The welfare reform bill set to be implemented in April has led to fears for the future of disabled students as the Disability Living Allowance is set to replace Personal Independence Payments (PIP). This may lead to the 'exclusion of disabled people' from society and may mean that over 280,000 disabled people will not get support or be affected by 2016.
30,000 disabled students entered higher education in 2012, an increase of 75 per cent from 2004, UCAS figures report. Currently, Disabled Students' Allowance (DSA) funds a non-medical helper and welfare benefits with full-time students receiving £70 a week through DLA to pay the extra costs of living with a disability. Part-time students are also eligible for Employment and Support Allowance benefit for £99.85, which pays for personal support to help disabled people work. However, without the support of welfare benefits and academic support provided by DSA, many may not be able to enter university and have thus limited the potential of disabled recipients. A decent education is pivotal in leading disabled people into work, yet the barriers are substantial.
The government needs to stop creating barriers for disabled students if they want them to participate in society. Disabled students want to make a difference to society and participate, which is evident in the rise in applications for university. Yet extra funding and finance from welfare benefits is essential for this to occur. The Tories' insistence on removing a welfare state will cause continuous problems for many disabled students, with many either being put off or obstructed by financial concerns.
This is the stance adopted by Neil Coyle of Disability Alliance, who thinks that some students may lose out completely: "If people are mis-assessed, they simply won't get their DLA. It's a huge blow to students because their benefits are linked, so if they don't get DLA then they won't get housing benefit either."
And it is not just finance that is to become an issue for students. There is fear that university cuts may lead to an abolishment of widening-participation premium, where the Higher Education Funding Council for England finances universities to support disabled students through disability advisers. If the money isn't there, there will simply be no support for disabled students.
Students at my own university, University of Kent, are concerned that the slashing of disability benefits may threaten the availability of support for its disabled students. A student has remarked that the Disabled Support Service has supported her so well that "I could not have achieved my distinction without you all! It is a truly amazing team, which has given me so much confidence. I strongly believe that your contribution to the department will have a positive impact on generations of Kent students."
Kent Union's disabilities officer Jonjo Brady expressed his anger at the government's treatment at disabled people: "It is nothing short of heart-breaking. Not only are we seeing radical cuts in benefits for those whose lives literally depend on such income, but also a massive drop in support for disabled people socially as hate crime continues to rise.
"As for ATOS? Well, you just need to look at how they run their own company to see how unequipped they are to deal with 'fit to work' assessments. The government needs to rethink and rethink fast."
The Paralympics was a great example of the success of disabled people, proving that given enough support, they are able to achieve their dreams. Yet even this were clouded by campaigners who were protesting against its sponsorship by ATOS, the UK's largest occupational health provider, which has come under criticism for its assessments leading to many disabled people being denied their benefits. More than half of people were stripped of their disability benefits as they were perceived as 'fit for work' and were left unemployed and without income.
In a society which prides itself on equality and helping people at a disadvantage, the Tories have failed to see the bigger picture. In order for disabled students to participate in society, a degree is essential. But this will be virtually impossible without the support of welfare benefits and academic support from the DSA. Big Society? I beg to differ.
Layla Haidrani is a history student at University of Kent, Canterbury and an aspiring political journalist. She writes for The National Student and blogs for The Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter here.
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