In January Universities Minister Chris Skidmore MP expressed a commitment to ensuring disabled students do not feel restricted in applying to a university due to barriers to access. This follows a recent report into the experiences of students with disabilities accessing Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA), which identified several challenges to the ‘customers journey’.

Researchers in the Vision Impairment Centre for Teaching and Research (VICTAR) at the University of Birmingham have been investigating student experiences of DSA as part of an ongoing longitudinal study into post-16 transitions for young people with vision impairment in England and Wales.

Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) is a non-means tested scheme which aims to remove barriers to learning for students with disabilities. In the case of vision impairment, it can be used to fund a range of resources and services including mobility training and specialist equipment.

In 2015, the Department of Business Innovation and skills (BIS), announced plans to reform DSA, placing greater responsibility on Higher Education institutions for the support disabled students receive. The rationale behind this initiative was that it would provide an incentive for Higher Education institutions to remove barriers to learning through developing greater inclusive practice, and that this in turn would improve the experience of students with disabilities. BIS also argued that students with disabilities in Higher Education should be able to make greater use of assistive technology, reducing the need for human support.

Many of the young people that we have spoken to in our research simply would not have been able to access their courses if it were not for the support that DSA provides. However, DSA is not without problems. Colleagues in VICTAR are currently working with the Thomas Pocklington Trust to communicate with policy makers the various ways in which DSA is not working for students with vision impairment. Some of the key issues identified include:

  • DSA assessors lacking the knowledge and skill set to assess students with vision impairment.
  • Students not being able to access the human support allocated due to limited availability of trained professionals.
  • Students experiencing delays in receiving the equipment allocated.
  • Equipment provided through DSA proving not fit for purpose.
  • Restrictions in purchasing accessible mainstream equipment.

A primary concern is the lack of flexibility in the DSA system. For example, many of the young people that we spoke to reported that they were unable to access certain equipment which could enable them to work more independently. Additionally, despite the claims by BIS that it is possible to reduce the amount of human support that students with disabilities need through use of assistive technology, the amount of money allocated to fund equipment has not changed, and instead there remains a large emphasis on human support. Department for Education (who since June 2016 have responsibility for DSA) state that the DSA scheme ‘is in place to provide the more specialist aspects of support’ (p23), and therefore to cater for the specific needs of students with disabilities that cannot be met by the institution. The observed rigidness of DSA seems therefore to go against its intended purpose.

DSA plays a vital role in helping students with disabilities overcome barriers in participation on their courses, but at the same time, its own mechanisms can act as a barrier. Based on our research and what is practical the government should take action to address the challenges that students with vision impairment are facing in accessing the full range of support they need to be able to study and live independently in Higher Education.

Rachel Hewett, Professor Graeme Douglas and Professor Mike McLinden, Vision Impairment Centre for Teaching and Research, The School of Education, University of Birmingham.