computerThe British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) has raised concerns that proposed changes to disabled student allowances (DSAs) will leave tens of thousands of students finding it increasingly difficult to study for their degrees.

Minister for Universities & Science David Willetts announced last week [April 7] that the burden of provision will switch from directly funded DSAs to higher education institutions, a move that BATA believes will mean only the most severely disabled students will continue to receive support.

BATA chair, Mark McCusker, said: "We all recognise the need to make savings but this new approach means that able students, who happen to be disabled, from September 2015 will be at risk of finding it increasingly difficult to study successfully for degrees with some feeling they can even try and others finding they do less well than they should."

Currently, DSAs cover the purchase of computers, laptops and specialist equipment and software, as well as the provision of support workers and assistance with travel costs. From September 2015, standard specification computers or the warranties and insurance associated with them will be excluded. Grants will only cover a more expensive or higher powered machine if a student needs one because of their disability or complex specific learning difficulties.

Encourage greater independence
In announcing the changes, Willetts said: “We will no longer pay for higher specification and/or higher cost computers simply because of the way in which a course is delivered.

“The current arrangements do not recognise technological advances, increases in use of technology or the introduction of the Equality Act 2010. We will define disability in relation to the definition provided by the Equality Act 2010, for the purposes of receiving DSAs.”

BATA has welcomed the move to make institutions more responsible for ensuring that learning is made more accessible, as this will reduce the need for readers and note takers and encourage greater independence.

But the organisation points out that much more is offered through DSAs than that, with the equipment and software supplied providing a package of IT and assistive technology that starts with individual expert assessment and includes course-long support, training and advice.

Further reading: Editor's blog - It’s time assistive technology played a greater role in the lives of people with learning disabilities 

Without that student-specific approach and professional backup, kit may be underutilised and learning adversely affected whatever the level of disability or impairment according to BATA. They suggest that these changes will mean some disabled students having to make do with general, standard approaches to their specific needs.

BATA’s executive director, Barbara Phillips, added: “Expecting disabled students to sort it all out for themselves, while adjusting to higher education and being stretched academically – and leaving them reliant on well-intentioned but underfunded IT technicians within higher education, untrained on AT [assistive technology] – suggests a fundamental lack of understanding of and empathy for people who have earned our support for having achieved so much already and who, when they've completed their courses, want to contribute to society and lead their own lives.”

Drop of 70% on DSA spending
A 2007 study by the National Audit Office of the retention rate of students found that disabled students receiving DSAs were “much more likely to continue their course than other students self-declaring a disability and, indeed, than students who are not disabled”.

Ian Litterick, BATA council member and founder of supplier Iansyst, said: “I would suggest these cuts could mean a drop of about 70% of DSA equipment by numbers and much the same by amount. If my estimates are correct, the spending on DSA overall will drop from about £136 million in England to £40 million, while spending on equipment will go from £38 million to £3 million or less.”

Philips added that BATA stands ready to join with the National Union of Students, those in higher education institutions, disability campaigners and others to work together to reduce the "devastating impact" that these changes could have.