Evolution or extinction? Adapting the DSA to a changing world.

Nothing is perfect and nothing stays the same for long. This is as true of the Disabled Students Allowance as anything else. In this first of two blog posts, Adam Tweed from AbilityNet reflects on some of the issues from an assessor perspective.  How can organisations – and indeed government – evolve the system to something more in touch with a 21st century learning ecosystem?

“I wish I’d have done this sooner.”

It’s a familiar phrase and a phrase most people working in HE/FE or supporting students have  heard at one time or another. For those of us who have heard it often; we hear it as a student reaches crisis point. This crisis point may be as the result of a mental health condition, which in turn can often be a result of an undiagnosed or poorly managed primary issue such as dyslexia or dyslexic traits. In terms of the figures from AbilityNet, around a quarter of students seen are non-first-year students, and of these a significant proportion are in the situation described above.

The Summary of Evaluation of Disabled Students’ Allowances report highlighted;

Students who received DSAs for the first time from 2016/17 onwards were less likely to have heard of them before starting their course. They were also less likely to say they felt well informed about DSAs prior to starting their course, compared to those who first received DSAs before 2016/17.”

Why so invisible?

So, what is the problem? What would stop a student from accessing support, or perhaps to put it more crudely; from accessing funding allocated for additional support? Could it be semantics? Does the fact that it is a “‘Disabled’ Students Allowance” mean that those students who do not identify as disabled simply do not consider themselves eligible? How common is it, for example, for someone experiencing a mental health problem to consider themselves as having a ‘disability’? How about neurodiverse conditions? By differentiating learning ‘difference’ as opposed to learning disability have we (ironically) excluded a significant proportion of SpLD students? Have inclusive learning practices, accessibility by design and the widespread acceptance of the social model of disability meant students neither seek nor require additional support. The Summary of Evaluation of Disabled Students’ Allowances report states that; “the majority (85%) of disabled students reported that at least one form of learning support was offered by their Higher Education Provider (HEP)”. However, we all know ‘at least one’ is not a statistic to be proud of, but perhaps more significantly the report also goes on to highlight;

“Overall, students who received DSAs were more likely than non-recipients to cite that their HEP offered any form of support (89% compared with 82%), and in particular DSAs recipients were more aware of the availability of HEP support through: course materials online; specialist disability advisers; lecture notes in advance; e-books, font and braille; and the provision of specialist software/assistive technology.”

The report indicates then that signposting to DSA apparently results in increased awareness of locally available support, not as one might assume; locally available support leads students to dismiss DSA support and although the issues above may account for a proportion of non or late-applicants, there are clearly other forces at play.

Direct signposting of support is also problematic and contentious, and whilst competition within the sector is healthy, the actions we may take to protect ourselves as service providers may inadvertently result in the DSA remaining an “unknown unknown” to many students.

The application barrier

Whether you become aware of the DSA through pre-planning or through crisis the next barrier is application. You might argue that the system is geared towards those students who are prepared to:

  • help themselves,
  • take an active role in accessing what they are entitled to,
  • be proactive about finding available support ,
  • collect and organise evidence,
  • commit to keep going enough (or have someone committed on their behalf).

Others may not find themselves in such a position; there are those for whom the difficulties associated with the application process outweigh any perceived benefit; as the Evaluation of DSA’s report highlights;

“…those with mental health conditions were more likely to find it harder to find evidence and wanted more guidance; while those with a long-term health condition were more likely to find it difficult to provide evidence; and those with learning difficulties or disabilities were more likely to have trouble with the length of the form or unclear language.”

It can be an expensive process too with a simple doctor’s certificate costing around £60 and educational assessments costing in excess of £300. Although many institutions may offer funding, this is not always clear and with no guarantee of diagnosis or acceptance of diagnosis by a funding body, it is clear to see how this becomes the next hurdle in the way.

An online advantage?

Moving the application process online is no panacea, however, it is a significant improvement to the daunting nature of a paper-based form. An online system lends itself to more straightforward remote support; from parents, friends, university/college staff. Document upload in electronic format provides the reassurance that the required documentation has been included and avoids the all-too-familiar turning upside-down of a room to find a paper document. Fundamentally though, online is the way we expect to be able to do everything now and the majority of students in the generation currently of university age have never known any different.

DSA support – a step or a ramp?

So, should the DSA function as an all-or-nothing? Should it be that support is only accessed in a single ‘hit’ and only once detailed evidence has been submitted and approved? Or could we look to a more tiered assessment offering where simple low-cost solutions are readily available? Shorter assessments requiring less onerous evidence could be provided in order to access more generic support that is trialled and, if proven to be insufficient, then at least remains in place whilst the process of a more detailed assessment and support recommendations package is put together. Initial assessments could be provided at reduced cost due to the reduction in administration and write-up time, and funding body case officers would be able to process this initial application tier more rapidly as the support would not be expected to be high-cost or specialist. It is model where an assessor is the equivalent of your local GP and the assistance prescribed is more akin to a quick course of antibiotics and “come back in two weeks if things haven’t improved.”

To extend the GP analogy further, from the student perspective; an initial check-up is very different from admitting a problem and may help to address some of the issues identified with perceived eligibility and not identifying as disabled. In terms of the process itself, support would be in place quickly and with less evidence required and therefore is less likely to be sought only at crisis-point. Should a more detailed assessment be necessary or prudent, there will be a basic familiarity with the process and an active account on the funding body system as opposed to being faced with starting from scratch.

Babies, bathwater – and evolution

The positive impact of the DSA is undisputable; of the students surveyed in the Evaluation report, 81% reported that they were “satisfied with their overall experience of the assessment, and two-thirds were also satisfied with the amount of funding they were entitled to.” 73% “were satisfied with the type of support they were entitled to under DSAs”. This is further supported by the testimonials of students who have gone through the DSA process:

“I am certain that I would not have been able to achieve a degree without the help I received from DSA.”  Jose – Undergraduate

“From feeling like I had to drop out to experiencing university like everyone else is something I will always be grateful for.”  Ellouise – Undergraduate

“It has still been challenging BUT with DSA support/equipment I am nearly there. Thank you!”  Alison – Undergraduate

We may recognise the shortfalls of the system, we may be frustrated by the bureaucracy, but all parties need to work together in order to ensure the DSA evolves rather than expires. We need to increase the visibility of the scheme whilst maintaining the impartiality of providers and we need to examine the application process to ensure that the process itself does not become the single most daunting barrier to accessing support.



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