What is Disabled Students’ Allowance?
Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) is a non-means tested scheme for UK-based students, which aims to remove barriers to learning for students with disabilities. In the case of vision impairment, it can be used to fund things like mobility training around a campus, specialist equipment like Jaws and assistance in practical sessions.
In 2015 the UK Government announced that it was going to reform DSA, placing greater responsibility on Higher Education (HE) institutions (both practically and financially) for the non-medical support that disabled students receive. The rationale behind this was that it would give greater incentive for HE institutions to remove barriers to learning through inclusive practice, and that this in turn would improve student experience. For example, instead of using DSA funds to pay for staff to convert lecture material for it to be accessible for a student using a screenreader, institutions should ensure that published lecture material is provided to all students in an accessible format. Department for Business Innovation and Skills who had responsibility for this reform also argued that students with disabilities in HE should be able to make greater use of assistive technology, reducing the need for human support.
What does the research evidence say?
In this month’s blog I draw upon evidence from the Longitudinal Transitions Study to discuss how well DSA is working for student’s with vision impairment.
The first thing that I would like to emphasise is that DSA is absolutely essential for many students with vision impairment to be able to succeed on their courses. Many of the young people that we have spoken to simply would not have been able to access their courses if it weren’t for the support that DSA provides. For example, one participant reflected:
“It’s been very, very useful in terms of my equipment and my non-medical help, because without those things I couldn’t go to university really. I wouldn’t be able to access my course without this equipment that I put through DSA because I didn’t have it otherwise.”
However, DSA is not without problems. We recently worked with Thomas Pocklington Trust to produce a research briefing to outline to the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation ways in which the current scheme is not working for students with vision impairment. Some of the key issues identified include:
- DSA assessors lacking the knowledge and skill set to assess students with vision impairment and to make appropriate support recommendations.
- Frequent delays faced by students in receiving their allocated support from DSA, putting them at a massive disadvantage as they make the transition into HE.
- Equipment provided through DSA not fit for intended purpose, even in the case of laptops where students contribute £200 towards its purchase.
- Restrictions in purchasing mainstream equipment such as tablet computers, despite evidence demonstrating their effective role to help overcome challenges associated with vision impairment.
- Students not being able to access the non-medical helper support allocated due to rigid qualification criteria for staff providing specialist support, and a shortage of trained professionals who can meet those criteria.
So, is it fit for purpose?
As outlined earlier, the UK Government asserted that it is possible to reduce the amount of human support that students with disabilities require if they make use of assistive technology. Certainly, our research evidence supports this, with many of the participants giving examples of the ways in which they overcame barriers to learning and participation through using technology. What is concerning, however, is that the amount of money available through DSA to fund technology has not changed (other than a small increase to reflect inflation) and instead there still exists a huge emphasis on human support.
Funding available through Disabled Student Allowance for a full-time course by year
|Specialist equipment||£5,212 for the whole course||£5,529 for the whole course|
|Non-medical helper||£20,725 a year||£21,987 a year|
Depending on the individual and the nature of their vision impairment or the type of course that they are studying, it may be that they will require a large amount of human support. However, the main point of concern I would like to raise is the lack of flexibility in the system. Many of the young people that we have spoken to reported not being to access certain equipment that would have enabled them to work more independently in HE due to the restricted budget for specialist equipment. Additionally, several participants shared their frustration of not being able to access mainstream technology (such as tablet computers) through DSA, despite the fact that (due to the inclusive design of this equipment) they could use it to overcome specific challenges that they faced as a result of their vision impairment.
This lack of flexibility in DSA guidance seems to go against its intended purpose. Department for Education state that the DSA scheme ‘is in place to provide the more specialist aspects of support’ (p23) – i.e. the very specific adjustments that individual requires that can’t be addressed through inclusive practice and reasonable adjustments. The problem being faced by students with vision impairment, is that whilst the role of DSA is supposed to be to address specific needs, the guidelines DSA works to are still very prescriptive. Consequently, students are having difficulties in accessing the type and balance of support that would suit them and their circumstances best.
As noted in our recent briefing, we urge the government to take action to address the challenges that students with vision impairment are facing in accessing the full range of support they need to be able to study and live independently in HE. DSA plays an absolutely vital role in helping students with vision impairment overcome barriers in participation on their courses, but at the same time, its own mechanisms can act as a further barrier to the student.
P.S. If you are a young person with a vision impairment and are applying for university, or even at university already, we have produced some guidance resources here. Also, if you are a professional supporting students with vision impairment in higher education, you can find some guidance resources here.
We would love to hear from young people about their experiences of education, habilitation/mobility support, applying for and using DSA, or any other issue that is important them.
For further information, contact Thomas Pocklington Trust Children and Young People Managers
Tara Chattaway, firstname.lastname@example.org 07854 372420
Laura Hughes, email@example.com 07970 232660