Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) and student support

Before Christmas, after much nagging, I finally sent off my DSA application form. It was originally rejected due to how brief my psychiatrists supporting letter was, but was accepted after they sent her a form. I had my assessment, and last week I started receiving support.

I’ve been given software etc., but most importantly, I now have a learning mentor who is funded to spend 60hrs per academic year with me. I’ve now seen her twice, and the difference it is making is already evident. I’m not yet “opening up to her”, I generally take time to trust someone with personal things, so at no point have we even brought up my mental health problems. However, it is really helping me to get a structure to my work, talk through ideas and make my work better. This morning I ran through my dissertation proposal with her, and although it wasn’t massive changes that were made, it now reads a lot better. She has also offered to see me on Monday, as she’s away most of Easter, and she said it doesn’t necessarily have to be to go over academic work.

I am really, well, sad. Sad is such a pathetic word, yet very apt. I am sad that I did not access this support sooner. I’ve turned to a number of different people for support at different times, and having one main person would have been easier. Having the support in place before reaching a crisis point would also have been better.

My reasons for not applying were largely down to two things. Firstly, I do not like the idea of receiving ‘benefits’. I am not bothered about being labelled as having a disability as it really doesn’t change anything, but the idea of being given something because of my issues is something I struggle with. Whenever people have brought up me applying for benefits pre-university, I always refused. However the plus, for me, with DSA, is that they do not give me the money. They pay for the things I need i.e. to the learning support company the mentor works for.

The second problem was that I think I was afraid of being told “why the hell would we give you help?”, and that made me scared to apply.

What makes me more ‘sad’ is the idea that there are other students out there who do not access this help like me, or never. Students who may end up receiving a degree at a standard lower than they are capable of, or even in them leaving university before completing. I found some data from my university a couple of years back. Only 51% of disabled students had applied for DSA, and only 49% had accessed the universities support services. Half of all students equates to a lot of students with no help.

This is why I am so passionate about making a difference. I see it like this, I cannot turn back time and make myself apply sooner. I can however use my negative experience to make sure it is a situation that is improved. If just one single student accesses support who otherwise wouldn’t have, this is worth doing. I kept asking myself before presenting my motion to the student council, ‘why the hell am I voluntarily standing up in front of a crowd of people?’. I’ve never spoken in front of so many people before, and I never do so out of choice.

What I kept remembering was, that this can make a difference, and knowing you can make a difference to others somehow helps you to push your own boundaries – so you’re actually helping yourself to, as a by-product.

I’m going to a meeting at the student union to talk about what questions need to be asked, and then there will be a focus group next month, before implementing a campaign, and lobbying the university to join in. I’m really excited, but I am also conscious that I am going to have to assert myself if I think they are missing something, because I want this to make a difference. I don’t just want to be seen as trying to.

One of my main points I have decided on so far is that personal tutors, lecturers and course leads should all be made more aware of what is on offer, and of DSA. This is because I believe these people are often the ones who first find out about a students disability, and if they could signpost them elsewhere, or encourage them to apply for DSA, this could change things. They of course need to also understand what DSA can provide so that information given is correct.

The bottom line is, I hate to think that there is a student out there who feels unable to access support, for whatever reason, but that wants to. I am sure there are plenty of students who do not want to apply, and that is perfectly fine. However, those that do, should not be left struggling. A disability is only disabling if the right support isn’t in place, and a students disability should not lead to them not achieving their full potential because the help is there.

It is ok to need help, it is ok to ask for it, and it really can make the difference. 

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