ground floor accommodation with easy access. Once that was established, though, her accommodation was fine, with porters being particularly helpful. She felt she had peace of mind if she was taken ill at any time during her course. Having University accommodation also provided an environment in which she could easily make friends; their informal support has been very valuable to her.

In her first year, Alice studied in two different academic departments. In one, the key support came from a lab technician with responsibility for arranging practical details of fieldwork trips. She made sure that Alice had low level projects to do which didn’t involve any strenuous walking. In the other department, awareness was more patchy. Alice needed to take more responsibility to make sure that the fieldwork she did was manageable for her condition. She can’t remember filling in a health and safety form before starting fieldwork, which might have provided an extra opportunity to explain about her support needs. She thinks that departmental staff knew about her impairment and support needs from information on her UCAS form: she doesn’t describe herself as disabled, didn’t want to contact the Disability Adviser and declined to have a profile of her needs distributed to academic staff by the Disability Adviser. She is keen not to be seen as different – she just wanted to get on with things. Her view is that support is most acceptable when it comes via the department; having to get help or advice from a central service didn’t seem appropriate

Apart from fieldwork, the main barrier Alice has encountered has been the large heavy doors of some lecture theatres.

In the first part of her second year, Alice spent a week at home after a back injury. Her major department was helpful and arranged extensions for coursework. She subsequently struggled with one piece of fieldwork because of the terrain, and has since changed modules to avoid some fieldwork. At the moment she is thinking ahead about a possible field trip abroad during year 3. She is confident to investigate practicalities about this with her tutor at the end of her second year. She finds that the information about modules on departmental noticeboards and web pages is useful in helping her making up her mind about course choices (both from the point of view of personal preference and practicality related to her condition).

Another strong source of support has been a friend who does all the same courses as Alice and who is aware of the problems she faces because of her condition. Apart from this friend, her situation is not commonly known about by fellow students. She feels that distribution of a profile about her needs even to staff would not have been helpful – she prefers to be in charge herself about who has what information about her.

Case B


Ina is a level three Landscape Architecture student with dyslexia and arthritis. She experiences difficulties with manipulation of text and organising ideas as a result of her dyslexia. Ina’s arthritis affects mainly her wrists, causing frequent continuous pain and cramps.

When trying to decide her preference between written assignments and the practical drawing aspects to her studies, Ina finds they both cause difficulties, for different reasons.

Ina has particular difficulties with the grammar and sentence structure of written pieces of work as a result of her dyslexia. She gets study skills tuition with a dyslexia tutor once a week to work on her pieces. She finds the continual support motivating and feels her confidence has grown as a result. She finds working on level three essays more interesting than the previous years. This, too, gives her the enthusiasm to sustain her studies when she sometimes finds the technical aspects of essay writing a challenge.

Ina also finds that drawing a lot causes pain in wrists as a result of her arthritis. In the winter she works in fingerless gloves to keep her wrists warm to alleviate the symptoms, and allow her the dexterity of her fingers to continue to study. Jo explains that in some ways, working on her drawings allows her more autonomy to set her pace. She is able to stop when she likes to relieve the pain in her wrists.

When speaking about support she gets from the academic department within the University, Ina explains “I do get support from the staff, they always say I have to have a doctor’s letter and they will grant extensions, etc, but I always try to get the work in on time. I think I’ve handed all my pieces in on time so far. I’m worried about my design project, if my pain in the wrists starts up again then I’d like to be able to defer it.” Ina would have difficulties with deferring the project and claiming Disabled Students’ Allowance to cover the costs of study skills support. Deferring the level three design project would also mean deferring her fourth year (professional course) to the year after. “My mum’s worried I won’t come back, she’s probably right.” Ina has begun to explore the possibility of arranging an extension for her design thesis with verification for the request coming from the Disability Adviser. “I’m hoping to get it in on time, but knowing that it’s possible to get an extension may take the pressure off. My friends say I should go and talk to the tutor, but I thought I would rather talk to [Disability Adviser]. It might sound better coming from her. I don’t want my tutor to think I’m always moaning and asking for extensions.”

