Friday, 6 June 2014

Protect Disabled Students Allowances

Friday 6th June 2014, in addition to being the 70th anniversary of D-Day, is DSA Day! DSA stands for disabled students allowances- funding for equipment and services that are absolutely vital to enable disabled students to reach their potential.

A recent announcement was made proposing huge cuts to DSAs; cuts that threaten to make studying at university far less accessible for some chronically ill/disabled students.

The support I have received through DSAs has been phenomenal. In particular, I have relied heavily on non-medical helpers. Personally I have had the help of note-takers, study support mentors and practical facilitators. My support workers meant that I was disadvantaged as little as possible by my chronic illness. As I became increasingly disabled, the amount of funding available for my support increased up to the maximum NMH allowance- I was incredibly grateful to have that support net there.

Knowing I had DSAs in place when I started Uni gave me the confidence to continue with my education despite my illness. Knowing my Disability Adviser could apply for additional funding for extra support when my condition deteriorated meant I felt able to continue studying even when my health started to decline significantly. Having the constant support of various support workers and the reassurance of my mentor meant that I felt able to cope with the demands of my course, even when I could barely walk and was increasingly unwell.

DSAs were my lifeline. I did, eventually, have to take some time out from Uni because my health deteriorated too far and I needed time to recuperate, but DSAs meant this could be delayed as long as possible and gave me time to come to terms with my illness. Without DSAs I would have no hope of returning to university in September.

In addition to my support workers, I was also supplied with a lot of very helpful equipment. A laptop with useful software has allowed me to work from home, and software enables anything on screen to be read out which really helps on fatigue-heavy days, or light-sensitive days where the screen has to be so dark that it's practically illegible. My ergonomic fully-adjustable chair, laptop stand, ergonomic keyboard and mouse mean that working for extended periods causes as little pain as possible. My laptop is lightweight and I have a lap-tray-desk-thing so that I can work from my bed as needed. My printer allows me to print things out when it is easier to read printed things rather than trying to read on screen, and means I don't have to try to get to a Uni computer when I need to print assignments etc. I have a voice recorder (and permission to use it) which means I can review lectures I struggled to understand when I feel up to it (or as revision if I'm not able to read), and can listen to missed lectures (due to illness/appointments) recorded by friends on my behalf. I doubt a lot of this would be funded under the new rules, yet it's been absolutely essential for me, and really has made the difference between me succeeding and failing.

The government say the support will still be available, it will just be the university's responsibility to fund it. This means that availability of support workers and equipment will vary between universities. Universities will have reason not to actively encourage disabled students to apply because funding their support could be very costly. Students may end up having to take the availability of support into account when choosing between universities, putting them at a disadvantage compared to healthy students.

It just doesn't make sense when the current system works. It's expensive and the government is short of money- I get it- but everyone agrees this support needs to be funded, and it makes more sense for it to be funded centrally than at a university level so that it's fair! The argument that they want students to be more independent is totally redundant- students are reliant on this support, and they need qualified people to reliably provide it. They shouldn't have to rely on the goodwill of others for them to get the education they deserve.

Cutting costs on disability support at university also just doesn't make sense financially long-term. It's possible that fewer young people with disabilities would apply for places at university due to a lack of confidence that they would receive the necessary support- this would be a huge step backwards as a society. The changes would be likely to lead to a much greater drop-out from university due to students having difficulty managing their disability/chronic illness in combination with their studies. This is likely to lead to greater dependence on benefits and a greater likelihood of future unemployment both due to a loss of confidence in their ability and support systems, and less qualifications. Disabled people have a hard enough time avoiding workplace discrimination already, without failed attempts at obtaining a university degree counting against them. Students need reliable support to allow them to progress successfully.

Please, please, please sign this petition to prevent cuts to Disabled Students Allowances: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/63748 and/or contact your MP. I, along with many, many other students with disabilities/chronic illness/specific learning difficulties, am totally reliant on this funding to support me through my degree, as it pays for all my support workers and necessary equipment. As it stands, these cuts shouldn't affect me directly, but I'd hate to think this support wouldn't be available for future students! 

https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/higher-education-student-support-changes-to-disabled-students-allowances-dsa

http://www.nus.org.uk/en/news/bis-announces-plans-to-make-cuts-to-disabled-students-allowance-dsa/

Edited to add: I just sent an email to my MP calling on them to support the National Union of Students' campaign to save Disabled Students' Allowances and to sign Early Day Motion 48 - Changes to Disabled Students' Allowances.

It only took a minute or two using a model letter - please take the time to do the same.

All you have to do is visit http://www.thestudentassembly.org.uk/lobbying-tools.html and put in your postcode - easy as that.


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