Thursday, 13 July 2017

Disabled Students Allowances | Everything you need to know

Disabled Students Allowances (DSAs) are bloody brilliant if you're venturing into the world of Higher Education and you have a disability, long-term illness or mental health condition. It is no secret that additional needs often bring with them additional costs, especially when it comes to education. The cost of specialist equipment, software and support can mount up incredibly quickly, especially if you are studying a course that lasts a number of years. That's where Disabled Students Allowances come in. These are non means-tested grants that can help you cover the additional expenses you may incur as a direct result of your disability. As long as you complete your course, you will not need to repay any DSAs you receive.

Who can get it?  
To be eligible for DSAs, you must meet the definition of a disability, as outlined by the Equality Act (2010), and be able to provide evidence of this (I'll cover evidence a little later). In addition, you must also qualify for Student Finance from your home country's funding body. This will be Student Finance Wales, Student Finance England, Student Finance Northern Ireland or the Student Awards Agency for Scotland. Lastly, you will need to be studying or intending to study an eligible course. Eligible courses include:
  • Full and part-time Undergraduate course (e.g., BSc, BA)
  • Distance learning Undergraduate courses
  • Other first Higher Education courses (e.g., HND, Dip HE) 
  • Full and part-time Taught Postgraduate courses (e.g., MSc, MA)
  • Full and part-time Research Postgraduate courses (e.g., MPhil, PhD) 
  • Initial Teacher Training courses 
  • Courses funded through NHS Student Bursaries 

What can you get? 
The best thing about DSAs is that they are awarded on an individual basis depending on your needs. They can help to pay for all kinds of support. There are four allowances that may be available to you:
  • Equipment allowance - this can help to pay for specialist items of equipment that you may need such as a computer, specialist software, printing facilities and any specialist furniture. This allowance will also cover the cost of insurance, extended warranty and repairs for any equipment you receive. 
  • Non-medical support allowance - this can be used to fund any non-medical support you may need, such as readers, note-takers and dyslexia support. It can also help to pay for any non-academic support you may need, such as a personal assistant or a support worker. 
  • General allowance - this can help to pay for any support you need that may not be covered by the other allowances, such as the cost of printing, photocopying and ink cartridges. In some cases it can also be used for extra accommodation costs, and to top up the other allowances if necessary. 
  • Travel allowance - this can be used to cover any additional travel costs you may have as a result of your disability or condition. For example, if you require a taxi to get to your college or university, while most other students can use public transport, you may be able to claim back the differences between the two fares. 

You can find information on the maximum amounts you may receive for each allowance on your student finance provider's website, but the figures are near enough the same for all four major providers. While you may be able to claim back the cost of services such as printing and photocopying, you won't actually see much of the funds yourself. Although you will be required to order any equipment you need, the majority of services and support will be billed directly to your student finance provider.

The application
Applications for DSAs are carried out through your student finance provider, with the process being similar for all four providers. The application features a number of stages, and will take far longer than any application you make for tuition fee or maintenance loans/grants. It is by no means a speedy process, believe me. My first application for DSAs ended up taking several months to complete. So I can't stress enough how important it is to get your application started as soon as you know that you intend to study, to ensure that the right support is in place before you start your course.

Part 1 - The Application Form 
The first part of your application will involve completing a reasonably short form. Application forms can be found on your student finance provider's website. If you are a Northern Irish student, you will need to contact the DSA officer at your local Education Authority before you begin your application form. You can find your local EA here. While the form itself is reasonably short and easy to complete, it isn't the most accessible. Unlike any applications you make for tuition and maintenance support, your application for DSAs cannot be made online. When I made my first application in 2014, the guidance from my student finance provider suggested that the form should be printed out and filled in by hand, something which I am unable to do. In the end, I typed the questions and my answers into a Microsoft Word document, printed that off and signed it by hand. Converting the application form from a PDF into a Word-compatible format and typing into it directly is also an option worth considering if you find that more accessible. Your student finance provider may also be able to send you a large print version of the form, although in my experience 'large print' tends to mean that you'l receive the original form blown up onto A3 paper. It's not ideal, but it's workable.

