European Geologist Journal 50

On all fours: report about a future geologist with a physical disability, or how to overcome the ‘fit professional’ stereotype


by Nuria Guirado-Romero

COMUN-A-L (Scientific, Medical, and Ambiental Communication), Bulevar Manuel del Águila Ortega, 38, 04130 Almería (España)



The report describes a student’s experience of having a physical disability and studying geology at a Spanish university, and discusses the adaptations carried out by this institution of higher education during the period 2016-2019. The discussion focuses on a bachelor’s degree apparently founded on expectations of physical fitness, with all its gradations and possible intermediate nuances. Comparisons with other national and international universities are provided to ensure the inclusion of functional diversity, drawing a comparison with the experiences provided and framing them within the principles given by the new ‘Geoeduethics.’ Finally, possible solutions are provided in order to address the historical lack of inclusion in the geological sciences, which allow us to understand that being a geologist is much more than being an experienced climber.

Cite as: Guirado-Romero, Nuria. (2020). On all fours: report about a future geologist with a physical disability, or how to overcome the ‘fit professional’ stereotype. European Geologist, 50.


Sergio (not his real name) was born in 1996 with a spinal cord injury (myelomeningocele) which affected his fifth lumbar and first sacral vertebrae, with irreversible clubfoot and mild hydrocephalus. He underwent emergency surgery to close the open vertebrae and a peritoneal bypass valve was inserted. He began to take his first steps at 20 months. His feet are affected by a chronic neurological condition, that is, they will become echinovars (also known as clubfoot) again. Future considerations are amputation and subsequent prosthesis placement. Now, he uses orthopaedic shoes and inserts; he sometimes has trouble balancing on two feet and walks more slowly than average.

This is his medical background. His personal story is something else; it is the story of a young man shaped by much more frequent and intense contact with nature than his reduced mobility would seem to allow. He had and has an aptitude for understanding geological environments. He has discovered them while walking at his own pace with those feet and a trekking stick.

Academic History

Sergio (not his real name) chose to study in the bachelor’s programme in Geology at the Faculty of Sciences at a major university in southern Spain but was not, from the very beginning, welcomed or fully accepted by the Faculty. During the first year and on his first field trip to the Hoyazo fossil atoll (Níjar, Almería, Spain), his family voluntarily contacted the responsible professor to inform him of his degree of disability. The answer, sincere and friendly, was “don’t worry”, “thank you for notifying me”. While on signing up it was specified that three of the places available for this degree course were reserved for people with disabilities, it turned out that they were unaware there were any students with problems of reduced mobility). Sergio gained the impression that the purpose of the excursion was to remove those students who did not have a true vocation and who would not finish the walk…a kind of preliminary natural selection to keep the fittest.

From then on, a series of events followed, with the clear aim of undermining Sergio’s interest in the degree programme. The Degree Coordinator directly suggested to him to leave, saying “you are not going to make it.”

There were, however, professors who offered to use their own cars to take him to the places of interest without having to do all the unnecessary mileage that was demanded of them as mere physical training: “geologists do not go on trails but cross-country” was one of the most repeated slogans in this type of practice. This stubbornness not only had repercussions on this student but also others who showed other physical limitations such as mild heart disease or obesity. His classmates did not understand the insistence on taking the most complicated, risky and difficult paths, either. They all arrived at the same interpretation: the idea was to select those students who truly wished to become geologists, no matter how or at what price. Physical resilience was, apparently, the most precious quality for screening among students.

The Vice Degree Coordinator for the course spoke with the family and argued that Sergio could not take part in the field trip because they did not have the means to carry out adaptations, nor permits to use cars from different departments, they could not change their campsites…they couldn’t do anything, in fact, since they had not been offered a suitable budget from the university. With a clear lack of ethics, they further argued that they had checked the academic previous record of this student in high school: it was not very good. However, they neglected to mention the highest mark in his university entrance exam: an A+ in Earth Sciences. An improper environment was being built to slow the academic growth of this student. He was literally driven to sadness and lost motivation. These circumstances did not help him overcome the images that others held of him, which were already prejudiced by his physical disability. They definitively undermined the psychological state of Sergio.