Ina’s arthritis is highly affected by the climate. “The wrists flare up when I’m writing or drawing a lot but the weather affects them as well. In the summer it was OK, I was doing a lot of canoeing and coaching, but I had special gloves and my wrists were fine, but now the weather’s changing, the pain in my wrists is more severe and it means it hurts to work.” But Ina is keen to ensure she meets the deadlines given for her work, and often works through the pain, seeing it as part of her life that she has to cope with rather than request support from the University. “I’ve been OK on fieldtrips. We went to Barcelona. It hurt sometimes when we were recording the information out there, but because of the good weather and nice sun, it kept my wrists warm and it was OK. It hurt more when I came back and had to write it all up. But I did it. It hurt, but I did it.” 

Case C

Oliver is a year 3 mature student (31-40 age group), and has mobility and mental health difficulties. His mobility difficulties were caused by a series of strokes that happened about 8 years ago. He has restricted mobility on the left side of his body and some speech difficulties.

Oliver said his main difficulty in the early stages of his course was in approaching lecturers. In some respects, he feels this was ‘his fault’ since he didn’t want to make a fuss and wanted to be seen the same as everyone else and to do everything the same as other students. This caused particular problems for him in fieldwork and in practicals. He recounted his experience of a field trip that he went on in the first year after which he said, ‘I just wanted to go home and not come back’.

Oliver’s mobility difficulties are not immediately obvious. He doesn’t use a wheelchair and he looks strong and healthy, but he has difficulty keeping up on rough terrain and got left behind. He said that that he disclosed his disabilities on enrolment but that no one from his course or the university contacted him about his needs. The consequence of this early experience was that in the second year of his course he deliberately avoided modules that included fieldwork

In year three he has had a completely different experience. His department now has a member of staff with particular responsibility for supporting students with disabilities and she discussed his needs with him prior to the field trip. This time it was a positive experience where he felt well looked after and included. A significant difference for him was that he felt more confident in approaching staff later in the programme when he had got to know them better: ‘the world’s a scary place when you first come into the university’. His experiences of fieldwork in year three haven’t all been positive. A field trip to a zoo was another stressful and negative experience where he felt he spent the whole day ‘playing catch up’ because he couldn’t physically keep up with the lecturers and other student, and so missed out on explanations by the tutor. ‘Go by the slowest student’ was his advice here.

When asked how staff could have helped him better, Oliver said he felt the key thing was for staff to really ‘listen’ and to ‘hear’ what he was saying. It’s hard for him to talk about his disabilities; it makes it even worse if he has to keep repeating it. What came across strongly is that he felt he had disclosed his disabilities but staff lacked awareness and didn’t really understand what this meant for him.

In labs and practicals he has found simple procedures quite difficult and worries because this can be dangerous. Another negative experience that has stayed with him is of a first year practical where he was working with another student who finished early and then left. The experiment hadn’t worked and Oliver wanted to repeat it but he was unable to do this on his own. Consequently he got a low mark. Again this was an experience that made him feel as if he wanted to leave university.

For Oliver, as a mature student, the student lifestyle of nightclubs and bars holds no interest for him. He has felt that there should be more emphasis by the Students’ Union on clubs and groups that are focused on other sorts of activities. He did provide some email feedback to the students’ union after freshers’ week but was disappointed to receive a defensive and quite negative response from the SU. He has tried to get involved in activities such as volunteering but feels that this hasn’t really been successful for him. It did seem that a more proactive approach from disability support groups at the time of student induction would have helped him have a much more positive experience.

This also translates into his course in that he hasn’t always had positive experiences in communicating with and relating to other students. He feels that this has affected his work in that he has missed out on discussing work with other students and that his marks would be better if he had been able to do this more: ‘University has actually been a very lonely place for me’. He said that he has not got a great deal from tutorials and that he has avoided public talking as his speech is not very good. Oliver does feel, though, that with support and coaching, he could have managed the presentations. He got an A in his GCSE English for oral presentations: what he needs now is help in delivery, in staying calm, and in managing his speech.