Along with your application form, you will be asked to supply your student finance provider with medical evidence of your disability or health condition. If you have a physical disability, medical condition or mental health condition, a letter from your GP or another medical professional will usually be fine. I provided a letter from my opthalmologist. If you have a specific learning difficulty, such as dyslexia or dyspraxia, you'll need to provide evidence in the form of a diagnostic assessment from a chartered educational psychologist or specialist teacher. You can find more information on diagnostic assessments here.  Obtaining evidence can be a timely process in itself, especially when it comes to diagnostic assessments. This is something you'll need to factor in when completing your application. I made initial contact with my local ophthalmology department in the May before I started studying, and the letter didn't arrive at my door until the August, meaning I wasn't able to begin my application for DSAs until a month before I was due to start studying. In the end, I didn't receive my equipment until the February of my first year, four months after I'd submitted my application form to Student Finance Wales. To be honest, it was an absolute nightmare.

Part 2 - The Needs Assessment 
Once you've submitted your application form, your student finance provider will assess your eligibility, and will contact you to inform you of their decision. If you are eligible for DSAs your next step will be to contact a DSA-approved Assessment Centre to arrange a Needs Assessment. There are Assessment Centres up and down the UK, so you should have no difficulty in finding one that's reasonably close to where you live or study. You can find your local approved centre here. A Needs Assessment is an informal meeting where you will get the chance to discuss in further detail the extra support and/or equipment you think you'll need while you are studying. I think it's fair to say that the recently introduced Personal Independence Payment application system has put the fear of God into those of us with a disability when it comes to face-to-face 'needs assessments', but don't panic. The meeting is designed to be warm, friendly and informal. Remember, if you are required to book a Needs Assessment, you have already been approved to receive the funding.

Before the assessment, I'd strongly suggest taking the time to sit down and write yourself a good old list. Preparation and planning are key to making sure that your assessment can be completed as easily and as quickly as possible. Take some time to think about what challenges you may face while you're studying, and the different kinds of equipment and support that you think may help you to overcome them. If you have been living with your condition(s) for a while, think about the kind of support you have received previously, at school, college or in other educational settings. If you know of any specific software or brands/models of equipment you will need, be sure to make a note of this. The more detail you can give to your assessor, the better. If for whatever reason you aren't sure of the support you'll need, do not panic. Your assessor will have experience in arranging support for students with a wide spectrum of disabilities and will be able to suggest equipment and services that you may find beneficial depending on your needs. You may even be able to view and try some equipment at the assessment. With that being said, although your assessor will have experience in arranging support for students with disabilities, it is likely that they won't be an expert on your condition. So, again, the more detail you an give them the better. Support is arranged on a case-by-case basis, and what works for you may not work at all for another student with the same condition. If communicating your needs is something you find particularly difficult, you can take someone along with you to give you a hand during the meeting, just make sure you let the Assessment Centre know when you book your appointment.

At the meeting itself, your assessor will chat to you about your disability and the ways it could impact every aspect of your life as a student. Of course, the specifics will largely depend on you and your needs. I discussed my mobility needs and the support I would need to get to/from and around campus, the academic and note-taking support I would need to access teaching sessions, and of course the equipment I would need to help me to complete assignments and access university materials. The assessment can take up to 2 hours, although you can take a break if you need it. I was lucky in that my assessor was incredibly helpful, and between us we managed to put together a great support and equipment package that served me well throughout my 3 years as an undergraduate.

Your assessor will be making notes throughout the meeting, and at the end they will give you a full summary of the equipment and/or support they will be recommending. They will then write a report with the recommendations and pass this onto your student finance provider, who will assess it before writing to you to let you know if DSAs can be used to pay for the extra support you need. They will also give you instructions on how to order any equipment that you have been recommended. Your College or University will then be able to work with you to arrange any non-medical support you need, such as a note-taker or a personal assistant.