Two academic years later, the Student Orientation Service of the university finally decided to implement measures to adapt the practical lessons in the countryside. The use of wooden platforms was the only measure offered during the first year, with the purpose of easing access on the beaches without having to sink into the sand, so that walking would be safer and less difficult. This measure shocked the Degree Coordinator, being totally impossible to carry out and making no sense in the field. The Student Orientation Service also decided to implement extra measures (though some members of the body did not agree with the decision): Sergio would be accompanied to each field camp by an assistant, and they would bring a car made available for such an occasion. However, he would never be with the rest of the group of students because it limited, affected and harmed them. The family kept contacting the university and this time they made contact with the Vice Rector for Inclusion and Diversity of the university. The Vice Rector explained that there were adjustments in this degree for students with mental illness and ADHD but not for students with reduced mobility. In the enrolment process, however, there was a series of places reserved for students with disabilities (without specifying which one they admitted and which not). When the family pointed this out, the response was that the law required them to include that. However, they said, it makes sense for someone with a physical disability to understand that they cannot perform these studies.

Field camps began. The student went with his “sherpas”, as he ironically called them – they were there to take his backpack during breaks (but not while hiking), while the student settled on the ground and began to take notes and carry out tests.  One of these experiences was a pleasure for the senses for Sergio – the professor not only taught him in depth but also naturally shared the route, talked about experiences and showed memorable style and eloquence.

However, in the second camp his dignity was literally attacked (“You will never be a geologist and if you succeed, you will not be as valid as the others because you have used a non-equivalent training itinerary”). He was exposed to extraordinarily disruptive conditions. During a storm and heavy rainfall, most of the professors decided to go back to town with their assigned students. Sergio could see how his classmates were being driven to town while his assigned professor made him walk in order to continue the visit. By this point, it was clear for the student this professor was harshly trying to convince him he was not capable of meeting the demands of the field class.

In addition, when in the classroom, Sergio had to be examined on what he had learnt and seen in the field, he was given the route that the rest of the group had followed. He got up to leave and another teacher asked him why he had not done anything: “because it is not the route that I did.” “Sit down, please, the exams do not have to be the same, they have to be fair” (though the professor who went with him to the camp was present, he mentioned nothing at all and simply left the room). This story can now come to an end: the student did not want to take the last exam that he had left of a subject, for which he had already passed two parts. He was tired of this psychological stress, where his potential capacities were constantly undermined by reminding him that he would never be a geologist like the others. He was unwilling to see the teacher who had daily practiced this demeaning behaviour. In short, they had managed to defeat him but not convince him that he was unsuited to be a geologist.

Sergio will continue trying to complete his degree when he has evidence that the prevailing assumption in Spanish universities that asserts that most traditional field environments are inaccessible for students with reduced mobility problems has been revoked. He contacted the degree coordinators of two other universities in Spain and found that they had not made any adaptations for this “prototype” of student either because, they said, no case had been presented or, if the case had been, they would have had tried to persuade the person that it was not the career for him. They only made these adaptations when they designed social outreach activities in the geological sciences involving people with sensory disabilities, entitled “Geology for All.”

Sergio will keep trying when he perceives that the institutional policies do not intend to differentiate him from the other students – and more so, from the rest of society – by what he can or cannot do.

Disability and higher education in geological sciences: a brief history

Higher education in Geological Sciences is very different in some countries compared to others. The subject of field education and the barriers it presents for students with mobility issues (Stokes et al., 2019) have been discussed in considerable depth by different universities, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

When looking at images of field work presented in advertising brochures of various universities to try to motivate and increase interest in geological sciences, pictures of young male and healthy people who overcome difficulties of the terrain predominate (Wilson, 2014).

