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!







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