If your needs change throughout your time as a student, your support plan can be reviewed and adjusted at any time. Just be sure to keep in contact with the Disability Office at your college or university, and let them know of any changes to your condition or your needs. Remember, they are there to support you and to make sure that you are able to get the most out of your time as a student. So, if something isn't working for you, let someone know. Self-advocacy isn't a skill that comes naturally to everyone, and taking charge of your own support requirements can be incredibly daunting. But it is a skill that you will find incredibly useful, regardless of the nature of your disability or condition.

And to be honest folks that's about it. Just remember to get your application in early, give as much detail as you can in your Needs Assessment and touch base with your college or university often to make sure the support you have in place is working for you.

Good luck!


Thursday, 6 October 2016

6 Things You Should Never Assume About A Blind Person

While it is true that forming and manifesting assumptions is a normal and integral part of day-to-day life, it is also no secret that assumption can breed stigma. I am almost completely blind, and I can say with a massive amount of conviction that having a disability is still something that has a fair amount of stigma attached to it. Don't get me wrong, I was born into the nineties and I feel incredibly lucky to have been born into a generation that has become so liberal. But, as is the case with many minorities, there is still a lot of progress to be made, and a lot of attitudes are still not as they should be.  
  There is no etiquette rule book on how to correctly speak to someone with a disability and the reason for that, quite simply, is that no two people with a disability will view and handle it in the same way. Everyone is different, and two individuals with the exact same disability may approach it in completely different ways. With that being said, when it comes to the blind and visually impaired community I do feel there are some tips to bear in mind that will apply to most of us. Of course, I cannot speak on behalf of every single blind or partially sighted person you will ever meet, but I can speak from experience. Below are six assumptions that I have experienced first-hand on many occasions and in many different contexts. You may want to take them with a pinch of salt, because of course, not every blind or partially sighted person you meet will think as I do, but you may want to loosely bare them in mind if ever you do find yourself in the company of someone like me. 

1. If you approach me in public, do not assume that I know who you are. 
If I had a pound for every time I'd made small talk with an acquaintance in public while having no idea who I was speaking to, I would have a reasonable amount of money in the bank. If you notice that I'm looking a little bit puzzled when you approach me, a gentle reminder of your name would be greatly appreciated. It's probably not because I don't remember you, it's just that I can't see your face, so I don't recognise it. Don't get me wrong, I do get it - instant facial recognition is instinctive to anyone with sight. It comes naturally and without thinking. But sometimes - not all the time, mind you - those of us with poor sight will need a nudge in the right direction when it comes to recognising people. In my case, once I've spent enough time with someone I can usually recognise them easily by their voice. It might take us a bit longer, but we will eventually learn who you are without prompting. 

2. Do not assume that my hearing is supersonic because my vision is poor. 
I am without a doubt as blind as a bat, but unfortunately I was not blessed with a bat's hearing capabilities. There is a limited amount of scientific research that suggests that those who have been blind from birth may have better hearing than their sighted peers, but the blind can not hear the unhearable. As much as we'd like it to be, supersonic hearing isn't in our repertoire of party tricks. We might be able to teach you some basic Braille or tell you how a guide dog helps us get from A to B, but we can't hear a whisper from across the room at a party - sorry! 

3. Do not assume that you cannot ask me about my sight loss and how it affects me. 
While it's common sense that nobody wants to be stopped and quizzed about their disability in the middle of the street, the majority of people do appreciate genuine curiosity, given the right time and place. The only way people will become more aware of disabilities is if they get information about them, and what better way to get it than straight from the horse's mouth? I think in the grand scheme of things people would rather be asked questions about their disability and how it affects them than be the subject of a misinformed judgement. What I mean is that ultimately, disability should not be treated as a taboo subject, and (most) people aren't going to get offended by your genuine curiosity and willingness to learn. I'm sure I once read somewhere that an open mind is the key to a happy mind. 

