DSA changes bring uncertainty for disabled students

AbilityNet helps students in all stages of educationAbilityNet is concerned that disabled students face greater uncertainty about their ongoing studies, following the government’s recent announcement that it will restructure Disabled Students Allowances (DSAs) from 2016/17. Many disabled students rely on DSAs to level the playing field in higher education but the new plans will affect many thousands of students and put a question mark over the future of the existing scheme.

Nigel Lewis, chief executive of AbilityNet said:

“We recognise the need for the Government to spend tax-payer’s money wisely and gain the greatest return. However, these are substantial changes and we are concerned that any dissipation of support will directly have a direct impact on disabled students' success in higher education, which in turn will impact their future employment opportunities.

“It is essential that our education system is available to everyone and that there is fairness across the sector. The new plans shift the emphasis onto the individual higher education institutions, which may create a postcode lottery for disabled students if we are not careful.”

AbilityNet is a national provider of DSA assessments and works very closely with disabled students and universities across seven centres in the UK to ensure the students receive the assessment, support and adjustments they need. The changes place a greater emphasis on higher education institutions providing increased support to students under the Equality Act 2010.

Many students who have been able to claim DSAs will now not be eligible for government funding, but Student Finance will have a process for considering exceptional circumstances and awarding DSA funding where it would not ordinarily be available.

Nigel Lewis continues:

“We hope to strengthen our partnerships with the colleges and universities that our assessment centres support to ensure that there is a fair provision for disabled students wherever they choose to study.”

AbilityNet's DSA Claim It! Campaign continues

AbilityNet is running a campaign to encourage disabled students to claim their DSA during this academic year. This announcement makes it more important than ever that everyone who is eligoble claims the extra support they are enttiled to. For more information on how to support the campaign visit: www.abilitynet.org.uk/claimitdsa

For further information about this story please contact Catherine Grinyer on 07713 248387 or email: press.office@abilitynet.org.uk

AbilityNet and Clear Talents win diversity awards

AbilityNet and Clear Talents have been recognised for their commitment to engaging with disabled jobseekers at this year’s Recruitment Industry Disability Industry (RIDI) Awards. The partnership beat off stiff competition to take home the awards for three categories: Employers Choice, Technology for Inclusion and Reasonable Adjustments in Recruitment.

AbilityNet was a winner in at this year's RIDI AwardsNow in their second year, the RIDI Awards celebrate progress and recognise the success of organisations that are making headway in increasing the inclusion of disabled professionals. The rigorous judging process was conducted by a panel, which included senior representatives from organisations including E.ON, Eversheds, the Civil Service and HMRC. 

Commenting on the win, Dennis Dearden, Sales & Marketing Director, AbilityNet said:

“We are delighted to win the RIDI Awards for Employers Choice, Technology for Inclusion and Reasonable Adjustments in Recruitment. Our partnership with Clear Talents is based on a mutual vision for using accessible technology to promote the greater inclusion of disabled people in employment.

"Together we have developed a tool that de-mystifies reasonable adjustments for recruiters and employers and boosts the confidence of disabled job-seekers in sharing relevant information at every stage of the process."

Congratulating the partnership of AbilityNet and Clear Talents on scooping three awards, Kate Headley, Chair of RIDI’s judging panel and Development Director at The Clear Company, commented: 

“The standard and volume of entries this year was absolutely phenomenal. I think I speak for the entire panel when I say that picking winners from the broad array of quality submissions was incredibly difficult and caused much deliberation.

"Those that took home awards should be suitably proud of their efforts and the three-times winning partnership of AbilityNet and Clear Talents demonstrated real progress in removing barriers to the employment of disabled people. I’m sure that their example will inspire other organisations to focus on their own strategies to boost the diversity of talent.”

View a full list of winners on the Ridi Awards website.

ClearTalentsOnDemand provides a free personalised report identifying Reasonable Adjustments.

Back to the Future: enabling technology 30 years on

Thirty years ago Marty McFly travelled ‘Back to the Future’ in the 1985 classic film and encountered a world of futuristic technology. The exact date he travelled back, 21 October 2015 has just passed, so I thought it would look at how much of what Marty McFly and Doc encountered in the film has come true, and whether or not there is a similar technology benefitting disabled people today.

