In December 2015 the government announced the changes to disabled students allowance (DSA), that will be coming into effect in the 2016-17 academic year. The changes place more responsibility on higher education institutions to provide for disabled students as opposed to the government funding all support.
The government argues that these changes recognise the increasing value of technology and ensure that educational establishments are considering the needs of their disabled students. In short they believe that it will force universities to make adaptations, rather than expecting the government to pay for a student to be supported. These aims may sound positive; however disability rights groups and disabled students have rightly expressed concern that the measures do not adequately protect students with disabilities.
From September 2016 universities will have to pay for all non-medical support that falls under bands 1 and 2 with the exception of a sighted guide. This includes, but is not limited to:
- Library support
- Manual note takers
- Lab assistants
- Practical support workers
DSA will still retain primary responsibility for bands 3 and 4 non-medical support services with the exception of specialist transcription. This is a huge financial burden being placed on universities and I am extremely concerned that many will not be in a position to meet it.
All the support I receive falls under bands 1 and 2, with the exception of specialist transcription. However, as the government has stated, this will also need to be provided by the university. Although the government have promised that students currently in receipt of DSA will not experience any changes next academic year I worry about my final 2 years and any future courses I choose to pursue.
The argument the government presents is that when universities are forced to pick up financial responsibility for the support they are likely to make institutional changes that will minimise the necessity of that support. For example, instead of providing a blind student with a manual note taker the university would ensure that all lecture materials are provided in an accessible format and that lecturers are aware of the needs of that student. However, in reality the solution isn’t that simple.
Firstly, it relies on lecturers taking that responsibility seriously. I have unfortunately had the experience that this isn’t always the case. Even if a lecturer is told what format a disabled student needs materials in, they may still not provide it. This can drastically limit the ability of that student to participate in lectures, particularly when the session relies on the completion of activities.
Secondly, a student may be studying a module that relies on very visual content. If that student is blind, the format of those materials is often irrelevant. A note taker can be an exceptionally valuable resource, taking notes in a lecture that relate to the visual content. For example describing the content of a diagram and how it relates to the lecture.
Disabled students are already being held back by institutions that are unwilling to accommodate their needs. What will happen when much of the support the government currently funds is also placed in the hands of those same universities? Every university will allocate funding in a different way. Some will ask the disabilities office to decide what the student needs, others, like my university will leave it up to the individual faculty to fund.
During my first semester at university I have been surrounded by many people who are educated about my needs, and others who are willing to learn. However I have also faced ignorance and come up against stubborn people who do not want to accommodate me. It is my fear that if a faculty is responsible for funding the support they may not have a good enough understanding of why the student requires the adaptations they do, leading to disabled students failing due to a lack of support.
Minimising the need for support relies on universities putting accessible systems in place, something that currently many are unwilling to do. Even then, there will be some students that will always require additional assistance. In fact, some students may find the use of technology in classrooms problematic, leading to further complications.
My worry is that if a university is expected to pick up the financial responsibility for providing a student with support workers they may start to turn away disabled students. Legally they cannot do this, but if a student declares their disability on the university application they will have no idea why the university has not chosen to take them on as a student. In short, there is no way for disabled students to prove they are being discriminated against in the application process.
I am extremely concerned that these changes may result in fewer disabled people going to university, either because the institution cannot provide for them or does not wish to take on the financial burden. I want to know that I can graduate and still have the chance to move on to further study. I worry that I may be put in a position where I have to pick universities based on word of mouth from other disabled students, because I cannot guarantee that I will have access to the support I need.
I would love to say that I think technology can solve many of the issues I experience. But unfortunately, for me, and other disabled students these issues are often rooted in ignorance and unwillingness for universities to pay out just for one student. Changing the online systems a university uses could open up access for disabled students, but there are institutions that do not see the financial loss as worth it.
I do not believe that these changes will solve these problems. Perhaps, with stronger legal definitions of what institutions must provide they could work, but as things stand right now universities, and disabled students are being put in an uncomfortable and potentially damaging position. Some universities are engaging in practises and using systems that are not accessible to all their students. The government assumes that students will be able to navigate these issues by siting the equalities act. However, if students are currently struggling to do this it could be argued that these changes will make it even harder.
It is all very well saying that a student can use the equalities act to force a university to provide for them, however this could involve taking legal action against the institution. In the meantime the student is still unable to learn. Currently, whilst challenging a university to improve access a student can make use of DSA, enabling them to stay in university. What is going to happen when we can no longer rely on that support?
I briefly spoke on radio 4 about the changes and what they mean for students like myself, you can listen to the interview below.