4. Do not assume that I cannot or will not want to do something because of my visual impairment. 
While it might sound incredibly tactless to invite your blind friend to the cinema or to go out partying in a dark nightclub, in most situations people will tend to appreciate being asked instead of prematurely excluded because of your assumptions about their sight. A lot of activities that may seem completely unsuitable for those with a visual impairment can and have been made more accessible in recent years thanks to the right technology and the right support. For example, most cinemas now show films that include audio description, a great feature that allows those with limited sight to have the visual aspects of a film described to them. A lot of popular music festivals now also feature raised viewing platforms so that those with disabilities can enjoy the event whilst avoiding larger crowds. The point is that there isn't a lot that is completely inaccessible to the blind any more, so if you're in doubt about whether or not I can/will want to do something, please just ask. If I'm not comfortable doing it, I will tell you. 

5. Do not assume that my sight loss limits my intellectual capabilities. 
The fact that I cannot see does not mean that I have trouble communicating and understanding. Unfortunately, this notion is something that myself and many other blind people that I have met experience time and time again - it's something of a running theme. You do not need to speak to me slowly and deliberately, as you might with a young child. If you are serving me at a restaurant or a shop, you do not need to automatically look to whoever I am with to give you my order or pay for my items. Whilst it is very true that sometimes I do require help some help, or for things to be done in a different way, but I do not necessarily need other people to speak and act on my behalf in every situation. I can understand and communicate with you just as your sighted peers do, even if I cannot see you. Don't get me wrong, I don't believe these behaviours are often done out of malice. In most situations, I do believe that people have the best intentions. But sometimes the best intentions are born from the wrong, or an outdated way of thinking. 

6. Do not assume that my life is heavily burdened by my visual impairment. 
One of the worst things you can offer someone with a visual impairment - or any disability for that matter - is pity. Empathy and understanding are appreciated and will be accepted by the bucketload, but pity isn't needed. While it is true that having any disability comes with it's own set of challenges, that disability is not the centrepiece of someone's existence, and nobody should be defined by the challenges they face. There are a lot of things that I find difficult, but things could be a lot worse for me and my life really isn't made that difficult by the fact that I can't see. There are several organisations and charities that provide help and support to those with a visual impairment, such as the RNIB and Guide Dogs for the Blind. Advances in technology also mean that day-to-day things that may have been hard to access 10 years ago are now almost as easily access by the blind as they are by the sighted. A great example of this can be seen in banking. In 2011, RNIB launched their 'Make Money Talk' campaign, encouraging high street banks and building societies to introduce 'talking' ATMs. These have a headphone socket and allow you to receive spoken instructions on withdrawing money and using other ATM services. Since 2011, several popular banks have committed to the initiative, including Barclays, Santander and Lloyds. 98% of Barclays ATMs now have this audio feature. So don't worry. Things are nowhere near as accessible as they need to be for the blind and partially sighted population, and there is still a huge amount of progress to be made. But we are heading in the right direction, and although we still face a lot of challenges, we're getting better at overcoming them. 

Monday, 26 September 2016

Studying with Sight Loss | Your First Year At University

Whether you've got 20/20 vision or absolutely none at all, there is no doubt that starting university is a huge deal. Preparing can be stressful, the thought of moving can be daunting, and the uncertainty of what's to come can leave any potential student feeling a little out of their depth. When I started my degree in 2014 I remember feeling an even split of nervousness and excitement for the new chapter I was embarking on.
  I'm almost completely blind, and like any student with additional needs my journey through secondary school and Further Education did not always run smoothly, as additional needs inevitably tend to mean additional challenges. Of course, I'd spent enough time in education to know that university would be no different and would come with its own set of challenges. I'm about to enter the final year of my degree now, and although the past two years haven't been disastrous, there were definitely some teething issues in my first year, and some situations I wish I'd handled differently. So with that in mind, I've put together some tips to bare in mind if you or someone you know is starting university with sight loss. I'm not under the impression that everyone's experience will  mirror mine, as everyone's needs are unique and affect them differently. But I do think there are a few things worth bearing in mind that should make your transition into university at least a little bit smoother, regardless of how much sight you have.