Back to the Future? It's 2015!Flat screen TVs

Obviously these are everywhere nowadays in all sizes and in high definition and 3D. While displaying a better picture and being more aesthetically pleasing than the old-style of TV, flat screens are particularly useful for those with a visual impairment who need larger screens for scale.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

In the film McFly and his pals talked to different household devices. Today we have Siri and Cortana and we can ‘ask Google’ to complete various tasks for us. Voice-activated technology is very useful for disabled people, particularly those with a visual impairment or conditions such as arthritis.

Thumbprint door locks on the front door to the house.

We have Touch ID on our smartphones and face recognition software on Facebook photos. Biometric technology really helps people with learning disabilities easily unlock or authorise access, when otherwise they would need to deal with inaccessible CAPTCHAs or remember long, complicated passwords.


Doc says in the film that he thinks Biff’s brain implants have gone wrong. Today we have bionic arms controlled by thoughts, bionic exoskeletons and even artificial skin covering artificial limbs that can send sense signals to the brain.

Holograms, shown in the “Jaws 19” advert

We have Microsoft’s HoloLens device which creates high-definition holograms, which could be helpful for people with learning disabilities, providing a clear visual representation. There are also many different augmented reality goggles. For blind and visually impaired people this technology can help to give us directions in our field of view, or it can enable surgeons perform better operations.

Flying cars

Not quite a reality but the TF-X is in development, which is pretty close and estimated to only take around 10 years to go into production. We do have autonomous cars (cars that drive themselves), which offer obvious benefits for disabled people who for whatever reason cannot drive a standard manually operated car even with adaptations.

Hover boards

Finally I couldn’t resist mentioning the hover boards. The most iconic and memorable technology in ‘Back to the Future’, they are not actually currently in production anywhere, although there are a couple of prototypes doing the rounds. There’s not really an assistive technology angle to a hover board that I can think of, but perhaps once they are here, there will be a life-changing benefit for someone.

In tribute to one of my favourite films, I’ll end with the wise words of Marty McFly, “I guess you guys aren't ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it.”

How Boyzone's Shane uses voice control to overcome his Dyslexia

Shane Lynch of Boyzone uses the voice controls built into his phone so that he can join the world of social media. As he explains in our interview with him, his dyslexia means he struggles with reading and writing, so for a long time had shied away from Twitter, facebook or any other social media platform. But now, with the right technology in his hands, he's sending and receiving messages with family, friends and fans. 

Shane is sharing his story to show support for our DSA Claim It Campaign - raising awareness of the extra funding that UK students can claim to help them succeed in education.

Lots of people don't know they are eligible for Disabled Students' Allowances, which can be worth thousands of pounds in extra support. They may not think of themselves as disabled, or don't realise the impact that things like voice control can have on their ability to study and achive their full potential. As Shane says, it can change your life!

Use our website to find out more about who is eligible claim DSA, what they can claim and how to start the process.

Five reasons students don't claim DSA funding

Find out more about Disabled Students' Allowances

Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) can pay for extra help when you’re on a UK higher education course. If you’re eligible it can be worth thousands of pounds to cover the cost of specialist hardware and software, as well as various learning support such as having a personal helper in lectures, extra time in exams or travelling expenses. 

You don’t have to be registered disabled to claim

DSAs can support students with an impairment or condition which affects their ability to complete their studies. It covers all sorts of conditions, from ADHD and dyslexia to Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Migraines and Tinnitus, you can claim it any time on your course and you don’t have to pay it back - it’s a grant not a loan.

DSAs can make the difference between success and failure in higher education, so why do figures from 2013/14 suggest that at least 50% of the people who are eligible for DSAs don’t claim?

"I’ve never heard of them"

Many people don’t know what DSAs are, who is eligible or how to claim. Ideally you’ll hear about them during your University application process, or from advisers in your school or college, but many of them haven't heard of it eiether, or don't realise who can claim, so many people who are eligible just don’t know it’s there. 

“But I’m not disabled..."

Some people may think you need to be in a wheelchair to be disabled, or they don’t realise that DSAs can cover conditions such as dyslexia or IBS. They don’t think of themself as disabled, so don’t connect with the name.

"Other people are more deserving than me"

Some may feel that other people are far more deserving, so don’t claim. However the support available is not a set/guaranteed amount for each person, and is tailored to the individual

“How is a laptop or extra gadgets going to help me?"

DSAs often fund computer equipment or software, but for many people it isn't the equipment that makes the big difference. Someone with dyslexia may benefit from extra time in exams, or someone with a chronic back condition may need small changes to their timetable, or permission to avoid carrying heavy books around. The extra support and changes to your study patterns can have a huge impact on your ability to achieve your full potential.

