Being labelled as disabled (or not) at university

The Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA), is a UK Government grant which provides support to disabled students in higher education, playing a huge role in breaking down barriers and levelling the playing field. 

A recent survey carried out by the Department of Education in January 2019 showed that over half (59%) of students said they would not feel confident about passing their course without DSA. However, many students are missing out because they are either reluctant to disclose their disability, do not identify as being disabled or are simply unaware of what is available to help them. 

Just as support is not one size fits all, being disabled means different things to different people. In this piece we unpack some of the different barriers students face when seeking support in higher education. 

“…but I’m not disabled”Male teacher stood with back to class writing on a blackboard

39% of surveyed students who considered but did not apply for DSA revealed they did not think they were eligible, many were under the impression you are only eligible for DSA if you have a visible, physical disability.

Perhaps due to this traditional view of disability, there is a worrying pattern of students not seeking out support or finding out about DSA until they reach a crisis point in their course. An estimated 25% of all students assessed are in their second year or above with a significant number of them seeking support for mental health conditions often linked with an undeclared diagnosis of a condition such as dyslexia. 

 “….but I’m not disabled enough”

There is also evidence to suggest a case of students recognising they need extra support, but not considering themselves “sufficiently” disabled. The DfE survey found many students believed you were only eligible for DSA if you required specialist software or equipment.  

Maddie, who received DSA for anxiety, told AbilityNet that “I kind of felt like I wasn’t eligible for what I was about to be given, but she (the assessor) reassured me that what I was feeling was necessary for me to get all this extra help”. Find out how DSA can help students with mental health conditions.

To other students the label can be an unwanted inauguration into a group they have never felt the challenges of. They do not consider their condition to have a significant enough impact on their life to be labelled a disability. As part of a 2016 survey, one student stated “I have a condition. I see a disability as something that holds you back.” 

Stigma Man studying on his own wearing headphones and watching computer screen

Perceived stigma surrounding disability plays a big part in preventing students from disclosing their disability or applying for DSA. Student Megan stated: “from my experience, if you admit that you have a disability, people treat you differently."

A post-graduate with a mental health condition states that “people sometimes think it’s in your head, sometimes you’re not sure yourself why you’re feeling like this and I just decided that it was too difficult to do.” Self-doubt, a lack of understanding and the pressure to enjoy university can result in students ignoring symptoms and failing to seek support. 

Inclusive practice in higher education should create equal opportunities for everyone, anticipate the diverse needs of all students and enable them to worry less about seeming different to others. Gemma Long, who received her autism diagnosis after graduation, tells the Guardian that “making specialist software and training generally available, rather than confining it to disabled students, makes it more widely known, as well as removes stigma.” 

Social consequencesGroup of three students sat at a wooden table studying

The transition into university can be daunting, as can making new friends.  Many disabled students consider their disability to be a barrier to them fitting in, leading them to reject additional support. Whilst they may be comfortable with disclosing their disability to their peers, highlighting the same in a lecture theatre is a very different prospect. 

One student revealed in the DfE survey that they did not take up the offer of a note-taker by their university as they would rather not have an adult sitting next to them in lectures. Now, thanks to accessible digitised university resources, free note-taking apps such as Microsoft OneNote and Google Docs and even transcription apps such as Otter Notes students are afforded more independence and control over their learning without the need to disclose. 

Some students forego DSA recommended software/equipment in lectures because “people might say, oh she has a disability so she will get this and that for free.” More awareness of the benefits and availability of low-cost assistive technology to students of all abilities would help to create an inclusive environment wherein disabled students do not feel like they are receiving ‘special treatment’.

Academic discrimination

The social model of disability is being implemented across more and more HEIs as the focus shifts from support for individual impairment to anticipatory, universal considerations. However, the medical model of disability, the attitude that disabled people need to adapt to fit in with ‘normal’ expectations, can still be found in the long-standing academic tradition. 

Student Miriam says that “most of the lecturers are great but I have had the odd one that although nothing has been said, I felt at a disadvantage. I have always got the impression they were not seeing past my disability. They were seeing my disability as a bar to achieving things.” 

Some lecturers forego inclusive practice as they are not familiar with the technology or terminology surrounding some disabilities. The ‘fear of getting it wrong’ ends up hindering dialogue with students and discouraging lecturers from diversifying teaching or assessment methods to suit specific needs.

So, what can I do?

The UK Equality Act requires all institutions to offer reasonable adjustments to ensure disabled people are not excluded. 

Disabled Students’ Allowance recommends support based entirely on your individual needs and preferences, discussed in a one-to-one DSA Needs Assessment. It is completely confidential and there is no requirement to disclose your disability to your university in order to receive support. You can find out if you are eligible now with our free HE Support Checker.

Companies such as Microsoft, Apple and Google all now recognise the importance of accessible by design and their products include a wide range of accessibility features. There are also free and accessible apps for helping you to overcome common barriers and get the most from your time at university.