Making yourself and your needs known.  
You will be given a lot of help and support throughout your time at university, but you will need to be proactive in asking for it and arranging for it to be put into place. Most universities run on a significantly larger scale to schools and colleges, so it's important that you make the effort to make yourself known to the right people as soon as you can. I was the only student at my secondary school with a serious sight problem, and the local college I attended had only worked with a handful of blind students in recent years. Needless to say I was quite accustomed to a smaller-scale setup where the majority of people didn't need to be told that I had a disability and what my needs were. Starting university reminded me that in the larger scheme of things I am a very small fish in a very big pond. Having to be proactive and independent in explaining your needs in a professional environment can seem like an intimidating prospect to begin with, but it an important skill that will develop with practice.
  Your key point of support at university will be the Disability Office. This will usually be located within your university's Student Services department. The Disability Office will usually be responsible for arranging the majority of your support, including note-taking and learning support, mobility support and examination adjustments. Someone from the Disability Office will usually get in touch with you directly before your course's start date to discuss your needs beforehand. My firm choice university contacted me after I'd received my results in August to discuss my needs, but my insurance choice university invited me to an interview before even making me an offer. Every university has their own procedure for assessing the needs of students with additional needs. A lot of the support you receive will be funded through your Disabled Students Allowance, so it is very important that you have completed the necessary steps to apply for this in advance of your course's start date. Any delay in applying for funding can mean a delay in your support being put into place.
  Whether it comes to living support, mobility support or note-taking, if there is any part of your support that isn't working for you or you feel needs to be adjusted, you will have to speak up about it. At university you will have no Statement of Special Educational Needs and you won't have a SENCO closely overlooking your progress. In my experience I've found that the majority of teething issues related to support can usually be resolved quickly and easily through email or over the phone. When it comes to university - and to most things - the absolute worst thing you can do if you have any issues is suffer in silence, so if you do find you have any issues, don't let them fester. You can contact the Disability Office at point during your time at university for support with your needs, and you must make sure to contact them if you find that your needs change, or if what's currently in place isn't working for you.
  As well as the Disability Office, you'll also need to make contact with your university's Examinations Office. They will be responsible for putting in place any additional or alternative arrangements that you require for academic examinations. They will work closely with the Disability Office and your respective academic department to make sure everything is in place well in advance of your first set of exams, and may request that you come in for a meeting to discuss your requirements. Make sure you let them know what your requirements have been for examinations you have sat previously. These could include extra time, the use of a reader/scribe and modified question papers. Although your university will aim to match these measures, you may find that the nature of your course and the type of examinations you will be sitting cause your examination requirements to change. You can contact the Examinations Office at any time if you feel that your examination requirements have changed, and they will do their best to accommodate you.
  Lastly, in terms of accessing support, I'd also strongly suggest getting in touch with each of your lecturers to introduce yourself and let them know that you have a sight problem. This can usually be done quickly and easily by mass email, and shouldn't be too difficult a task. Even if you don't have a lot of teaching hours in your timetable, of if your lecturers change frequently, it's still important to make yourself known. Let your lecturers know of any minor adjustments you require - such as using a specific coloured pen on a whiteboard. Any requirements you have for the adjustment of lecture materials - PowerPoint presentations, handouts and so on - will usually be handled through the Disability Office, so you shouldn't need to discuss these with individual lecturers. 

