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30th November 2014

Disability support at University comes under scrutiny

After decisions were made last week to postpone reforms to the Disability Support Allowance, we scrutinise the support available for disabled students at university

Government plans to “modernise” the Disabled Students Allowances (DSA) were set to come into force for the next academic year 2015/16. However after intense lobbying from the NUS and other campaign groups, the decision was made last week to postpone it until 2016/17.

According to a poll of over 500 disabled students carried out by disability specialists Randstad Student Support, 93 percent of students believe they would be unable to reach their full academic potential without support from DSA.

David Willetts proposed that “HEIs are expected to consider how they deliver information to students and whether strategies can be put in place to reduce the need for support workers and encourage greater independence and autonomy for their students.”

However in response to these plans Randstad concluded that, “universities alone cannot fill the gap.”

Victoria Short, managing director of Randstad Student and Worker Support commented that: “Equality of opportunity is why schemes like DSA exist… Shifting responsibility to universities is much more significant than it sounds. If disabled students must judge universities not by their teaching reputation, but on the likelihood of receiving the necessary support to study, then disabled students face a fundamentally different choice to others.”

Of those surveyed only four per cent believe their university has the resources to provide the same level of support without central government funded DSAs.

In light of this, The Mancunion spoke with a second year English Literature student who feels that: “Dealing with the Disability Support Office (DSO) has proved difficult for me, even though they seem to be a group of willing and helpful people.

“The first assessment meetings are available only on a drop-in basis, but each time I dropped in I was told they were either too busy to see me that day, or that I would face a one- to two-hour wait.

“After two weeks I managed to see someone and was assessed, however I was then informed that all subsequent support meetings were booked up until after Christmas and I would be placed on a waiting list until the New Year.

“While more immediate support is available, these meetings are for a full support plan, such as library and exam support, and support within your department. These measures will not be able to be put in place until Semester Two for me, and for others who have visited the DSO in the past few weeks (I was assessed in Week Five of this term).

“Not only is this problematic for many students, but the long waiting times I feel would cause some to give up, especially if they face mental health issues such as depression.

“A member of staff at the Office of the President of the University informed me that my student’s tuition fees contribute to services at the university that form part of the student experience; however I do not feel that my fees are being best used to aid my experience of University since I will have to wait all this time for a support meeting.

“Yet this is not the only issue—the counselling system within the university also has a long waiting time, and a financial assessment from the DSA generally takes six weeks to come through, and until this money arrives the University cannot put certain measures in place.

“Clearly, the whole system is struggling and needs to be readdressed.”

Rosie Dammers, Wellbeing Officer, said of this issue: “There has been a particularly long waiting list this term because the DSO has experienced staff vacancies, long term sicknesses and maternity leave periods.

“However, this is part of a wider issue which concerns government cuts to higher education which has led to a severe lack of funding available within universities for student support services such as the DSO.

“Disabled students are already discriminated against in higher education and the cuts to the DSA will only make it worse. The University has a responsibility to break down the barriers, and not let the governments’ right-wing discriminative agenda make it harder for disabled students to come to university.

“The university has committed to making up the funding for 2015/16, but no further than that. We need to be campaigning to ensure the university allocates adequate funding to the DSO and does not allow government cuts to effect disabled students on our campus.

“We also need to stand in solidarity with disabled students across the UK, whose university may not be able to afford to plug the gaps, and make the government reverse its plans.

“We have a disabled students campaign group who would welcome new members and support—if you would like to join the campaign please get in touch.”

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