Without the support of Disabled Students Allowance my university experience would not have had a happy ending. I would have dropped out, as I nearly did at least a few times. But I was lucky enough to have a safety net to fall back on: a learning support worker funded by DSA.
Degrees are stressful for everybody, so imagine how tough it can be to navigate an undergraduate education with the added stress of illness. Universities expect concentration, commitment, and an unbelievably fast pace. Disability changes how and when you work, and can cause long periods of absence. The point of endowment funds like DSA is to provide reasonable adjustments, which make higher education more accessible and fulfilling for students living with serious medical conditions that adversely affect their work.
DSA is a non-means tested, non-repayable grant which, above all, ensures disabled students have everything they need to succeed. For example, scribing is crucial for the learning of deaf students, CLARO software aids students with learning difficulties, and specialist equipment and learning support is required for some other needs. The idea is to level the playing field, so that all students have an equal chance of success.
But changes to the provision of DSA detailed in a written ministerial statement – coming in to effect next year – are going to have unacceptable consequences, shrinking vital support. The government will be deferring some of their obligations to support disabled students to individual universities. Not only is the likelihood of securing funding this way precarious, with the NUS arguing small, specialised institutions will struggle to meet the costs of equipment, but disabled students will, in total, face a £70 million shortfall in funding, according to the Green Party. People who depend on provisions from the current system may find themselves in trouble next year, with less or no essential support for their education.
Joy, a graduate from Winchester University, says that “it’s virtually impossible to do a degree whilst disabled without DSA, particularly if you’re poor.”
I found it hard to go to lectures because of my fatigue and the immuno suppressants I was on, so having a note taker would have made a world of difference. A lot of the problems were caused by the university’s lack of care for disabled students – but universities are now meant to take on disability care themselves, and honestly they won’t do it.
She adds: “The whole point of DLA (Disablity Living Allowance) is to provide assistance to minimise as much as possible the detrimental effects to study symptoms have.”
Personally I found it hard to go to lectures due to paranoia, hallucinations and anxiety, and the somnolent medication I was on, so I missed out on a lot of content over the semesters. Disorganised and invasive thoughts messed with my focus, concentration and planning.
Eventually I was sectioned and diagnosed with mental illness. With a learning support worker to help and advocate when I was overwhelmed, I was able to have reasonable adjustments made by the university so I could catch up. Without that help I surely would have lost out on the chance to finish my degree.
The government have insisted that they want universities to fulfill their obligations under the Equality Act, but spokespeople for various organisations have argued these cuts will put an unequivocal burden on disabled students, and will narrow rather than widen access to higher education.