He has had some difficulty accessing books on low levels in the learning resource centre but a point he made here was repeated several times in the interview – he felt that if he did ask, he would get help, but he often finds it hard to do this, so for him communication is a big issue. ‘If someone blanks you or turns you down, then you don’t ask again.’

With respect to his Disabled Student Allowance, Oliver hasn’t always received the things that his assessment said he needed. For example he still has not got an adapted keyboard for his computer, he hasn’t got internet access and there is a big time lag in the cheques coming through from his LEA.

Oliver is entitled to ask for additional time in examinations (he writes himself, and doesn’t use a computer), but hasn’t applied for this, feeling that it was just more work and more hassle for him, with the onus being on him to go and find the person to ask about it.

A lot of Oliver’s difficulties related to a lack of confidence. He has learnt to ask for help, but it’s still an issue for him. When asked how could the university have helped him better, he said ‘it’s important to be heard the first time, it’s hard having to tell people again and again’.

He feels that the form he completed about his disabilities when he first arrived should have been more proactively followed up, that he should have been introduced to a disability liaison person. Key here is that he needed to be able to talk to someone who was knowledgeable, who would understand his needs and the implications of what he was saying, who knows the systems and what to do and who to phone etc. In other words what Oliver needed was a ‘one stop shop’ for support; for someone to act on his behalf in terms of informing tutors of his needs.


Case D


This case study is presented in three parts. Part A is Tom’s own account of his experience as a disabled student with muscular dystrophy. Part B is written by his postgraduate supervisor and Part C by the University Disability Advisor.

Part A (by the student)

‘I became a Science Undergraduate in 1995. I spent about three years doing my primary degree. During that time, I had experience as a disabled student in the Geography, French and Palaeoecology departments.

Geography was the most accessible as it had a back tradesman’s entrance which meant that I could enter the basement and use the lift. There was no disabled toilet, however, and I had to go to a café across the road. I found the back entrance difficult at times as access was often blocked by traffic at the gate and the door was difficult initially. French was the most difficult department and classes had to be moved for me on many occasions. A portable ramp was eventually obtained, but staff had to put it out on each occasion and take it away. Sometimes it was not available and I didn’t make the lectures. Palaeoecology was similar to Geography. Like Geography the old Geology department was used. The old lift there was very temperamental and I had to make an arrangement to gain access through a basement door.

During my three years I found that the most important aspect of being successful was the attitude of staff and the willingness of Estates and Building Department to overcome physical barriers. The French Department staff were excellent in helping me as they had more problems to deal with in relation to access. A disabled toilet was built in the basement of the Geography department and eventually when I had just finished my first degree a stair lift was installed so I could enter by the front of the building, like all the other students.

Since I became a postgraduate in the Geography department, other improvements have been made. An electronic door has been installed leading into the library which makes entering and leaving much easier – my postgraduate room was initially in that area. Also, outside parking has been greatly improved with disabled spaces, and a ramp leading up to the Students’ Union. This last item has been a great help as I used to have to make a very long journey round by the road and often got wet.

Grants for assistance were very slow in the beginning and this was very difficult for me, as I needed a personal assistant. Budgeting was impossible and I had to borrow from my parents as money often came six months or longer later than it was needed.

Social interaction is difficult still for disabled students. Seating at lectures isolated me because in many lectures, I could only sit in front of all the other seats. I think either a disabled club or society would help disabled students, as common problems could be discussed.’