Regarding this lack of conceptual diversity about who can and cannot be a geologist, there was a recent (2020) virtual meeting in which the former president of The Geological Society, Nick Rogers, pointed to the decline in numbers of registered students enrolling in geoscience courses. He also highlighted the lack of criticism of this lack of diversity: “Our science is suffering from a great image problem and as a community, we have not done enough to promote what we offer” (Bullough, 2020, p. 26). Iain Stewart argued in this virtual meeting that geology needs a reboot. “Geoscientists think in a unique and important way: it is not just a historical science but also a derivative and interpretive science. We steal from everywhere and we merge it!” (Bullough, 2020, p. 27). It seems that fusion has its limits and geology as a science is disabling itself, for now, by failing to accept something as natural as biological diversity.

However, in the last decade new procedures have emerged to improve this situation. Publications and programs associated with the American Institute of Geosciences, the US National Institute of Sciences, the Foundation and the International Association for the Diversity of Geosciences (IAGD), as well as technical sessions and conferences with representatives from a diverse society, are promoting this change. Their objectives are improving awareness, and increasing the rates of graduates of different genders and ethnicities, even though people with physical disabilities are still underrepresented (Atchison & Libarkin, 2013).

To assist in this enormous task, geoscientific educational institutions should understand the different models of disability. Medical models of disability assume that people with disabilities are subjects to be treated and cured. By comparison, social models shift by focusing on the failure of society to accept disabled people for who they are and to provide adequate facilities for them. The emphasis thus moves from pity or sympathy to generic barriers to participation in mainstream activities.

Fieldwork is essential for teaching and learning in Geology and fulfils a number of pedagogical functions. However, it has the potential to exclude students with disabilities in different ways (Hall et al., 2002). Despite this, and the numerous attempts by educational staff to include students with disabilities, there have been no substantial studies that have attempted to include the opinions of disabled students and thus explore their experiences in field work (Hall & Healey, 2005).

Departments have been left to develop inclusive curricula with little insight or pedagogical training. The ideas that professors and departments of geology in the United States have regarding the accessibility of field activities has been collected in a study that compiles information about those departmental practices that try to be inclusive (Carabajal, 2017). Nothing less and nothing more is needed than reform in educational practice for all educational communities (schools, universities, ministries, NGOs) around the world.

Geological science teachers have little guidance or support in reconciling adaptation with field geology learning objectives. They tend to think that those service personnel who accompany people with disabilities act as guardians. The net effect of this idea is to reduce the professors’ empathy and thus their ability to include students with disabilities in field settings. Recommendations for instructors include taking campus disability service providers on field trips, opening and maintaining communication with them, and designing pedagogically sound field trips that align as closely as possible with universal design principles. This field practice should be described under a case-by-case approach, focusing on students and the educational process, rather than institutional compliance. Finally, geoscience teachers should conceptualise disability service providers as providers of accessibility services (Feig et al., 2019).

Not only are there physical barriers to these practices but there are also attitude barriers. One of the most effective ways to encourage students with physical disabilities to pursue the study and professional practice of geological science is to change the attitudes and behaviour of teachers (Locke, 2005).

A qualitative investigation (Stokes et al., 2019) states that multisensory engagement, consideration for pace and time, flexibility of access and delivery, and a focus on shared tasks are essential for effective pedagogical design in field practices with students with disabilities. Furthermore, fieldwork can support the social processes necessary for students with disabilities to be fully integrated into learning communities, while promoting individual development by providing the opportunity to develop and practice personal skills.

Searching for Solutions

Due to the emphasis on field research at the undergraduate level, people with mobility issues face limited opportunities to progress in geosciences. A strategy to overcome this is to apply adaptive technologies, such as virtual field trips (VFT) and also to apply the principles of the novel concept geoeduethics (Promduangsri et al., 2019), among which one principle that stands out as essential is mutual respect for all interactions between student and professor, student and student, and professor and professor.

Disability issues “cannot remain closed within a student services arena but must become part of the mainstream learning and teaching debate” (Adams and Brown, 2002, p. 7). In this statement there will always be an opportunity, not just a challenge.


I thank the student S.R.G. for his permission to share his personal medical data and his collaboration in the writing of this report.


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Bullough, F. 2020. Geoscience and the future – time for a reboot? Geoscientist, 30(8), 26–27. 10.1144/geosci2020-106

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This article has been published in European Geologist Journal 50 – Let’s become geologists! Challenges and opportunities in geoscience education in Europe

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