"I’m too embarrassed to ask for help"

Many people will worry that asking for DSAs will reveal a personal issue they want to keep to themselves. The process for DSA is entirely confidential and no personal details need to be revealed to the University if you do not wish.

Asking for help can be tough, or seen as sign of weakness. It may mean that you have to admit to difficulties that have dogged you for many years. The big plus is that if you get DSAs you will finally get the extra help you need and can really begin to shine.

What next?

Find out more on our site about who is eligible and how to apply 

Upgrade Your World with My Computer My Way

AbilityNet is using a grant from Microsoft to upgrade our free and popular accessibility tool My Computer My Way. The new version will make it easier than ever to find details of the accessibility settings and other adjustments that can change the lives of disabled people. It will include details of the new Windows 10 operating system and provide more dynamic content, enhanced functionality and better usability.

Adjust Your Computer. Change Your LifeMy Computer My Way is an online tool that provides free information and support for disabled people on how to use their computers, laptops and smartphones. In the last 12 monthsit has been used by almost half a million people worldwide with advice and guidance on the built-in accessibility options offered by Windows and other operating systems.

Robin Christopherson, Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet said:

"Last year over 200,000 Windows 7 and 8 users accessed My Computer My Way guides on topics such as how to use their keyboard to control their mouse pointer, or how to make it appear larger on the screen. These are among our most frequently asked questions at AbilityNet and our job is to make sure that disabled people can find out how to use their computer in a way that works for them.”

Microsoft is promoting AbilityNet's work as part of its UpgradeYourWorld initiative#UpgradeYourWorld

As part of the #upgradeyourworld campaign, AbilityNet has been awarded a grant of £30K by Microsoft to upgrade the My Computer My Way portal to support the accessibility features in Windows 10. Robin went on to say:

"This generous support not only allows us to expand the reach of My Computer My Way to include the exciting new features in Windows 10, but also enables us to update information across all areas (including Windows Mobile, Android, iOS and Mac) and to enhance and improve the design and overall user-experience no matter what device or screen size they use."

My Computer My Way was originally developed ten years ago with the support of Microsoft to provide older and disabled people with easy to follow instructions on how to make their computers easier to use.

Try it now at www.mycomputermyway.com

How can disabled people get the most from their technology?

Technology comes in all shapes and sizesComputers and the internet are possibly two of the greatest inventions of our time. They have transformed our daily lives, at home, at work and now even when we are on the move. For disabled people being able to get online opens up a world of possibilities for completing everyday tasks, enjoying games or films, working and connecting with friends and family.

Not everyone is online yet, and not everyone owns a computer or mobile device, though the rate of ownership is growing. According to Ofcom 66% of adults in the UK own a smartphone and 80% of adults have fixed or mobile broadband. Whether you are one of the majority of “connected” adults or not, not everyone knows how to use them to best effect.

Where's the instruction manual?

Most tablet devices don’t even come with an instruction manual, they are meant to be intuitive to use. Older and disabled people can find it difficult to know where to start. To get your device to accommodate your specific access requirements you have to know where to find the settings, what to choose and which apps might help. Giving people the confidence, skills and training to use their computer is an important part of what we do everyday.

Getting up-skilled for IT at home

Maxine has developed her IT skills and is now writing a recipe bookMaxine Turkington lost most of her sight some 30 years ago due to a type of inherited macular dystrophy. 

After her husband died she called in AbilityNet’s IT Can Help team to come to her home so she could develop the IT skills she needed to live independently.

Maxine said:  “I was very reliant on Syd for everything computer related, but with my IT Can Help volunteer, Paul, I have discovered a whole new world.”

Independence through voice recognition

Northumberland-based Belinda Sidebotham is a tetraplegic – the result of a motorbike accident 35 years ago when she was only 17 years old.  She is paralysed from the chest down, uses an electric wheelchair and has only very limited use of her arms. 

When she first met Fred Godfrey, her IT Can Help volunteer in 2009, she was using her computer courtesy of a stick attached to her hand with a Velcro band – a device which had been created for her all those years ago in the Spinal Unit.  Typing a short email could take up to half an hour and was not only difficult but also uncomfortable.

Fred introduced Belinda to voice recognition (VR) technology via Dragon Naturally Speaking software and she has never looked back. 

Our IT Can Help volunteers visit disabled people in their homes across the UK and Northern Ireland and help people like Maxine and Belinda to get the most out of technology.

