Changes to Disabled Students’ Allowance: a reason to pursue inclusivity

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Dr Emma Kennedy on recent changes to Disabled Students' Allowance and why we should make teaching more inclusive.

Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) is a non means-tested allowance students receive while at university that is intended to offset the costs of attending university. From September 2015, the costs funded by DSA changed substantially. In practice this meant that students had less funding for support and equipment: as you’ll see below, for example, students are now expected to pay the first £200 toward any new computer.

The table below, prepared by QMUL’s Disability and Dyslexia Service, summarises the changes in what is funded and what will now have to be provided by the university or the student (or not provided at all).

Old system (pre September 2015) September 2015 onwards…
 

Equipment

 

Full funding for computers, peripherals (e.g. USB drives, laptop carry cases, separate keyboards and mice)

Printers and scanners

Applications software (e.g. MS Office)

Ergonomic equipment and furniture

Digital Voice Recorders (DVRS), i.e. MP3 recorders

 

 Equipment

 

Students expected to pay first £200 toward any new computer

No peripherals

Printers and scanners

Assistive software

Ergonomic equipment and furniture

Applications software and DVRs where unavailable at universities

Human Support

Practical campus support; note-taking; library assistance; study assistance; reading; lab assistance; specialist study skills; specialist mentoring; IT training; BSL interpretation; sighted guides for the visually impaired / blind

Human Support

(As of September 2016)

Specialist support only, i.e. study skills, mentoring, BSL support, sighted guides.

 

 

‘General allowance’

 Generous annual book allowances, printing and consumables allowances, internet subscriptions

 ‘General Allowance’

Annual book allowance

Accommodation allowance

 Paid for additional accommodation costs for disabled students in university residences, as well as private accommodation.

 Accommodation allowance

Will pay for private accommodation additional costs – HEIs expected to offer disabled students their accommodation at the same rate as non-disabled students.

After the DSA changes: inclusivity instead of adjustments

Now that the DSA is funding fewer adjustments, the balance of responsibility lies on the institution. Under the Equality Act (2010) an institution has an obligation to make reasonable adjustments so that staff and students with a disability can access the things they need. Adjustments will still be made as appropriate, and funding provided where it is needed. For example, QMUL still provides note takers where students need them.

However, a way to reduce the number of reasonable adjustments made is to enhance the inclusivity of one’s teaching and curricula. This not only benefits disabled students – the more they can access as standard, the less time and energy they have to spend seeking adjustments – but it also benefits many other groups of students and disabled staff.

For example, if your QMPlus Area is made more accessible for visually impaired students as standard, you won’t have to adjust everything when a visually impaired student registers on your course. The student will be able to access the course from the beginning, along with all their peers, and won’t have to feel left out or spend time seeking adjustments. If you make it a habit to teach in a way that’s accessible for blind/visually impaired students, such as describing slides as you present them, you won’t have to single them out and ‘adjust’ to them. You’ll also be able to iron out any teething problems. Find out how to improve accessibility for students, including a guide on accessibility for learners with visual impairments, on the Disability and Dyslexia Service’s Tips and Guidance page.

The ideal of inclusivity is Universal Design for Learning (see here for the key principles). Curricula and courses that fit the Universal Design model are designed in such a way that learners can access the resources and fulfil the learning outcomes in multiple ways, depending on their personal needs and abilities. More realistically, however, some adjustments will always need to be made. There exist a wide range of disabilities and we can’t always predict a student’s needs before they arrive.

What we can and should do is listen to students, and allow them to help us become more inclusive. Rather than viewing changes as temporary adjustments, use what students tell you helps them to improve the design of all your teaching. For example, you might have a student who needed clearer, simpler guidance on lab practicals (owing to a specific learning difficulty). Rather than making a simple guide just for them and then throwing it out when they leave, use the opportunity to make all your guidance clearer and more concise. You’ll find this helps a large number of students, with or without disabilities.

Ultimately the perfectly accessible curriculum is something we may never achieve. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. With every improvement we make, however small, we reduce the amount of additional labour that is demanded of staff and students with disabilities. We make it easier for our colleagues and for our students – and that’s surely worth the effort.

Want to read more about inclusivity at QMUL? Check out Inclusive Curricula, Teaching and Learning at QMUL: a report or the video Advice for Tutors with Disabled Students.