Last week, thousands of students excitedly and nervously opened envelopes which contained a piece of paper which would set the course of their future paths – their A Level results. Many of these young people who achieved the grades they needed, will now be looking forward to flying the nest and heading off to university later this year. But for young disabled people who want to go to university, the ride might not be so smooth. For many disabled students the next couple of months will be spent applying for the Disabled Student’s Allowance, battling with their local authority to get a care package in place, and stressing about whether their access needs will be fully met by their chosen university. It can feel like planning a military operation!
Universities Minister Greg Clark said on Thursday that the Government wants to, “remove the cap on aspiration…we want every young person, who can benefit from higher education, to be able to do so.” Young disabled people aspire to have a good education and career just like everyone else, but I know from experience that being able to get into university is still all too often a massive challenge when you have a disability.
I took a head start when it came to applying to university. The University of Ulster had an open day specifically for students with disabilities, which I attended two years before I started. I still faced barriers, such as getting the right technology in place to assist my studies, such as a dictaphone and the right computer software, and finding the right personal assistant, who does everything from taking notes to assisting me when I need a caffeine boost! My biggest barrier was that I did not have three A Levels due to not being allowed to change schools to sit the exams I needed to study Genetics. This was because of a slow, bureaucratic system that wanted endless assessments on a school that my occupational therapist had already assessed and declared a safe environment for another pupil. This experience turned into a landmark case taken on by the Equality Commission and was the first discrimination case won under the Disability Discrimination Act for education in Northern Ireland. Despite this, I knew that I would have to do a Higher National Diploma (HND), but my health got in the way of going down the route of medical and biological science, so I switched to a HND in Broadcast Journalism. Two years on, I graduated as student of the year because of my grades and applied for an undergraduate degree at the University of Ulster in Public Relations.
I’m a member of the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign’s Trailblazers network, a group of young disabled campaigners fighting social injustices that young disabled people face. Last year, our report on access to higher education, University Challenge, looked at the challenges young disabled people face when planning to go to university. We contacted the top 100 hundred universities in the UK and found that only half of these universities audited had confirmed that all teaching rooms, study rooms and libraries would be fully accessible for students with mobility difficulties. In 50 percent of cases, not all courses will take place at facilities accessible to all students. That means around 50 of the top universities would not be fully accessible for a disabled student wanting to study there, depending on what course they chose. We also found that over half of the young disabled people we spoke to said they would feel disadvantaged going through the clearing system, because of the limited time they would then have in finding an accessible university and get solutions to their support needs put in place. This can put huge barriers in the way of young disabled people achieving their full potential and ensuring a level-footing with non-disabled peers.
One of the biggest challenges for young disabled people wanting to go to university is how their care needs will be supported. Thirty percent of the young disabled people we spoke to felt limited in where they could choose to study, owing to concerns over their care packages. I decided that due to frequent ill health it would be best for me to stay at home, and travel the 90 minutes to university every day. My parents drove me up and down due to safety concerns with the local public transport and taxi networks. They received a travel allowance of just £3 per day, while the Education and Library Board openly offered to pay upwards of £90 a day for a taxi, which would have been unsafe due to lack of tie-downs to secure the 150KG weight of my wheelchair and the fact I wouldn’t be able to have someone travel with me which is essential because of my compromised breathing. Whilst securing 30 hours per week note taking and campus assistance for the library and other academic activities was simple, getting just 10 hours a week from my local authority to pay for personal assistance during breaks and for toileting was more difficult. I had to use some hours that I really needed for my care at home. I can only imagine the difficulties faced by those who move on campus in securing the 24-hour a day care that is sometimes needed.
Currently, one of the biggest concerns young disabled people hoping to go to university next year have is how the planned cuts to the Disabled Student’s Allowance in 2015/2016 may affect them. The DSA is a fund which supports disabled students going through university with things like specialist equipment such as computers and speech-to-text software, non-medical helpers and extra travel costs. The Government wants universities to take responsibility for some of this support. Under the proposed changes, non-medical helpers such as note-takers may no longer be provided to some disabled students. And David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, has said that, “The additional costs of specialist accommodation will no longer be met by DSAs, other than in exceptional circumstances.” According to the National Union of Students’ briefing on these proposed changes, “In the absence of additional funds, universities will either have to cut other services to balance their budget – or worse, will have a strong disincentive to recruit disabled students in the first place.”
Many young disabled people fear that this might mean some universities who already have limited budgets will be less likely to proactively encourage disabled students to apply for a place. I’m lucky in that I’m now waiting to start an MSc in Communication and Public Relations, specialising in Political Lobbying so I should not see any affect in the cuts. However, DSA as it stands sometimes does not go far enough, but is completely essential for me if I am to build a successful career in my chosen field.
Young disabled people who want to go to university should be given the same support and encouragement as non-disabled students. We, like our non-disabled peers, have a deep desire to learn, and planning to go to university should be an easy process for us, not a battle for our rights or a stressful time. Disabled students need to be able to focus on getting stuck into their courses and settling into university life.