Preparing for your DSA Needs Assessment - Advice from an AbilityNet assessor

This blog has been updated! Originally published 22/05/19. Amended 03/02/22

Disabled Students’ Allowance is a UK Government grant which provides personalised support to disabled students in Higher Education. The extra support is designed to ensure a level playing field for disabled students and can range from study support, specialist equipment, travel allowance and more. 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. 

A recent survey carried out by the Department of Education in January 2019 showed that 59% of students said they would not feel confident about passing their course without DSA. Caroline Butterwick, a visually impaired student with a mental health condition, wrote in the Guardian that “If I had faced studying without my DSAs, I simply wouldn’t have got through my course”.  The benefit of the support DSA provides is largely undisputed. However, according to the recent survey, a dismaying 40% of students who considered applying chose not to because they did not want to go through the assessment process. 

We caught up with one of our AbilityNet assessors to gain some professional insight on the ways students can best prepare for a DSA assessment, and most importantly, recognise it for the personal, positive experience that it is. 

How can technology help students who are disabled? 

Discover our Don't Disable Me training course series that focuses on the lived experiences of people with disabilities including those who face visual, hearing, physical, mental health and neurodiversity barriers in study, at work and day-to-day life.


Meet James, an AbilityNet needs assessor 

Photo of James, AbilityNet needs assessor“The best part about the role is when you can help a student to achieve their goals. Moments where you show a piece of software or suggest a solution and it’s a perfect fit are always good. It’s a very rewarding job.”

James has been an assessor with us at AbilityNet for three years, and prior to this spent four years working in the DSA department at Student Finance. 

“The main thing I would say to any student having a DSA assessment is, first of all, not to worry.”

Your needs assessor is your advocate. Their goal is to put you at ease… 

“Many students come to the assessment having had doctor’s appointments, dyslexia tests and in some cases assessments for other government support. These can often be exhausting, difficult and in some cases upsetting. Students then come to their DSA assessment expecting to be analysed, poked and prodded but it isn’t the case. It’s a structured discussion going through previous support, difficulties experienced and then exploring available support going forward. The whole process is very relaxed.”

“The assessment and the outcomes are essentially led by the student.”

The assessment is your opportunity to discuss any challenges you face in education, and is steered by the amount of information you share. You might consider making a short list of things you struggle with to ensure you ‘tick’ these off during your assessment. 

“The assessor should be asking questions to get details about difficulties but the more the student can provide in terms of what has worked in the past, what currently works and other solutions they’ve tried, the more this can steer the assessor towards a suitable outcome.”

Questions you might consider asking yourself prior to the assessment are: what kind of support did you receive at school? Is there something you’ve struggled with in the past but never had addressed? How is your course going to be assessed? Have you spoken to your university disability adviser about the potential support already available? Do you know anyone who has been to university and can tell you how it differs from school/college?

“…but don’t worry if you’re in the dark due to a recent diagnosis or limited feedback previously, the assessor can talk through ideas that have worked for others to try and come to something that works for you.”

Your assessor will never try to catch you out. The assessor is there to talk through suitable support and ask you questions designed to make it easy for you to discuss your disability. Assessors will also demonstrate the types of software available to you during the assessment, so you can find the one which suits you best. 

You might find it helpful to explore the types of technology out there prior to the assessment, as there is likely to be equipment and software you have not considered before. We have a library of factsheets, popular ones include Dyslexia and Computers and Autism and Computers, but we also cover things like Voice recognition

It is important to remember that DSA is not one size fits all. You might not be recommended the same type of support as somebody else you know…

“The DSA is available to anyone with a disability, so this could be for a person with dyslexia having difficulties with reading (amongst other things) or for a person with chronic back pain, and the support required for one wouldn’t be the same as for the other. In some cases, the DSA guidelines have changed or been tightened up, so one person may have received an item of support a few years ago but this isn’t covered any longer as well.”

Lastly, you don’t have to attend the assessment alone… 

Some students may need to be accompanied to the assessment by a carer or guardian due to their condition, whereas others may simply feel more at ease if there is a familiar face in the room. Assessors generally do not mind a friend or family member accompanying, as long as the student is still able to speak freely.  

However, assessors also appreciate that a student’s condition or disability may make conversation difficult. James explains that “if they’re struggling (possibly due to communication or social interaction difficulties) or the parent/guardian has a good insight into their condition then they can feel free to add to the discussion.”

If you’re ever feeling unsure about the positive impact of having an assessment, check out some past student feedback

“My assessor put me at ease straight away - she understood my condition straight away and knew almost in advance what I would benefit from. She was very quick to respond to all of my many queries. I brought my sister to the assessment with me, she is a medical professional, and she too was very impressed. My assessor made sure I was comfortable and made me a cup of tea upon arrival. She was sensitive to my needs and the questions that she was required to ask throughout."

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

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