How can DSA help students with a long-term health condition? 

The number of disabled students enrolling in university are increasing each year, and recent figures reveal that an estimated 1 in 10 students have a known disabilityGirl holding her head in her hands in front of her laptop

Higher education providers are making significant strides in creating an inclusive learning environment, putting universal accessibility at the centre of best practice. However, support remains elusive to many students who are not aware of what is available, how to access it or wary of seeking disability services due to the surrounding stigma. 

This stigma, or lack of understanding, can specifically surround invisible disabilities, such as mental health or chronic conditions.  For example, an article by The Guardian entitled “What more can universities do to support students with long-term illnesses?” Daisy Shaw describes one of the main challenges about having diabetes, described as an “Invisible foe”, at university was telling her flatmates about it. 

If telling your friends about your condition is a barrier to overcome, it is easy to understand how the sometimes difficult-to-access university disability services can be for some students too. As an alternative, Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) is a UK government grant which provides specialised, personalised support to level the playing field and see students through their studies. 

Can your invisible condition make you eligible for DSA?

A recent survey carried out by the Department of Education in January 2019 found that students with long-term health conditions were more likely to be deterred from applying because they were under the impression that DSAs were only awarded if you needed specialist equipment or if you had a physical disability. 

This is not the case. DSA covers a range of disabilities, invisible or otherwise, including chronic conditions such as diabetes, cerebral palsy, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and epilepsy. Medical evidence to support your diagnosis would be required to support any application for additional funding. 

How can DSA help?

DSA can provide a tailored package of technology and non-medical support to see you through your studies and help you to reach your full potential. According to the figures published in January 2019, over three quarters (85%) of students with long-term health condition were satisfied with support recommended to them. 

For those whom chronic pain or fatigue is a factor, recommended support might include ergonomic equipment to improve comfort and enable longer studying periods. Students with chronic conditions may also find that their health fluctuates, and they are not always able to attend class or travel to campus. In this case a laptop or a printer/scanner might be recommended to enable students to work from home. In some cases, DSAs will cover your taxi fare if your condition means you are unable to use public transport. 

Specialist software and equipment may also suit some students’ needs. For example, text-to speech and speech-to-text software can support students who need to avoid glaring screens on days of extreme fatigue or light sensitivity. Students might also find a voice recorder, or apps of the same function, helpful to record lectures and seminars for reviewing later. 

Long-term health conditions can create a diverse set of difficulties, meaning a wide range of support can be recommended under DSA. Non-medical helpers might be provided for one-to-one support, a mini-fridge for storing medication, a white-board for your room, a lightweight keyboard or a wheeled case for carrying your things. In addition, depending on your university or course, you might be eligible for flexibility around absences, deadlines and adjustments to your timetable. 

Flexibility to accommodate change

Some long-term health conditions are volatile in nature and need flexible solutions. If your needs change and you need further equipment or support, you should contact your needs assessor for advice on how to proceed. Should you need a review of needs assessment, you will need to contact Student Finance (or your relevant funding body) to re-apply and be made eligible for a new assessment to re-assess your change in condition or circumstance. 

Support is not one size fits all

The most important thing to understand is that support provided differs person to person, and is based on your specific needs, circumstances and course requirements.  One of the steps to receiving DSA is to attend a study needs assessment, which is a one-on-one session with an assessor who will identify your needs and prepare a report recommending the extra support. The assessment is your opportunity to discuss any challenges you face in education, including the ways in which your course is assessed and taught, and is steered by the amount of information you share.

However, the following experience of Bethany, who has chronic back and joint pain, shared in Scope provides a good insight into not only the type of support you might receive through DSA if you have been made eligible for a long-term condition, but the empowering impact it can have: 

“Without support, university would have been very difficult for me. Every time I attend university this support it sued. I access things like Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) which has provided me with ergonomic equipment and applications on my laptop. This helps me sit at my desk and write an essay; multiple deadlines can be a killer for chronic pain!” 

For more of a first-hand insight into the DSA experience, check out this YouTube video by Georgina, a university student living with POTS, Hypermobility Spectrum Disorder and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. 

Not sure if you are eligible for DSA? You can find out now with our free Higher Education Support Checker!

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