Our right to study – Holly’s story
Holly is a final year student studying Spanish at Coventry University. This is Holly’s personal account of Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA). Her experience emphasises what the government should do to ensure that students with vision impairments have fair access to university.
When applying for university, I knew that as a blind student I would face challenges that others wouldn’t have to consider.
Would I be able to access the books in the library? What technology would I need? How would I handle orientation and mobility on campus? These were questions I had to ask myself and find solutions to so that I would be successful.
A big part of what enabled me to access University was DSA. DSA is a grant distributed by Student Finance England (SFE), to provide disabled students with the necessary equipment and human support they need to access their course at university. Although I have personally benefited from DSA, it is not the support system that it could and should be, and I have at times found it creates more problems than it solves.
Claiming DSA doesn’t guarantee success at university. I expect to work hard for my grades, however it’s frustrating that I face so many accessibility barriers that could be mitigated if DSA was fit for purpose.
I recently spoke about these issues in Parliament, drawing on my own experiences. I want to encourage the government to conduct a full review of DSA. We need to ensure that when a blind or partially sighted student applies for university they are not put at a disadvantage by the very system that is supposed to enable them to compete equally with their peers.
I was told I could apply for a laptop as part of my DSA technology package. This is a necessary piece of equipment for me as a blind student as I cannot write by hand, and I need to access course materials electronically. Disabled students must pay £200 towards the cost of a laptop. A cost which I justified by telling myself that if I was going to buy my own it would cost far more than that.
I trusted that SFE would purchase a computer that could run the assistive software I needed. But this wasn’t the case. The laptop would take over 15 minutes to start up, and a further five minutes to load software as basic as Microsoft Word.
I went back to my needs assessor, supported by my University disabilities department, but was told by SFE that the laptop was fit for purpose and couldn’t be exchanged. I had to purchase a computer out of my own money, if I hadn’t, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have been able to continue studying.
The price of the right support
Disabled students are given a budget of just over £5000 to spend on technology for the entire degree, and we spend up to £22,000 on human support per year. This means we often rely on other people, when in fact if we had a greater technology allowance, we could purchase assistive or mainstream technology that we need.
We are left in a difficult position, needing to rely on human support because our technology allowance is so low and yet denied some of the support we need because we are told we should use technology.
Getting around campus
The struggle for equal access for blind students doesn’t end with technology. I am a guide dog handler and because of this, SFE will not fund any orientation and mobility training for me on campus. They have said it is the responsibility of Guide Dogs for the Blind Association to provide this training. It’s deeply concerning that responsibility is placed on a charity without much government support.
I was fortunate to have my university placement confirmed in plenty of time and was able to schedule this training months in advance. I worry for other guide dog handlers who go through clearing and may be left unable to navigate their environment.
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