Monday 7 April 2014

Disabled Students' Allowance Targeted for Cuts.

A press release and Parliamentary Written Answer (pretty much identical with each other) from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) announces that they are taking 'measures to modernise the Disabled Students’ Allowances'. Allegedly this is in pursuit of 'Making the higher education system more efficient and diverse' and 'Widening participation in higher education'.

Disabled people have heard the language of 'modernising' benefits before, it is exactly the language used to describe the 'need' for PIP to replace DLA, as is the pronouncement that 'It has been almost 25 years since the DSA scheme was reviewed' and we know the reality that the fine words hide is that the intent is cutting support, not enhancing it. Similarly 'We recognise that students will continue to need support. However, we believe that Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are better placed to consider how to respond in many cases' could come straight out of the press release announcing the axing of the ILF in favour of care (supposedly) provided by councils. There are also clear parallels with DWP's ham-handed fiddling about with support provided to disabled people under the Access to Work scheme. In fact many of the items targeted for withdrawal of support appear identical to those targeted in the AtW cuts several years ago, the same cuts that produced a disastrous fall-off in uptake of AtW by disabled people.

A further paper from BIS provides some additional, but still incomplete details on the changes. Taking all the documents together still leaves some explicit blanks, and some deliberate obfuscation, but we know the changes include the following:

As BIS now expects every student to have their own PC it will no longer provide standard-spec computers to students whose disability means that they need one in order to complete their course. This policy is justified based on a survey by student insurer Endsleigh (yes, really) that found 96% of students do - so that would be 4% who don't (and likely more, as the survey was reportedly conducted via email, which rather presupposes access to a computer), which with 2,340,275 students in 2012/13 equates to 93,600-plus students without computers of their own, a not-inconsiderable number. As disabled students will often be multiply disadvantaged, with families potentially having straitened finances due to relying on benefits such as Carer's Allowance and the like, together with a much reduced ability to access part-time work while undertaking their degree, those 93,600 students without computers of their own are likely to include a greater proportion of disabled students than in the main, computer-owning, student population. Worse, disabled students who cannot afford PCs of their own will generally find it more difficult to access publicly available computers on the college network. Additionally axed are any software or peripherals that might be generally applicable, together with insurance costs.

These cuts deliberately ignore an fundamental principle of disability equality: a non-disabled person, who can if they so desire choose to complete their degree without a PC of their own, has the option to decide whether to buy PC or software or insurance, or not; paying for them is a voluntary cost for their own convenience. For a disabled student, on the other hand, who would not be able to complete their degree without computer and supporting software, they are mandatory costs to participate, and absolute dependence on the computer means that so too is the insurance payment.

Higher-spec computers will now only be provided if a student's disability requires it and not "simply because of the way in which a course is delivered". It is unclear precisely what BIS mean by this, but students whose courses rely on them having access to better than standard PC/laptop because of the subject matter, for instance a computer-graphics based degree, may in future find themselves unable to access the hardware they need in order to proceed with their degree. And of course the complexity of disability means that this isn't simply an either/or question; if I was re-doing my computer science degree course now then I would likely require both PC and laptop, laptop because dyspraxia means I couldn't take notes in lectures by hand, PC because hypermobility means I can't sit hunched over a laptop for hours back in my room. It is this kind of subtle interaction of multiple disabilities feeding through into non-obvious individually specific requirements which is likely to be significantly more poorly served as a result of these changes.

Also no longer supported are consumable costs, which initially may not sound too significant, however the absolute dependence of a disabled student on their computer necessarily means parallel needs for computer consumables, to a degree not experienced by non-disabled students, together with disability specific consumable needs such as braille paper, coloured paper (needed by some people with dyslexia), together with additional photocopying costs, additional travel costs if public transport is not accessible, mini-fridges to hold medication, and so on. One of the constants of disability is it always costs more, and often in ways which are specific to individual disabilities, and even to individual experiences of disability.

Worryingly an entire group of disabilities is singled out in a way which suggests support for them is to be axed. The press release states: "Students with Specific Learning Difficulties will continue to receive support through DSAs where their support needs are considered to be more complex", with the clear implication that people with less-complex support needs are to have their support axed entirely. (In the spirit of academic openness I should note here that I have at least one Specific Learning Disability - dyspraxia). Dyslexia is perhaps the best known SpLD, but the group also include dyspraxia, dyscalculia, ADD/ADHD and Auditory Processing Disorder. So ironically the group of students targeted for cuts explicitly on the grounds of their particular disability are those whose disability explicitly affects their abilities around learning. The press release also notes "We will be consulting with specialists in the sector to ensure that Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD) students understand the type of support they can expect to receive and who will provide it." Which rather seems to say that students with SpLDs are at fault for expecting any support from BIS. And 'SpLD students'? Really, BIS? Is that the best way to refer to us you can think of? Equally the statement informs us that BIS are launching the cuts now, but that they haven't yet bothered to speak to the subject matter specialists. Sadly this kind of cut first, consult the experts later exercise is all to common.

