Do disabled students get enough support at university?

A disability is tough at the best of times. When combined with the stresses and strains of university life, it can be completely overwhelming

Applying to universities, sorting out student finance, finding accommodation, all while trying to get the grades, is a stressful process for any student before they set off for uni. But if you are disabled, these challenges can be just the start of a frustrating university experience.

Natasha Wilson, 19, was delighted when she was accepted by her top choice, the University of York, last year to study Social Work. But joy turned to anger when her local authority, Sheffield City Council, said it could not give her any funding for care, which would have allowed her to live away from home.

Natasha has arthrogryposis, a rare condition which causes muscle weakness and paralysis. She uses an electric wheelchair to get around and relies on others to complete day-to-day tasks, such as using a kettle or toaster.

After an assessment from a social worker, Sheffield City Council reportedly told her she would be unable to study outside the city because they could not fund a full-time carer for her. Giving up her offer from York, Natasha accepted a place at the University of Sheffield, her insurance choice, to study Health and Human Sciences.

“Coming from a working class, single-parent household, neither me nor my family could fund a full-time carer in York. Reluctantly, I came to the conclusion that I would have to make do because I need a degree for my future career,” she said.

But after making plans to move out of her home into a flat in the city centre, the council told her that they could not fund the number of care hours she had applied for, one month before she was due to start at university. She had no choice but to continue living at home.

“I don't feel like I am getting what all my friends are getting out of university,” she added.

Eddie Sherwood, Director of Care and Support, Communities at Sheffield City Council, said: “We work closely with people to assess their needs and for those who have critical and substantial requirements, we provide a personal budget so that these can be met.

“We recognise that in the current climate students increasingly have to make hard choices such as attending their local university to reduce their living costs and for some, this includes staying in their family home. This dilemma applies equally to students who have a disability.”

One of many

Natasha is just one of nearly 200,000 disabled students whose quiet struggles throughout their university experience are rarely heard. A report produced by the Equality Challenge Unit last year showed that at all degree levels, disabled students were more likely to study part-time than non-disabled students.

It is no wonder. From changing care packages before courses even begin to issues of accessibility at graduations, disabled students have to overcome far greater challenges than trying to write 2,000 words the night before the essay deadline.

Tanvi Vyas, campaign officer of Muscular Dystrophy Campaign’s Trailblazers, a network of young disabled people, said old university buildings, including libraries, are often not fully accessible, if at all.

Accommodation for carers can also be problematic. Students may have to cover the cost of an extra room for a carer or pay for two as some work on a shift basis.

Juliet Marlow, 43, who is doing a PhD in televisual representations of disability at Southampton Solent University, said studying with a disability is “ten times tougher than without one”.

Juliet, who has juvenile chronic arthritis and diabetes, added that her time at Southampton Solent had been uniformly positive but that she had experienced issues with some practicalities of studying at university as a disabled person.

Getting funding to cover care and other costs related to a student’s disability is one of the most pressing concerns for disabled people eager to enter higher education. Huge cuts to local authority budgets in the last year and the closure of the Independent Living Fund mean it is becoming increasingly harder to secure funding.

The Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) offers students up to £20,000 and covers specialist equipment and non-medical help, such as note takers. It does not, however, cover care costs.

The Snowdon Trust is the largest charity in the UK dedicated to giving out grants to students who haven’t been able to secure funding elsewhere. Its chief executive officer, Paul Alexander, said that the DSA is not enough to cover costs.

“The Trust steps in whenever we are needed. £20,000 sounds like a lot but students who have severe disabilities have expensive needs. Sign language interpreters, for example, do not come cheap and costs can quickly build up,” he said.

“The amount of money given should be based on an individual’s needs, not on an arbitrary cap. Disabled students need more [funding] from my perspective. It’s tough on them.”

Universities and their disability services are often very willing to accommodate a student’s needs but the size and quality of those services can vary.

Gill Beech, operations manager of the disability and dyslexia service at Brunel University in Middlesex, said: “I would advise any disabled student thinking of applying to a university to speak to the person or team who is responsible in that particular institution. Applicants should not be afraid to ask questions and should always try and visit the university before final choices are made.”

Natasha is coming to the end of her first year at Sheffield but is thinking of dropping out and going back when she has care in place and can live independently.

“I would not wish what I am going through on anyone as the frustration is sometimes unbearable.

“What I would say to anyone with a disability who is applying to university is to not let social services force you in to taking the easy option to reduce their workload. Fight to the end to get what you deserve or you will regret it.”

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