Mobility and orientation.  
Something you should prioritise as early as possible is getting to know your surroundings. It goes without saying that this is especially important if you're attending a university away from home and/or if your sight is particularly limited. Your mobility support will usually be arranged by the Disability Office, and will be given to you either by a trained mobility officer or another trained member of university support staff. Your mobility and orientation support will be funded through your Disabled Students Allowance, so, as mentioned earlier, it's vital that this is in place by the time you are due to start your course. 
  It goes without saying that the level and type of orientation support you will need will of course depend on you and your needs. Take some time to think about the routes and locations you'll need to learn, and talk your ideas through with whoever is supporting you during your orientation. Remember, if you are attending a university away from  your home city, you'll naturally have more routes and locations to learn. As well as the locations of your lectures and other classes you'll need to know the location of local shops, GP and dental facilities and public transport routes. Universities can be large and are often spread out over multiple campus', so make sure you take full advantage of the full range of mobility support and training that is offered to you. Although your university will aim to get your orientated during your induction period, your DSA should provide continuing mobility support if you need it. You can also ask for additional support at any point if you find that the routes and locations you need to know change. It's unlikely that your lectures and classes will be held in the same rooms for three consecutive years, but the Disability Office will be on hand to offer support as and when you need it. 

3. Meeting people and joining societies
The thing that I found the most difficult during my first year at university was socialising. While it's true that having a visual impairment should in no way stop you from socialising and behaving just as any other Fresher would, it's no secret that it can. Making friends isn't a skill that comes naturally to everyone, and if you fall into a habit of being isolated whilst at university, that habit can be very difficult to break. In my experience, the easiest way to socialise is to get your foot in the door early. During your Induction/Fresher's period, the majority of the people around you will be in a similar position to yourself - on a new course in a potentially new city. The only difference is that the majority of your peers will be facing these experiences without a visual impairment.
  Clubs and societies are a fantastic way of meeting new people and making friends. During your welcome period your university will organise a Fresher's Fayre, where you will be able to browse the different societies that are on offer. Most universities will have a society to suit virtually everyone, with activities from sport to showchoir. The Disability Office will be able to arrange for someone to accompany you around the Fresher's Fayre if you need some extra support. Should you choose to join a society, both your Students' Union and the Disability Office will be able to give you any support that you need to participate fully in the activities that your chosen society/s make available to you. But remember, you cannot assume that the people around you will know what your needs are, so if you require support in joining and participating in societies, you will need to reach out and ask for it.
  Of course societies and clubs aren't the only way to meet new people at university. If you choose to live in student accommodation, you will probably be living in a house or halls of residence with complete strangers. You will also meet new people on your course when your timetable begins. Your university and your Students' Union will organise a variety of icebreaker events throughout your Fresher's period, both with and without alcohol. It's no secret that clubbing and partying is a staple activity associated with student life, but when it comes to those of us with a sight problem it can become something of an elephant in the room. Clubbing can be a great way to mingle and meet people, but it is definitely not the beginning and the end of student life. If you aren't one for staggering around the streets on a Saturday, that is absolutely fine. With that being said, if you meet some people that you are comfortable with and fancy going out on the town, do it. If you want to get legless and steal some traffic cones, do not let the fact that you can't see stop you. Just make sure that you take some common-sense precautions to keep yourself safe. Start by letting the people you're going out with exactly what your needs are. If you need constant sighted guidance or someone to read the drinks menu out to you, tell the people that you're with. Try to avoid downplaying or sugar-coating what your needs are - people can only help and support you if they know how to. Also make sure to take the mobile numbers of the group you plan on going out with, as well as the contact number for a reliable taxi service. You may also want to take some time during daylight hours to visit some of the popular clubs and bars in your area. By doing this you'll have the opportunity to learn the layout of the venue when it's quieter and lighter. Remember, the friends you make during your Fresher's Week may not be the same friends that you walk out of your graduation with in three years' time. You'll have many opportunities to meet people from all different walks of life over the next three years and not all friendship blossoms will bloom into flowers.

  So that's it - my top tips on starting university with a sight condition. You're about to begin an incredible new chapter in your journey. It will be full of highs and lows, and you may find that you walk out of your university in three years' time as a completely different person to when you started. Enjoy it, work hard and embrace the many new opportunities you will be given. Remember, if you need help, ask for it. The absolute worst thing you can do in a crisis is suffer in silence, and there will always be someone on hand to either support you or signpost you to someone who can. 
© Blind & Boujee

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