Assistive Technology and Disabled Students’ Allowance: ‘A fundamental right to a good education is compromised when students who rely on assistive technology cannot afford to access it’

UKAAF board member and Connect MD, Susan Day, recently took part in a cross-party Parliamentary consultation at the House of Commons about the provision of assistive technology within the DSA allowance. Here, she reports on her day, which she says showed a mix of MPs and other professionals working within education bringing a wealth of information and suggestions for improvement within the sector

The provision of support to furnish students who experience barriers to learning barriers in HE and FE is vital, and assistive technology is one of the vital tools which makes higher education inclusive for disabled students. In HE in particular, Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) are a key means by which students gain access to assistive technology and related support, with students receiving an individual assessment of the support and technology they need which is then typically delivered in the form of a laptop, assistive software and one-to-one training sessions.

However, recent changes to the DSA system have had an unintended negative consequence. The introduction of a £200 equipment charge has meant that a growing number of disabled students do not take up the technology recommended for them. In practice, this means that a student not only has to find the £200, but if it is a new diagnosis will have to fund this assessment, which is in the region of £350 for dyslexia. A recent SCOPE survey suggested disabled students on average have to find an extra £500 a term for basic living costs.

Since the introduction of the charge, the number of students who are awarded DSAs has continued to grow. However, the number of students who receive equipment DSAs has fallen by up to 17.6% – meaning that a growing number of students who undergo a needs assessment that recommends assistive technology don’t end up getting they help they are entitled to.

Former Universities Minister Sam Gyimah said in a recent Parliamentary written answer that, ’The main reason for this fall [in equipment take up] is that the £200 student contribution to the costs of computer hardware took effect from September 2015.’ Students confirm financial considerations affect their decision not to take up equipment DSAs; 69% who had not paid the charge said they could not afford to do so.

‘Many HE and FE providers do not have the full range of assistive technology’

The impact on students who have a need for support is far-reaching. Statistics suggest that 75% of disabled students were considering leaving courses, compared to 35% of their non-disabled peers. The belief that I – and probably, many of you working within education and learning and development – have that we all have a fundamental right to a good education is compromised when students who rely on assistive technology cannot afford to access it.

One argument is that non-disabled students have to fund their own IT equipment, so why shouldn’t disabled students also fund a laptop. The problem with this argument is that many of the basic study laptops are actually simply not powerful enough to run many of the assistive technology programs, and a non-disabled student can always access IT facilities through the library in the way that I certainly did many years ago at university. But many HE and FE providers do not have the full range of assistive technology loaded onto their network computers, so that there is the same access.

Some HE and FE organisations support assistive technology users by paying the £200 for the student and organising training. The problem here is that disabled students are then potentially having to choose their provider by the support they offer, rather than their peers who choose the course they actually want to study. (Though of course, no assistive technology is going to be of any use if organisations do not make sure that the content on their virtual learning environments is not accessible – with the new EU directive on web accessibility coming in, though, this should help to ensure that this is no longer the case in HE and FE.)

We really need to look at ways that students can be supported more effectively with the equipment and access they need. After all, who really suffers when a student falls out of their HE/FE course – the answer is society as a while. Can we really afford to not address the needs of our disabled children and peers?

Go here for the full text of the Parliamentary written answer on Disabled Students’ Allowance

Susann Day pictureThe author is a Managing Director of Nantwich, Cheshire-headquartered Connect, a provider of Design, Education and Training around accessibility, based on a core philosophy of ‘Everyone Can’. She is also a board member of UKAAF.

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