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Why the Disabled Students Allowance does need to change

The Government has just confirmed major cuts to the Disabled Students Allowance, making it the responsibility of universities to support many aspects of their disabled students’ study.

As a dyslexic/dyspraxic student who received much needed support for all three of my degrees, I can speak to how important DSA is in helping make higher education more accessible. But I can also speak to how egregiously and systematically it has been misused and exploited at huge cost to the tax payer.

In every degree, I had to go for an assessment of my needs – each costing over £300, not to mention the cost to me of travel when the assessment wasn’t on campus or where I wasn’t living near the uni. The real problem wasn’t the need to jump through expensive hoops but the fact that my reports always recommended things that I didn’t need or want – and which cost at least 50% more than what I did want and need. Each time I lobbied my Local Education Authority directly, showing that the equipment that would be most beneficial to me was available through a reputable retailer (not the ‘specialist company’ that the assessor had recommended) at significantly less cost. In each case, I substantially upped the specs of the computer I ended up with – meaning I had a better machine that lasted for longer because it was more powerful and could run the newer software available as time passed.

For instance, during my first degree my LEA agreed that having a big monitor would help me deal with databases and grids as I could use a large font and still see large chunks of data and write long calculations. I also nearly doubled my RAM and hard-drive capacity as well as getting a better processor. My needs-assessor was furious and complained that I needed to use the ‘recommended supplier’ who would come and set it all up for me and make sure I could use it all. But the LEA sided with me and gave me the machine I asked for. It was perfect and made a huge difference. I lasted me through my degree and into the start of my Masters, until I could access DSA again.

During my PhD, the assessor listened a bit more but also ‘sold’ me on the idea of a small hand-held scanner that I could use to scan text from books so I didn’t have to write notes (an excrutiatingly slow and inaccurate process for me as my spelling is atrocious and my handwriting is worse). What they didn’t say was that the scanner couldn’t deal with most type-faces, quailed at italics and needed to be wielded with coordination not possible for a dyspraxic to muster. It was an expensive waste of money and my time trying my best to make this ‘miracle solution’ do what had been promised – and it was a huge blow to my confidence when I realised that there wasn’t a magic fix to my note-writing problems after all.

And that’s apart from the fact that at every assessment the assessors pretty much insisted that I take MindMapping software because ‘they were positive it would be brilliant once I tried it’. I never did because I was so busy struggling – as most dyslexics do – to keep up with my reading and attempts to take notes. Since mindmapping has never done anything for me on paper, I couldn’t see why doing it on the computer would be better so why would I spend invaluable reading time on another ‘snake oil’ solution?

Yes, students need help identifying the software, hardware and other forms of assistance that could be useful for them. There’s a lot out there and it changes all the time: a chat with an expert is important. But surely it could be a chat with a well-informed member of student-support. In that, I agree about passing the responsibility to universities.

And I also agree that there should be a cap on what is available – especially for students who don’t have a physical disability. When there is a cap, you have to prioritise what is really likely to help enough to make the money worthwhile… And, in that context, students are often the best placed to know what is really going to work for them, at least after a chat with well-informed support staff.

But I also think that the reduced, capped amount available to disabled students should come from the Government and not universities because, if it comes from universities, then students will end up being denied access to diagnostic tests – expensive in their own right – that would give them access to DSA funds.

Universities screen to determine if someone is likely to be dyslexic and so whether it is worth sending them for formal diagnosis. Screening tests are – at VERY best – 90% accurate and it’s often a lot less. I know this as a fact because I was project leader of a Cambridge University research unit examining how effective screening tests are for people with high IQs – and the answer is ‘not effective at all’. Things have improved, but they’d have to given that the statistics behind these tests showed they were actually better at identifying which students were in further education and which were in higher education than which were at identifying which were dyslexic and which weren’t. And that was the market leader screening test. If universities have to pay out for support as well as diagnosis, then the bar will be raised on how ‘dyslexic’ you need come out as on these not-very-reliable screening tests before you’re sent for diagnosis and, thus, more people who need and have a right to support will be denied it.

So, yes, there has been massive misuse of public money, but there must be support for disabled students. And let’s not forget that they are NOT the people who’ve been gaming the system. It’s the people who’re meant to be helping them who are at fault. Let’s take it out on them by cutting their jobs – and, thus, their access to public money – and put more power in the hands of students to decide where a smaller, capped amount of money would best be spent. I expect students would benefit more, despite there being less money available to them. I know that I did when I got the lower-cost support I knew would help me the most and not all the rest of the rubbish that other people insisted would help me but, if anything, complicated my life by diverting time into ‘solutions’ that were never going to solve anything for me.

So yes to reform, caps and giving some more responsibility to universities, but no for making almost all costs the responsibility of universities. It won’t work and it will penalise disabled students. We need to give them a system that does the most in a cost-effective way. But if we can penalise those who’ve been misusing the system in the process, and only them, that bit gets a big thumbs up from me.