Information, advice and guidance
Disability support

Supporting students with disabilities to access Higher Education

Supporting students with disabilities to access university may feel overwhelming - the processes are different to those in schools or colleges, there is no one person to contact and funding and support come from different organisations. This article will introduce you to three main areas of support that students can access whilst at university.

Who is a disabled student?

Universities will use the Equality Act 2010 definition of disability which defines a disabled person as having a “physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.” 

In the context of being a student, normal daily activities which could be affected by disability include note taking, writing, researching, reading large volumes of text and moving between locations.  

This definition includes students who:

> are deaf or hard of hearing 
> are blind or partially sighted
> have a physical disability, and/or mobility difficulties
> have a specific learning difficulty (e.g. dyslexia or dyspraxia)
> have a developmental learning or behavioural condition (e.g. AD(H)D) 
> are on the autism spectrum (including Asperger Syndrome) 
> have a mental health condition (e.g. depression, anxiety) 
> have a long-term medical condition (e.g. chronic fatigue syndrome, asthma, epilepsy, diabetes, cancer, HIV) 
> have a combination of these

The three main areas of support for disabled students at university

Support for students comes from three different sources. The approach may be different from what students are used to at school or college and could seem more disjointed at first:  

  1. The university – The institution they are applying for will provide support through inclusive teaching practices and reasonable adjustments. It is important to note that the support that universities can offer will be academic focused. For example, students who require them will be able to access flat-floored and accessible rooms, extended examinations and note takers.  
  2. Funding – Students eligible for student finance can also apply for Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) which provides additional resources to meet the costs of identified specialist support.  
  3. External Providers – This includes social services, care providers and charities. Support provided can include personal care and living skills including transport, support etc.  

All three of these support sources will require the student to take charge of the process, it is the responsibility of the student, not of the school/college or parent/carer to arrange these. 

Support from the University

Firstly, it’s important to remember that getting support in place ready for the student to start university in the autumn can take time. For this reason, please do encourage students to contact their institutions as soon as possible, usually around the same time they submit their UCAS application. It does not matter if students have not accepted or been offered a place at university to begin the process, the sooner they contact institutions the better. They could contact all five of their options or at least the top three to start the conversation. They could tell them:   

> What support has been in place at school or college. This gives the university a good starting point, although please remember that support may not be completely like-for-like.  
> Any exam arrangements that were in place in the past e.g. extended timings and breaks, as these do not transfer automatically from school and FE to HE
> Any other disability requirements e.g. alternative accommodation

Universities have dedicated teams in place to support disabled students whilst at university, so do encourage your students to get in touch with them to start this conversation. Some universities will be supporting many thousands of students, so it is important that students are proactive and engaged.  

Whilst at university there is a clear emphasis on skills development and self-reliance in preparation for employment so it is also important for students to understand that support received at university may not be like-for-like when compared to the support they have received at school or college. This is because the support comes from different providers and has a different focus. Universities themselves can offer support for the academic side of things, however if students need social or personal care support then this is separate to the support offered by the university and is the responsibility of the student to arrange.  

Disclosure and confidentiality

When applying for university, students should be encouraged to disclose their disability (even if they are not sure if they have a disability/it has not been diagnosed yet) on their UCAS application. Initially, this is the only way that the institution will know that the student has a disability and may need support. It is a myth that having a disability will affect students’ applications in any way. All protected characteristics are hidden during the admissions process, and information about disability is withheld from admissions tutors when they are deciding whether to offer students places. The disability information only goes to the teams who need it to contact the student to start arranging support. If the student does not disclose their disability on their UCAS form, then the university will not know that they need support, and they may risk having no support in place for when they begin their studies.  

Support from Disabled Students Allowance (DSA)

Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) is a non-repayable grant to support students whilst they are at university. The DSA is not means tested, therefore it is not based on household income. It can be used to meet the costs of specialist support such as specialist reading or computing equipment. This is not a loan and students do not have to pay this back, however the money does not go into students’ bank accounts. Instead, it is used to fund support over and above the reasonable adjustments offered by the university.  

Around 220,000 students apply for DSA every year however, only 40% of students know about DSA before they start university. There is some confusion among students about what the DSA is for and whether they are eligible to apply for it, particularly among those with mental health conditions and long-term conditions, as shown in The Evaluation of Disabled Students' Allowances report. If students are unsure whether they will be eligible, please encourage them to contact Student Finance directly.  

It is vital that students engage with the DSA process as early as possible! Students can apply for DSA as part of their their normal student finance application, which is typically open from March of their final year of school or college. It is not well known, but students can apply for DSA even if they do not have an offer from a university yet. They can update their application with their confirmed university later on. It is important to note that these processes can be lengthy, therefore, the earlier students apply the better chance they will have of funds being available for when they start their course.  

Universities, parents and teachers can offer support and advice with these applications; however, it is important to note that the student is the primary contact and will be responsible for managing this process.  

Top tips:

> Support students to engage with universities as early as they can to ensure relevant support is in place for when they begin their course.  
Encourage students to declare disabilities on their UCAS application so universities can ascertain what support is required as quickly as possible. This will not affect their application status!  
Students should apply for DSA as soon as possible, they do not need to have confirmed an offer from a university. 
> It is the student’s responsibility to manage all these processes themselves, not a parent/carer, teachers or the university.  

Further resources:

> Diversity and Ability resources 
> Diversity and Ability guide to Disabled Students' Allowance 
> Disabled Students' Allowance - GOV.UK 
> UCAS guide to supporting disabled students 
> Advancing Access resource – Supporting students with disabilities 
> Advancing Access case study video – Gemma – My university life 
> Advancing Access case study video – Matt – My university life  



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