My DSA Experience

Long time no blog, it’s been a while since I last uploaded on here. In all honesty I’ve struggled to find the time to write since starting university in September. So I’ve taken advantage of the little let up in work being set during reading week to get a couple of posts written because I’ve missed posting here.

Today I want to talk about Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA). 

DSA is a government grant available in the UK for disabled students. It is available for people with a wide range of conditions including: autism, mental health conditions, physical or chronic illnesses and specific learning disabilities (SpLDs) such as dyslexia. Even if you do not personally identify as disabled you may still be eligible so it is definitely worth a look. Especially as it has been found that in 2017 nearly half the people eligible for DSA did not make a claim.

DSA funding can be used to fund a range of specialist equipment, software, mentoring and can cover extra academia related costs incurred as a result of disability. It aims to place you on a more level playing field to your able bodied peers. It is not a means tested grant and you are not required to return any of the equipment you are granted at the end of your degree. It is yours to keep. There are no costs; except if you live in England and are granted a laptop, you are required to pay £200 towards it (as all students, not just disabled ones require a laptop). 

I applied through Student Finance England (SFE) so this is the application process I am going to be describing, it may differ slightly if you apply through an alternative funding body. When I was completing my main application to SFE I was asked if I wanted to make a DSA application, I then had to fill out a short form. The main step is compiling evidence of your condition(s) and how they affect you in education. This may take the form of clinic letters, diagnostic reports or your ECHP if you have one. Something to note here is that your evidence needs to be from after your 16th birthday, so if you were diagnosed previous to that you may have to pay for new evidence. 

After submitting my evidence, I was granted DSA for my Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.) and was then invited to book a Needs Assessment. The thought of an assessment about my condition filled me with anxiety after previous experiences applying for PIP, however I was quickly reassured by people who had experienced a needs assessment that it was nothing like a PIP assessment- they were right. 

My assessment was conducted via Skype due to the Covid-19 pandemic but they are usually in person so you can test out any software and equipment. My assessment took about an hour and a half, but this can vary. My assessor was lovely and very understanding when I needed to take a break due to fatigue, she also didn’t bat an eyelid when I needed to lie on the floor for a minute. It was more like an informal chat. She asked about my condition, how it affects me in my studies and about any support I had in place whilst attending school or college. She then talked me through her suggestions of things that DSA could supply to help me and modelled some of the software. She was incredibly knowledgeable and  suggested things to help that I hadn’t considered before. After the assessment she then collated her recommendations into a report which advocated for as much support as possible by justifying my need for each item she had recommended. I was then sent a copy of this report to review and check I was happy with it before she submitted it to the funding body. 

It took around 2 weeks for SFE to process my report. They then sent a DSA2 letter which outlined the support I had been awarded- I received everything that my assessor had suggested, which I am told, is what happens in most cases.

I was awarded a lightweight laptop and printer. The laptop is great and really easy to use. My assessor highlighted to SFE the importance of the laptop being light weight due to muscle weakness and I’m very grateful she did as it has made such a difference. The printer is also brilliant and has saved me a lot of energy as I don’t have to venture to the library every time I want to print something. Alongside the printer I was also granted an allowance for consumables such as paper and ink- you purchase this yourself, keep the receipts and claim the money back from SFE at a later date. 

The laptop arrived with the software I had been granted already preinstalled ready to use. I was granted 4 pieces of software. The first being Read & Write (text to speech and highlighting for PDFs etc), Ayoa (mindmap software) Dragon (dictation) and Sonocent (recording). At the moment I use the first 2 most as online learning means many of my lectures and seminars are recorded already. To help me use the software I was also granted a microphone that attaches to my laptop to record from and a bluetooth headset for dictation as well as technology training with someone from the company to show me how to get the most out of each software. I was also given a high quality pair of noise cancelling headphones to help with my sensory sensitivity in communal working areas, I haven’t been able to test them out properly yet due to covid-19 restriction but they have been very helpful in keeping me focused whilst studying in halls.  

Another thing that was recommended by my needs assessor was an ergonomic equipment assessment. This involved a Zoom call with a company who provides office equipment. We talked through the things I found difficult about working at a desk and they suggested pieces of equipment they could provide to help. The report from the company was then sent to SFE to be approved. Someone then came out to my house, well garden because of the pandemic, in full PPE to take my measurements. The equipment was then delivered 3 weeks later to my halls of residence, where again in full PPE, I was talked through everything I had been awarded. 

I was granted a wide variety of equipment. Including an ergonomic desk chair, which is built specifically to my height and weight as well as providing support in targeted areas of my spine. A foot rest that tilts to help with the circulation in my legs. A laptop stand, wireless keyboard and adapted mouse. A lap desk, bed wedge and book seat- these have been particularly useful when having to study from bed. All of which is now mine to keep at no cost.

