Disability not inability

Institutions are making sure everyone fulfils their potential by providing for the growing number of disabled students. By Diana Hinds
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The Independent Online

All institutions are required by law to provide support for students with disabilities. But the amount of specialist help and specialist equipment on offer, and the way this is organised, varies widely from one establishment to another. Students with special needs are therefore well advised to visit prospective universities and colleges with these questions in mind before making their final choice.

All institutions are required by law to provide support for students with disabilities. But the amount of specialist help and specialist equipment on offer, and the way this is organised, varies widely from one establishment to another. Students with special needs are therefore well advised to visit prospective universities and colleges with these questions in mind before making their final choice.

At Leicester University, for instance, provision for students with disabilities is coordinated by the AccessAbility Centre, itself part of an Education Development and Support Centre, which offers a fully integrated student support service encompassing learning, careers, welfare and counselling.

Numbers of students with disabilities increase steadily, year on year, says Dr Paula Dobrowolski, head of the AccessAbility Centre. At present, the Centre has 599 students on its database, either referred or self-referred for help, but Dr Dobrowolski estimates that there are more students who have not yet come forward.

Of these 599, just over half have dyslexia-related difficulties (other universities report a similar proportion of dyslexic students). The AccessAbility Centre offers them a variety of support, including help from study advisers, one-to-one support sessions tailored to students needs, e.g. on planning, organisation, spelling strategies, essay-writing - as well as access to specialised computer software in the Centre.

Dyslexic students, like other students with disabilities, may be entitled to government funding, through the Disabled Students' Allowance (DSA), to purchase their own specialist equipment, e.g. a desk-top or lap-top computer with appropriate software. Most universities will be able to guide disabled students through the process of applying for this allowance, for which their local authority will require proof of their disability.

The DSA is designed to give academic support and has three components: funding for special equipment; funding for one-to-one help (eg. a specialist adviser, or, for blind students, a note-taker to help in lectures); funding for general costs (eg. computer insurance, computer cartridges). Although students are generally successful in getting the DSA, institutions advise students with disabilities to set this process in motion before beginning their courses.

For students in wheelchairs, some campuses will be easier to negotiate than others, and students should test this out in advance. For all those with mobility difficulties, establishments should be able to help them if physical adjustments are needed to their accommodation, such as grab bars or modifications to doors or showers. For blind or visually impaired students, there may be a team of volunteers to read aloud or onto tape for them, and some train their own students to work as (paid) note-takers.

While professional support for students with disabilities is likely to be coordinated by specialist officers, for instance in Student Services departments, students themselves may arrange other kinds of support, including social activities. At Birmingham University, for instance, the Guild of Students has an active student committee for disabilities, and the chair of this committee sits on the University's Disability Forum once a term. As Sue Green, the disability coordinator, says: "This enables students to contribute to policy and gives them a political voice."

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