When I was eight I was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia, I was ticcing a bit then too, but they were mild, and it wasn’t until they intensified in my early twenties that I was diagnosed with Tourettes. I was a chaotic child but I was lucky to be (mostly) well supported throughout my education.
Despite the understanding and help I received, I found learning hard. But in the run-up to my GCSE’s I had an epiphany – I discovered that if learning and remembering things the way I was being taught wasn’t working, I could try a different approach.
By using the specialist study skills strategies I’d been taught since primary school and my obsessive tendencies I found a way of revising that worked for me. This, along with two important provisions, one giving me extra time to complete exams, and the other meaning that my spelling, grammar and handwriting wouldn’t count against my mark, meant I did much better than anyone was expecting.
So instead of leaving school after GCSE’s as planned, I stayed on and did A Levels. My newfound confidence in learning and my ability to find practical ways to make the process easier grew. I borrowed my dad’s Dictaphone and recorded a lot of my lessons, listening back to them on long walks with the dog.
What no one else knew at the time was that it wasn’t just my slow writing that made note-taking during lessons difficult, it was also that I was finding it increasingly hard to stay still. Being able to listen to lessons again while I was on my own (and on the move) made a huge difference to my ability to take in information.
The other technological development that changed my academic life was the use of computers. Suddenly I could move information about on the page without starting from scratch each time, and my obsession with writing perfect neat lines became a lot less restricting.
So I left school with A Levels in Art, History and English Literature and went to university to study art. University life suited me and despite my tics becoming more apparent and troublesome at this time, I thrived in the creative environment. A large part of my success was due to the Disabled Student Allowance (DSA) – this funding covers the extra costs of studying for students with a disability or specific learning difficulty.
For me it meant I finally had my own Dictaphone and a computer with specialist software. I was able to use these practical tools to continue to learn in a way that worked for me. I left university with a first class degree, something I’m confident wouldn’t have happened had I not had the equipment and support provided by the DSA.
Significantly the DSA was assessed and tailored to meet my specific needs and meant I was able to keep up with my peers. The funding levels the playing field and ensures disabled students have what they need to succeed, whether it’s equipment, support workers or extra travel expenses.
Now this provision, essential for ensuring equality for disabled students, is under threat.
A few months ago Universities Minister David Willetts announced plans to ‘modernise’ support for disabled students. As has become all too clear over the last four years, when a Government Minister uses words such as ‘modernise’ ‘reform’ ‘streamline’ or ‘target’ they mean cut, ravage, dismantle and destroy.
The ill-defined and sweeping proposals in his announcement reveal yet another hard-won form of support for equality is under attack.
The proposals include:
• Restricting support for students with specific learning difficulties
• Vastly reducing the provision of equipment
• Restricting access to non-medical help (support workers)
• Ending funding for specialist accommodation
• Redefining disability
Willett’s big idea is that universities would cover the gaping hole in support that would be left by the changes to DSA, but with no additional funding or resources, and with their budgets already slashed.
So to David Willetts, with apologies if I seem a little dim, here are the questions I’d like you to answer:
• Where can I find the full impact-assessment for this proposed policy?
• What is your evidence for believing that higher education institutions are better placed to respond to disabled students’ needs than the DSA?
• What is your rationale for cutting support to students who have disabilities that relate to their learning?
• What is your definition of complex needs and who will assess them?
• You say only the ‘most specialist’ non-medical help will be funded, what constitutes ‘most specialist’ and how are students expected to know where on the scale of specialism the help they need falls?
• What support and resources will be made available to higher education institutions to ensure that they can help disabled students access university education?
• Which ‘specialists in the sector’ will you be consulting with, and what exactly will you be consulting on? Is it:
a) how best to support students with specific learning difficulties or
b) how best to tell them about what’s been cut, and which voluntary sector organisations’ queue for support they can join?
• How do you explain your theory that generic support identified and provided by cash-strapped universities, rather than tailored support based on an independent assessment of needs, will enable students to achieve greater independence and autonomy?
• Where are disabled students with specialist accommodation-needs expected to live if funding for this is no longer covered by the DSA?
• What will be done to correct the disparity in numbers of disabled students between universities? For example 2.6% of students at your university, Oxford, have a learning difficulty compared to 17% at mine, University of the Arts London.
My university life was happy and successful. The support I was given both by the institution and by the DSA meant I was able to succeed in a way that would previously have been thought impossible. This has had a big impact on my life chances, my career and my financial independence. It was at university that I first began to appreciate fully that the difficulties arising from my disability could be overcome by practical solutions and openness, and this knowledge has served me well and helped me remain resilient and independent in the face of big personal challenges.
Not only do these cuts threaten the success of individuals, they also risk making our institutions even less diverse, and embedding discrimination within higher education.
Mr Willetts I don’t expect you to answer all my questions any time soon, you can have some extra time if you need it.
Whether this issue directly affects you or not, please write to or email your MP asking them to oppose any cuts to the DSA. You can find out more about the National Union of Students (NUS) campaign on this issue here or by checking out the Twitter hashtags: #degreesofdiscrimination and #DontCutMeOut.
We must act swiftly before our politicians take yet another dangerous leap away from equality.