As students navigate the ‘new normal’ of online exams and submission of their course work, one factor is proving vital to a subset of students.
Something that could make the difference between a student completing their course, continuing their university studies, or dropping out entirely. It has supported hundreds of thousands of students for over twenty years, and can be overlooked, but right now Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) could be the most important support factor for disabled students, many of whom are struggling through the Covid-19 period.
Understanding the experience
In a survey conducted in April by the Association of Non-Medical Help Providers, 3614 students were motivated to respond.
Eighty-five per cent of the student respondents agreed that “My DSA learning support is important for me at this time”.
Many shared the sentiments of this student:
DSA support has been very important to me at this time and the team have gone above and beyond to assist me”.
Further to this, 61 per cent of respondents agreed that “I feel that I require additional DSA support through this period due to the changes to my academic studies”.
The online survey invited students to respond to eight structured questions and a further question invited them to comment in an unstructured way. The survey was sent to students currently receiving DSA and was distributed by registered providers of DSA support. The respondents represented a spread across under-grad and postgraduate students, with 504 taking the option of leaving a comment.
Learning online with an underlying difficulty
Covid-19 presents many and varied challenges for all students attempting to maintain their academic engagement remotely. But add into the mix a mental health illness, a specific learning difficulty, or a hearing or sight impairment, then the evidence suggests that access to online learning and maintaining studies is made tougher.
Eighty-one per cent of respondents agreed that “Because of the changes to my academic work, online teaching, and assessments, the Covid-19 situation is negatively impacting my studies”.
Friends, university support, and established statutory services have been removed or replaced by a remote alternative. Without normal support structures like these, disabled students may be at their most vulnerable.
Seventy-nine per cent of respondents agreed that “The Covid-19 situation is negatively impacting my general wellbeing”.
COVID-19 and lockdown have affected every aspect of my university work, home life and mental and physical health. It has caused many, many problems and barriers for me and many others”.
As the Covid-19 restrictions were applied, the providers of DSA needs assessments, assistive technology hardware and software, and one-to-one learning support, known as Non-Medical Help, quickly adapted to remote-only, online ways of working wherever possible. The specialist study skills, mentoring, and assistive technology training, frequently recommended in needs assessments saw a relatively smooth transition. However, it is likely that some specialist communication support roles have not transitioned so easily, for example electronic notetaking.
Remote online ways of working, studying, and socialising have been thrust upon us, and perhaps for many the adoption has not been so bad. However, for many disabled students it hasn’t been an ideal solution.
Nineteen per cent of respondents disagreed that “Remote online DSA support is effective for me”, with a further 26 per cent neither agreeing or disagreeing.
I have difficulties with technology and also learn better from paper sources and face to face contact so this situation is particularly difficult and I am falling behind”.
How many students access DSA?
Around 50,000 HE students apply for and access DSA per year, representing around half of the students who disclose a disability. The allowance pays for specialist one-to-one support, assistive technology, learning needs assessments, and additional travel costs. With an overall cost to the government of ~£100m per year, and an average spend per recipient of less than £1500 per year, the allowance is not means tested and is non-repayable. The provision of DSA support is through a mix of private and not-for-profit companies, universities and colleges, and by individual sole-traders.
Although the focus of the survey was on the DSA, the Association broadened the scope to gather students’ experiences of other factors impinging on their Uni studies. Those students who replied offered in-depth, insightful commentary on their experience during the Covid-19 restrictions. Frequently mentioned topics were: declining mental health, difficulties accessing online teaching and resources, the pressure of caring for children or family members, unreliability or unavailability of personal technology required to access materials, confusion and uncertainty around Uni expectations, as well as some criticism of DSA provision.
The survey identifies that DSA isn’t always working perfectly, with some students questioning of the DSA system or of their support. The Covid-19 restrictions have led to all organisations making changes to their working procedures – which of these could be maintained for the benefit of students in the future?
After a lengthy application process, and with clear learning support needs identified, all disabled students deserve DSA support that is accessible, readily available, and of high quality. For many students DSA is a lifeline, particularly at a crucial time such as now. The awareness of DSA could be improved, its positive impact more widely understood, and it should emerge from the shadows and be given the attention that it deserves.
The full report is available.