Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Disabled students at risk of missing out on vital support, warn charities

examstressThousands of students with disabilities risk missing out on vital support which enables them to attend university if planned government reforms are carried out, a group of charities has warned.

The charities, including Ambitious about Autism and the National Autistic Society, are urging the government to reconsider its plans to reform the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA). Currently, more than 53,000 students are in receipt of DSA, which allows them to access specialist support and equipment so they can attend university along with their non-disabled peers. But the Government intends to restrict what services the DSA can be used for and favours a narrower definition of specialist support.

If the plans go ahead a postcode lottery of support for disabled students at universities may be created as some universities struggle to find the necessary funding to offer appropriate support, according to the charities.

Currently students can use the DSA to access a variety of support, including non-medial help such as mentors and specialist advisers, but this sort of support may not be covered by the new DSA rules.

Dami Benbow, a youth patron for autism charity Ambitious about Autism who attends the University of Leeds and receives DSA, is worried by the proposed reforms. “Without the DSA I wouldn’t be able to graduate from university. I use it to pay for a specialist mentor who helps me learn how to concentrate and I discuss my essays with. It also pays for an Asperger’s adviser who helps me with my budgeting and socialising. In the summer term of my second year I didn’t have access to DSA and I failed the year and had to retake it, so I know how vital it is.”

Call to halt changes

The charities are calling for an immediate halt to the changes and for a proper period of consultation involving young people currently accessing support through the DSA and universities to be held.

Jolanta Lasota, chief executive of Ambitious about Autism, said: “It is disheartening that decisions about reforming the DSA have been made without any proper consultation; no assessment of the potential impact on disabled students, and no details of how these changes will be implemented.

“We know that with the right support many young people with autism achieve fantastic results at university but the proposed changes may make it more difficult for students with autism to get the support they need. This is at odds with the Government’s repeated arguments that it has high aspirations for disabled young people and is committed to creating an education system that supports disabled students to fulfil their potential.”

Mark Lever, chief executive of the National Autistic Society, added that the charity was “deeply concerned” about the proposals, “which are being imposed by the Government without input from any of the people they will affect.

“The lack of clarity on the changes and how they will be implemented means we can’t assess the impact they will have. It would be reckless to rush ahead with so much at stake. The Government must halt these changes and openly consult on its proposals, before it risks deterring a generation of people with autism from higher education.”

Alison Boulton, chief executive of Natspec – the Association of National Specialist Colleges – emphasised the importance for students to receive specialist support: “Students in specialist colleges receive high quality personalised support that enables them to achieve their aspirations, including going on to university. They will continue to need this support, perhaps in a different form for a different setting, to succeed in higher education. It would be shameful if changes to DSA meant these young people were not supported to achieve their potential. Natspec fully supports the Government’s Fulfilling Potential agenda around improving employment opportunities for disabled people, but it is hard to see how these ill-thought through proposals fit with their ambitions.”

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