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How and where to find disability support

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Published: 7 August 2019

Just two in five disabled students at university know that there is targeted funding available for them before starting their course, according to a recent government survey. With the help of the Head of Disability Services at the University of Sunderland, Ben Hodgson, we explore how and where students with disabilities can find help.

You can apply for Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) if you live in England and have a disability that affects your ability to study, such as a:

  • learning difficulty, for example, dyslexia or ADHD
  • mental health condition like anxiety or depression
  • physical disability, for example, if you’re partially sighted or have to use crutches
  • long-term health condition such as cancer, chronic heart disease or HIV

You must also be an undergraduate or postgraduate student (including at the Open University or studying distance learning), qualify for financial support from Student Finance England and be studying on a course that lasts at least a year.

"DSAs are a fund that is available for home students on top of what the University will provide anyway. Students don’t get the cash in hand, they don’t get money as such. It pays for additional specialist equipment on the top what the University provides. Typically, things like assistive software, technology, ergonomic equipment in some cases. Also, it helps to pay for specialist support for those students that are eligible for that.

Open Day Learning and Support Team
Ben talking to a prospective student and her family during an Open Day

"Normally, that will be specialist study skills for autistic students or students with dyslexia and also specialist mentoring for students on the autism spectrum or who have mental health issues as well. It can also help pay for ergonomic assessments of a workspace. So, if somebody needs their desk configured in a certain way, DSAs can help pay for all of that as well as the equipment," Ben explains. 

Unfortunately, you can't get DSAs from Student Finance England if you're an EU student, eligible for NHS Disabled Student's Allowances, or getting equivalent support from another funding source, like your university or a social work bursary. 

Ben says: "Where DSAs are not available, like for international students who might otherwise be eligible for support, the University would fund that. If we had an international student who is dyslexic for example and needed special study skills, we would fund that, otherwise they are not going to receive the same service as home students."

How much and what you get depends on your individual needs and not your household income. For 2019/20, undergraduate students can get up to £22,603 a year while postgraduates can get a single allowance of up to £20,000 a year.

A recent government study found that 42% of disabled students who knew about DSAs prior to applying agreed that this influenced their decision to go into higher education. Since most disabled students are not aware that there is targeted funding available, should more be done to make them aware of that? 

"Some colleges and schools are good and proactive about making students aware of DSAs and support them in applying for ithem Parents, families, guardians, friends are particularly good in some cases. In other cases, they are not aware, but the information that we send to applicants via the admissions’ process flags up DSAs to them as well.

"They get information about my team and what we do, but I also put in a lot of information about DSAs with the link to the website and how to apply. Our partner colleges and liaison officers know about DSAs so they should also be telling people. Some colleges and schools are good at being proactive and some are not," Ben believes.

At the University of Sunderland, the Disability Support Team (DST) provide information, support, and guidance to students with disabilities, mental health difficulties, specific learning difficulties (such as dyslexia) and long-term medical conditions. 

Ben says: "We would work with and try to engage with as many disabled students we can before they actually start their studies. Normally, we would meet with students on a one to one basis and with their permission, we would formulate what we call a student support plan, which is really an overview of the student’s condition and how that might impact their studies in key areas. We would work with them on an ongoing basis during their studies so once they come and register with us we would be able to work with them until they graduate."

Many students contact a Disability Support Adviser before they actually arrive at University. This is useful because it allows plenty of time to discuss and assess needs and plan support.

"Any student that declares a disability through the admissions process is invited to come here and see us, talk to us, ring us, email us or come in and have a meeting and meet the team. It’s much better if we can set up everything we think they are going to need or they think will need before they start their studies. It’s a big thing coming to university, a big change, very challenging and stressful."

"If you've got additional support needs on top of that and they are not sorted out and in place then you are going to find it really difficult. From my point of view, it’s much better to have that kind of support done, setup and ready to go. Otherwise, you are playing catch up in the first year and that’s a nightmare because the first term can be challenging. Some people don’t think they are going to need support, which is fine, but then they might realise once they start, that perhaps they do need support and then they will come and see us."

You can contact the Disability Support Team by telephone on +44 (0)191 515 2952, send an email to disability.support@sunderland.ac.uk or by coming to Student Support at Edinburgh Building, Level 1, City Campus. If you use The Gateway lift, press E1 to get to their floor.

They also offer a drop-in every Tuesday at Student Support Services in Edinburgh Building, and Thursday at the Sir Tom Cowie Campus at St Peter's, at the Student Support Suite from 2pm-4pm during term time, where you can find out further information and register with the service. 

Read more about the Disability Support Team or go directly to information on applying for Disability Support Allowance