Part B  (by the postgraduate supervisor)

Tom, a wheelchair-user who suffers from Muscular Dystrophy, enrolled as a part-time postgraduate student in 1999. He wanted to obtain a Master’s degree by dissertation and so enrolled for an MPhil. He was supervised by myself and another member of staff. Owing to his disability a project was chosen to minimize the physical difficulties he would encounter, and a piece of library-based research on Victorian images of Southern Africa as mediated through the pages of the Royal Geographical Society’s publications was identified. Special arrangements were made with the University Library to have multiple volumes of the Society’s Proceedings transferred for specific periods of time to the School of Geography Library, where Tom could examine these in an environment where assistance would be more readily available. Regular meetings with Tom were scheduled so as to facilitate his domestic circumstances. In these ways the project and its supervision were tailored to meet his needs.

He successfully graduated with an MPhil in December 2003.

Part C(by the Disability Advisor)

‘I was asked to take up the position of Disability Advisor within the School of Geography in 2002. At this stage two of the main problems that had hindered Tom had already been solved with the installation of a disabled toilet and a stair lift.

For the most part I was instrumental in organizing the installation of an electronic door to the entrance of the School library. This was particularly important as Tom was to be located, in a postgraduate room, within the library and this door facilitated easy access to this room and the library.

Disabled Parking was a necessity for Tom and this was greatly improved when the University installed a dedicated parking space in close proximity to the Geography building.

‘I was able to build a good rapport with Tom and I was keen to be of assistance to him during his time as a postgraduate student.’


Case E

Provision of virtual access to a self-directed field trail for mobility-impaired students

Soil Conservation is an advanced level course that attempts to introduce Geography and Environmental Science students to the practical experience of the professional soil conservationist. This includes the ability to diagnose soil conservation issues in the field and evaluate the performance of soil conservation structures. These skills are practised in an evaluation of erosion problems and control works on reclaimed coal land at Blaenant, near Brynmawr, South Wales – a headwater moorland site.

1. As part of the student project, a virtual field trail (VFT) was constructed from the field trail manual, using the same route and questions, but including supplementary theoretical notes.
2. The VFT trail allows ‘access’ to the field situation for mobility-impaired students, and is also available to students for revision/preparation.
3. The VFT contains questions and the students can measure their performance and re-take the exercise until they can answer all the questions.
4. Formal assessment, however, is made through a class quiz, which does not use an identical question bank.

To date, sample sizes have been too small to determine if the students who attended the field trip did significantly better than those who did not. However, the real field trip is always mentioned in end-of-term student evaluations, and in very positive terms. The VFT is mentioned much less frequently.

– Self-directed field trips convert into VFTs very readily.
– VFTs are more useful as a supplement to real field trips than a replacement – they have less ‘impact’ on students. However, they do allow those unable to attend a full day’s walk across mountain moorland a chance to share some of the technical benefits.

Case F

As Departmental Manager in the Geography and Environment Department, I attend meetings and seminars where staff meet with disability advisors and disabled students, who talk about the difficulties they encounter. Usually, each meeting focuses on a particular disability; I then write up notes and circulate them to all departmental staff. At departmental level, we have added SENDA matters as a rolling item on the Staff Meeting agenda (although individual students are not discussed).

At the individual level, the School has developed an ISSA (Individual Student Support Agreement), which is a summary of adjustments and resources we have agreed are necessary to meet the individual needs of a student, in consultation with the student and key staff. ‘The individual concerned is often the expert on the consequences of his or her own circumstances, and should be involved in discussions and decisions about appropriate support’.

In my experience, we have had only one (Master’s) student who was a wheelchair user. The School has access problems in this area which it is trying to overcome. This is a city centre site – a labyrinth of old buildings – so getting from one building to another causes problems and at present some areas – eg the gym – have no access for students with mobility difficulties. For this particular female student, we put a special lock on the men’s toilets, which were more conveniently located, although this cannot have been an ideal situation. There are also reports that in crowded lifts, people often will not make room for people in wheelchairs.

The Disability Officer has recently organised various groups to follow certain routes around the School accompanied by someone with mobility problems, to see if we could reach certain areas eg Student Union social areas, and so on. We noted various problems eg lack of lifts, poor signage, decorative cobbled floors and too little time between lectures for changeovers, which the School will have to address.

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