This equipment has been invaluable during the period of online learning. Don’t get me wrong being at university has taken a toll on my health- that’s a post for another day- but the equipment provided by DSA has enabled me to make the best start at university possible. So, if you think you may be eligible it is definitely worth a look. 

I hope this has been helpful in outlining the process, making it appear less daunting and giving you an insight into some of the support available.  

You can find more information at these links:

5 Things I’m Doing to Prepare for University as a Disabled Student

Starting university is a daunting prospect for everyone, but as a disabled student I can’t help feeling as though some of my main concerns and worries are quite different to those of my able bodied peers. Today I wanted to share 5 of the things I have done/am doing to ease my transition into university life as a disabled student.

  1. Introducing new tasks into my daily routine 

Moving away from home is a huge deal for anyone, but as a disabled student the move comes with additional challenges. On top of getting myself to lectures, moving into halls means I will have the responsibility of cooking for myself and cleaning my own space. Something I’ve haven’t really had to think about when living at home as my family would prefer I save my energy for other things. So in the months before starting university I have slowly been adding some of the new activities into my day and looking at ways I can reduce the exertion throughout. Some examples include using lightweight saucepans, pre chopped vegetables and sitting on a chair when cooking. 

  1. Getting into contact with other disabled students current or graduate from the university 

Hearing from other disabled students who currently study or have studied at the university is invaluable. Whether it’s finding out the most wheelchair accessible routes across campus or knowing the quieter places to study, first hand experience is the best way to find out. It may be that student support services or the disability representative of the Student’s Union are able to put you in contact with other disabled students. But if not you might have to dig a little deeper. Within the chronic illness community online many disabled students are sharing their stories and would be willing to chat to you about their university experience if you pop them a message. 

Pippa Stacey, a chronically ill writer and blogger, has collated a list of connections and contacts for disabled students, which you can find here. All the individuals listed are either current or graduate students who have offered to be a point of contact for prospective chronically ill/ disabled students. 

Whilst you might have different conditions, they have experienced life at the university so may be able to give you extra pointers or advice as to what to expect.

  1. Researching support available

My sixth form was not the most knowledgeable when it came to information about support available at university for disabled students, telling me to apply for Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) but not telling me what it actually was. That was when I started to do some research. 

It was then I purchased University and Chronic Illness: A Survival Guide written by Pippa Stacey. The book explores every aspect of university life from the perspective of a chronically ill student, giving tips and advice of what to expect, highlighting things to consider you may not have thought of before and the support you are entitled to, including the DSA process. I know that I will come back to the book many times throughout my degree, it really is an incredible resource and I would highly recommend it to any chronically ill person who is trying to navigate the world of higher education. You can find more information about the book here.

As I had disclosed my disability within my UCAS application and consented to having this information shared with the universities I had applied to, student support services contacted me via email. They outlined the support that they could offer and also made sure I was aware that I was entitled to DSA. I was assigned a member of staff to be my key point of contact for any questions or queries, I really appreciated this as it meant I didn’t have to keep explaining the same things in multiple emails to different people. Once I accepted my offer the process of getting my Academic Access Plan (AAP) began.

  1. Preparing information to share with lecturers and flatmates 

Lecturers 

At the university I am going to be attending you work with student support services before you arrive to create an Academic Access Plan (AAP). I had to fill in a questionnaire and provide some documentation from a medical professional about my conditions, how they impact me and any access arrangements I would need. All this information was then collated to form my AAP. With your consent this information is then shared with your lecturers to make them aware of how they can best support you.

Flatmates 

I have been lucky enough to find over half my flatmates through the applicant facebook group set up by the university. So over the past few weeks we’ve been getting to know each other. I had been quite anxious about disclosing my disability to them, not sure when the right time to bring it up would be. In the end one of my flatmates brought up the fact they had some health conditions, so me bringing up my M.E and ambulatory wheelchair use was not a big deal. As a flat we decided to write a brief summary of our conditions, what to do in an emergency situation and how other people can help if we are struggling so we know how to support each other.

  1. Creating a written flare plan 

This was something suggested to me by my M.E specialist. Whether it be a routine that has helped you navigate your way out of a flare before or certain things you do to help manage increased symptoms. Having a written plan to refer to that outlines the ways in which you’ve mitigated flares before should help it to be less overwhelming if it happens during the academic year. If you feel comfortable sharing this plan with a flatmate it will allow them to know how to help you through the flare. Whilst creating this plan won’t stop the flare from happening it will remind you of the practical steps you can take to help yourself survive the storm. 

I am hoping that taking these steps to prepare will help make the transition to university that little bit easier to manage.