- Supervisors & managers
- Premia - making research education accessible
- Supervising disabled researchers - Premia
- Enabling disabled researchers to undertake field work
Enabling disabled researchers to undertake field work
The topic and methodology of an individual's research can be defined by several factors:
- prior study
- a student's particular interest
- what is achievable in the time limits
- supervisors' areas of interests and expertise
- the institution's facilities
- access to relevant resources.
For a disabled researcher 'access' may have different connotations. Some disabled researchers stated that they identify the focus and methods of their research in terms of what is possible within the parameters of their disabilities. None of the researchers themselves viewed these boundaries as problematic or restrictive. However, what can be problematic is the gap that can exists between the researcher's view of a realistic fieldwork plan and how this is perceived by their supervisors. Mutual understanding of the boundaries and their impact on fieldwork planning is essential if the research and the relationship between supervisor and researcher are to be productive.
The researcher experience
Understanding of the parameters can best be explored at the outset by the supervisor and researcher. If the researcher feels they have the right to say what might prove difficult, then it can enable realistic planning.
As one supervisor said:
‘It's checking if there's something you have a problem with, tell us, help us understand where you do things differently. ...When that mutual recognition of the issues is missing, then research programmes and relationships can be compromised.'
‘My supervisor, I suspect, views the problems that come with a physical impairment as inconveniences which can be overcome with enough planning and effort. I have lost at least six months of my PhD while I tried to execute a schedule of fieldwork which I repeatedly said was not feasible...It was a difficult time and has deeply affected my relationship with the person who should have been my guide through my thesis.'
Postgraduate researcher with mobility impairment
The follow quote outlines the experiences of field work for a disabled researcher. It provides understanding of the potential challenges and parameters of fieldwork.
‘Fieldwork is an area where being disabled poses different and challenging problems on top of those faced by every researcher. In writing this, and with hindsight colouring everything a shade of predictable, it is easy for my fieldwork experience to seem as if it wasn't all that bad. However, if I stop and think, I can remember all too well - it was one of the hardest periods of my life. Far from being predictable, the months I spent ‘in the field' were lost in a labyrinth of uncertainty, awkwardness and mistakes. I can offer two instances out of many when my ‘disability' interfered with the execution of usual fieldwork practice.
- I awoke one morning thinking I was attending a meeting in a prominent landmark building - it was clearly marked in my copy of the city's A-Z. However, when we (my support worker and I) got there, it wasn't so prominent. We eventually got there half an hour late to find that the meeting was up a steep flight of stairs. Being late is bad enough. But then being the cause of a meeting having to decamp to another room, when I was only there to observe, made me feel terrible. I didn't have enough opportunity to explain why we were late and my apologies about the room being moved were shrugged off.
- Another example is when I met a ‘professional' research participant and she suggested that we went for lunch. We walked the short walk from her office to the local sandwich shop and on the way she was talking to me and telling me about quite important information concerning my research. However, I was linked to my support worker and focusing most of my attention on walking. Subsequently the conversation was completely one-sided (her side) and I felt I'd missed out on an opportunity to gain some important insights.
I offer these examples to show that it is often the small things that present the biggest problems and that, when doing fieldwork with a disability, you often feel precarious and vulnerable.
As well as feelings of helplessness, it was an extremely draining time. I look back through my research journals now and they are all about my frustrations regarding not being able to make far-reaching plans because I had to rely on so many things and so many people. Each day presented a new set of problems and each solution found only moved me a millimetre nearer a final destination that always felt miles away. Every effort I made felt so futile. I became tired of having to stop, think and plan before doing anything.
It runs far deeper than the odd staircase in the wrong place, because it's about the daily uncertainty of strange surroundings, the constant concern for trivial arrangements and the inability to go with the flow of the people I was meant to be quietly witnessing. The worst thing about all this was the lack of support and understanding. I was, like all postgraduates ‘in the field', left to my own devices. But my devices were not capable of coping. I felt under pressure not to admit this and not to ask for advice and support. '
Postgraduate researcher with mobility impairment
If we take note and reflect upon the issues of field work raised by disabled students, we can oversee and supervise more incisively. We need to be responsive to the particular concerns of any researcher. Being responsive is not about diluting the research process; it is about providing the most appropriate support to enable the research process to be robust and efficiently productive.