Upgrading My Computer My Way

Adjust Your Computer. Change Your Life.Many disabled people are also happy to search online for information on accessibility and usability.

Ten years ago AbilityNet launched My Computer My Way, a comprehensive guide on how to set up your computer or device the way you need it to work for you. My Computer My Way provides free advice on how to use the accessibility features that are built into your desktop PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone.

It is now one of our most popular products - almost half a million people from all around the world have used it to help make adjustments in the past year.

Thank you Microsoft

The great news is that we’re going to be rolling out a comprehensive update of My Computer My Way in the coming months to improve functionality and usability. As part of the #upgradeyourworld campaign Microsoft has chosen 5 charity partners to receive a grant of £30K to support the transition to Windows 10.

We’re delighted to have been chosen as one of those partners and we’re planning to use the money to upgrade My Computer My Way so that it covers the full range of features that make Windows 10 the most customisable version of Windows yet, as well as every one of the excellent accessibility features built into Windows 10 that continue to make it the powerful and empowering platform of choice for disabled users the world over.

How AbilityNet can help

Why Autoplay is an accessibility issue

Autoplay hit the headlines recently when a video showing the deaths of two journalists was seen by people scrolling through their Facebook and Twitter feeds. The video automatically started playing as the posts loaded and showed graphic images which shocked and horrified many people.

News coverage across the web revealed the problems created by Autoplay, which is an increasingly common ingredient of video-based advertising. For people with disabilities, however, autoplay content is not only irritating but can be a real barrier to access.

What is Autoplay?

Twitter messages underlined people's distress at seeing the videos

Anyone that has been online recently will have experienced Autoplay, whether on Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, or on any of the many sites that rely heavily on advertising revenue. As well as displaying unwanted content it can suck your battery life and gobble up your data allowance, and it is time-consuming and frustrating to click away all the different types of adverts, or search for the ‘skip this ad’.

Why is it an accessibility issue?

Videos and Flash animations that automatically start on a website can be frustrating and even distressing for users with cognitive impairments, impeding their ability to concentrate when reading the content they’re actually interested in.

For those with photosensitive Epilepsy, videos or animations can sometimes trigger a seizure or increase the risk of a seizure occurring. Significant flashing or flickering between the range of 2-55Hz (two to fifty-five times a second) must be avoided.

If you are blind or visually impaired and using screen-reading (text to speech) software on your device, autoplaying animations or video that includes music or audio makes some web pages all but impossible to access.

This is because the audio that automatically starts playing completely obscures the speech of the screen reader. This means that the blind user can’t hear the screen reader and therefore they can’t navigate to the ‘Stop’ button (if there is one) to stop the noise.

All content needs an off switch

Often all they can do is wait for a long enough pause in the audio so they can stop it. More often, however, they aren’t able to find the ‘off switch’ so just give up and navigate away from the page in frustration or disgust.

Autoplay does have some use-cases. Most users want Youtube videos to start playing automatically, for example, because that is the content they have chosen. But, as with all things, accessibility needs to be both considered and factored into to the design and delivery of all digital content.

Top tips for accessible Autoplay

  • If you must have autoplaying ads on your web pages then make them move through one or two cycles of the animation and then pause.
  • Provide a ‘Play’ button in case people then want to watch it again. Most such ads are delivered using Flash and it is easy to oblige in this way by providing suitable controls built into the Flash player.
  • Avoid combining audio with animations unless absolutely necessary.
  • With videos avoid autoplay if you can and, if you must, code it so that hitting the ‘Esc’ key will stop it playing.
  • If you need to include audio in your video try to make it quiet and inobtrusive or else provide sufficient pauses in the audio to help blind users find the ‘Stop’ button. Oh, and provide a ‘Stop’ button too.

The tide of opinion is turning against ads in general, and autoplaying ads in particular, so keep your visitors happy and your disabled visitors delighted by ditching the autoplay and embracing accessibility and good digital design instead.

How can DSAs help students with dyslexia?

AbilityNet’s experts deliver over 1,000 assessments for disabled students every year and by far the most frequent assessment is for a student with a specific learning difficultly such as dyslexia. . It is estimated that up to 1 in 10 people in the UK have some degree of dyslexia, but the good news is that there is a lot of help available to ensure that students can complete their studies successfully.

Am I eligible for DSAs?

