Sunday, 31 August 2014

10 things you need to know about getting to uni as a disabled student.

This is not about getting in to university but actually getting there, jumping through the hoops and processes so university is actually possible once you've got in.
Where I use the words Disabled or Disability I mean anything that qualifies as a disability under the equality act having a "substantial" and "long-term" negative effect on a person's abilities. This includes both physical and mental illnesses or impairments.*

1. Get started early - everything is easier when you don't have to stress about getting everything sorted in time. I first contacted my home social care department in March about getting personal care at uni, it took until this week (Week begininng 25.8.14) to see a social worker. There is a lot to sort and a lot of it takes time to muddle through. It's never too early to start approaching people and gauging what support is out there.

2. It's going to be hard work - as much as nondisabled students may complain about having to jump through hoops to get into and to get everything ready for university as a disabled person you will have at least twice as many things to do. Just keep on top of everything (write a list if you're at risk of forgetting) and you should be okay.

3. Help is out there - the easiest way to get it is to disclose your disability on your UCAS application so the universities know to contact you about any support you might need straight after they make you an offer. If you don't want to do that though you can always disclose directly to the universities after you get a response from them.

4. Check out each university's provision for disabled students before you apply - that way you know what you're in for whichever one you get into. Honestly, I discounted some uni's because their campuses were too hilly!
Try to talk to disabled students who are at or have graduated from that uni and get their feel of things.
Contact the open day organisers in advance and ask to see some accessible accommodation if you're planning on staying in halls (they will show you the nicest, most expensive one!).
Speak to the folks from the disabled students office at the open day, take their contact details and ask them any questions you can think of. Ask what support they offer for students with a disability like yours.
If your disability is mainly physical then make sure to have a look at the Trail Blazers University Challenge report here and see how the universities on your shortlist score on accessibility.
Have a look around as many areas of the campus as possible to check for yourself if it's suitable for you.

5. Apply for Disabled Student's Allowance (DSA) - I was a bit anxious about this with the memories of applying for DLA and ESA (the replacement for Incapacity Benefit) fresh in my mind. If you feel this way then fear not! For me at least, the experience was completely different. One of the advisers at my university's Disability Support Office helped me fill in the form and the Study Needs Assessment really was an assessment of my study needs, not an interrogation.
They can help with all sorts of things (equipment, study support, help in the library, mentoring, taxi fares) so it's worth giving it a go even if you're not certain that you need any extra help.

6. If you need help with personal care at uni you will need to talk the social care/social services department in the area you live now - this one only really applies if you will be moving out of area for uni. If you will still be living within the same council area then ignore this one.
Because it is expected that students will return home out of term time they are classed as "ordinarily resident" in the town of their permanent address. More information about this is available here. Unless you live in a university town then expect you home social services department to be unfamiliar with this. I had to quote the information on the page I linked and then wait for a member of staff to look it up and ask their manager about it.

7. You can keep ESA whilst studying - but only if you receive DLA, PIP or a similar allowance. You have to register a change of circumstances as student maintenance loan counts as income. If you're on income related ESA it receiving a maintenance loan will probably reduce the amount of ESA you're entitled to. More information available here.
However if you recieve DLA/PIP/other and give Student Finance evidence of that any maintenance grant you are entitled to will be given as a "Special Support Grant" and won't affect any income related benefit you get.

8. If you are staying in halls be aware that many uni's adapted rooms are in the newer, more expensive accommodation - if the only rooms that are suitable for you are  more expensive than halls you would live in otherwise/halls you can afford you may be able to get a reduction on the rent. You need to talk to the accommodation office and the disabled student's office at your uni about this but it does qualify as indirect discrimination**. It is at the discretion of the university but all five of the ones I applied to agreed (in principal) that I would not have to pay the full rent if their accessible accommodation was more expensive than what I would have otherwise.

9. Make full use of the disabled students' office - the advisers there know what you're likely to need to do to get the help you need. They will be able to help you with things you're anxious about and put you in touch with the right people. They can also help to smooth the transition once you get to uni.

10. You're not alone! - Lots of disabled students go to uni each year and will have been through very similar things, look about on twitter and you'll be sure to find some! If you have any problems the National Union of Students is on your side. Most student unions have a disabled students' rep and nationally the NUS is trying to make life easier for disabled students. They're the folks to go to if you have any disputes related to your disability or ideas of how to improve things.

*Full disclosure, my disability is mainly physical so this post leans more towards physical stuff, I've tried to make it as inclusive as possible but not all points will apply to all people.
**Only providing newer/higher end/expensive accessible accommodation means that you have no option to choose something cheaper when non-disabled students do. Charging you the same rate as students who actively choose to live in pricier accommodation constitute's unfair treatment as a result of disability. I don't think it has been tested in court though so universities are not obliged to reduce the rent.