Our Claim It Campaign provides more information about DSA Any UK student applying to or attending university with a disability or Specific Learning Difficulty such as Dyslexia, could be eligible for Disabled Students’ Allowances or DSAs Students with Dyslexia must have a post-16 formal dyslexia diagnostic assessment, overseen by a Dyslexia Specialist or Educational Psychologist.

The accompanying report, which is used as proof of dyslexia, is then sent off to a Funding Body with an application form. A Needs Assessment follows, where students can discuss their support with a trained Needs Assessor.

Students should apply for DSAs as soon as they can before their course starts. It takes, on average, just over 10 weeks from registering for DSAs to receiving support and they do not have to wait until their place has been confirmed.

How can DSAs help?

Students can receive equipment such as a laptop (subject to £200 contribution), dictaphone, printer and scanner. Assistive technology software and speech to text editors may be provided to facilitate essay writing. There is additional support available such as a study support tutor or non-medical helper, along with a general allowance for additional printing and photocopying needs. These, and many other support strategies are discussed during a Needs Assessment, to determine the most suitable and effective strategies for the student.
Reasonable adjustments may also be recommended such as:

  • Extra time in examinations
  • Departmental and subject specific support recommendations
  • Extensions for course work

For Avril*, a BSc Adult Nursing student at UWE, the dyslexia-learning support she received transformed “the most daunting challenge” she had faced into “the greatest achievement” of her life.

“What is so great is that I can now work in real time. The software helps me to write reports and proof read my own work and I am now definitely reading more. I would say to anyone who is dyslexic and studying at university or studying for a degree with the OU – don’t waste the fantastic opportunity to claim DSA. I am so glad that I didn’t.”

* Names have been changed to protect confidentiality 

What next?

Find out more about DSAs and who is eligible on our website

Boyzone's Shane urges students to claim extra funding

Boyzone's Shane Lynch is urging UK higher education students to check whether they are eligible for extra funding as part of AbilityNet's DSA Claim It Campaign. Shane has described his experience of living with dyslexia and the impact it has made on his life - as well as the amazing sense of relief he felt when he was finally diagnosed.

Many students live with conditions and impairments that limit their abilities, but don't realise that they can claim Disabled Students' Allowances to cover the cost of specialist hardware, software and study support, including travel expenses.

AbilityNet's CEO Nigel Lewis explained that figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency suggest that as many as half of eligible students did not claim DSAs in 2013/14:

"Disabled Students' Allowances are a lifeline for many students, even if they don't think of themselves as disabled. They can pay for specialist software and hardware as well as extra learning support to ensure that students complete their studies successfully - our DSA Claim It Campaign aims to make sure that everyone who is eligible gets the help they need."

"One big problem could be that people just don't know that it exists. Many parents, teachers and students still don’t know that students with a disability such as dyslexia are eligible for DSAs at university or college, or they don't realise that DSAs are a direct grant that doesn’t have to be paid back.”

Too embarrassed?

"It could also be that people are too embarrassed to ask for extra help, or think it will count against them. That's why it's great having Shane's support for our campaign, as he knows the difficulties that conditions such as dyslexia can bring and can show how much can be gained when you ask for help."

DSAs have been a vital part of helping disabled people achieve success in higher education for many years, meeting the cost of extra learning support, specialist software and hardware and even travel expenses. Students with hearing impairments, visual impairments and mobility impairments are eligible for DSA, as are students with a learning difficulty such as dyslexia, mental health conditions such as depression and health conditions such as diabetes.

Who is eligible for DSAs?

As Nigel explains there is no specific list of conditions that are eligible, and many people don't know they can apply:

"AbilityNet has a specialist DSA service that assesses students once they have been told they can get the grant. In the past year we've helped people with conditions such as ADHD, Anxiety, Aspergers, Autism, Chronic Fatigue, Depression, Diabetes, Dyslexia and many more. There is no one size fits all solution - our experts review the person's study needs and identify personalised solutions."

"We're also concerned that people think that DSAs have been stopped. there is a lot of uncertainty about their future but for the time being they are available and people should find out whether they are eligible."

Abbie C* is a first year student who received DSAs and passed on her advice:

“Get it. It's worth it and will help you throughout your studies. You shouldn't worry about disclosing your disability or learning difficulty because by doing so, you'll get all the support you can possibly think of and makes your experience at university a lot more fulfilling."

Find out more about DSAs

Check our DSA pages for more information about who is eligible and how to claim.

*Abbie asked for her identity to be kept confidential.