A comment on Twitter in response to the news noted that many people with SpLDs use DSA funding/support for dictaphones/high-end voice recorders to allow them to record lectures and tutorials to allow them to analyse and annotate what was said at their own pace, another comment pointed out that students with SpLDs have already been having to self-fund assessments by Educational Psychologists in order to access the support they need through DSAs, but if that support isn't going to be there at all, then they won't be able to justify the cost, even though it might help in dealing with their HEI in other ways.

The BIS paper also state that it will now only fund "the most specialist Non-Medical Help," which is clarified as only Band 3 and 4 staff. The Band 1 and 2 support workers who will no longer be funded include: "Practical Support Assistants, Library Support Assistants, Reader, Scribes, Workshop/Laboratory Assistant, Sighted Guides, Proof Readers (Band 1) and Study Assistants, Examination Support Workers, and Manual Notetakers (Band 2). Practically every disabled person I know who has been through the university system in the last few years has been absolutely dependent on one or more of that list. I rather suspect BIS are hoping that disabled students can be forced to rely on friends and classmates in order to provide these services, much as much of the care system depends on unpaid or poorly paid family carers.

The press release further states "HEIs are expected to consider how they deliver information to students and whether strategies can be put in place to reduce the need for support workers", which appears to specifically address notetakers/readers/library support assistants, and utterly fails to understand how a notetaker in particular is used, particularly how they may be used in tutorial groups around spontaneous discussion. Equally the paper states "We no longer expect assistive technology and non-medical helper support to be provided for the same purpose. This is regarded as double-funding." never mind that a disabled person might need a notetaker in a tutorial, but find it easier to record a lecture to work through later. In an bizarre attempt at victim-blaming, the press-release justifies this as "encourag(ing) greater independence and autonomy for their students." So apparently if a disabled person needs a support worker, BIS feel that this is because they are somehow inadequate.

With regard to specialist accessible accommodation, BIS say they will not meet any additional costs, except in exceptional circumstances. Now clearly a disabled person shouldn't be charged more for accessible accommodation than a non-disabled person is charged for standard accomodation, but if BIS withdraw support, and the HEI does charge more, then clearly it isn't BIS that will suffer, it is the disabled person.

And in fact this discrepancy between what BIS expects the HEIs to provide and what they actually provide appears to be fundamental to a major part of the cuts. "it is expected that HEIs", "HEIs are expected","It is for HEIs to consider". BIS clearly believes HEIs should be doing more to support their disabled students/wants to transfer support costs from central government to the individual HEIs. In order to force them to take action on this BIS is therefore going to withdraw most of the support it has been giving disabled students, victimising them twice over, and no doubt expecting change to happen not because the HEIs suddenly realising they haven't been giving enough support, but through the medium of individual disabled students being forced to sue for reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010. There is a single word description for this policy of using disabled students as their weapon: cowardice.

The Equality Act 2010, and the Disability Discrimination Acts 1995 and 2005 before it, were deliberately hamstrung by devolving enforcement onto disabled people, in full knowledge that they would generally lack the physical, mental and monetary resources to take a legal action through the courts against what would generally be a larger and much better funded opponent. (I have done this with an Employment Tribunal, the process was mentally and physically exhausting, even with legal support from my union, and we settled before we ever got to Tribunal). A disabled student, away from home for the first time, trying to find out how to manage their necessary personal assistants, access an often inaccessible campus, explain their access needs to often profoundly ignorant academic staff, negotiate all the complexities of grants and funding, with a whole extra level of disability specific funding on top, and have a normal campus life on top of that, is simply in no position to take on a legal action under the Equality Act. Worse an action under the Equality Act is likely to take months, if not years, and the student needs that support now. And all the time BIS will be piously saying "It is the HEI that failed to meet its legal obligations, not us." Like I said, cowardice.

As an afterthought, note that there should be an Equalities Impact Assessment to go with this change, in fact the press-release explicitly references it, saying changes are "subject to the Equality Impact Assessment", and BIS are legally required to produce one under the Equality Act 2010 as this is a policy change specifically affecting disabled people, but I cannot find one on the BIS website, though EIAs for earlier changes to DSA are present. Have BIS actually published the policy without doing the EIA first?


  1. Excellent post. I received a DSA at uni, and I also worked as a notetaker and reader for other students. Some of what I obtained wasn't really suitable for my needs, but some was very important. It seems that the plan is moving towards removing all stuff from students in case it's not suitable, rather than considering students' needs in a better way - perhaps by trialling things and seeing what works best when at uni, rather than trying to think what will be needed before you get there (which requires responsive service), and definitely considering people as individuals.

  2. Another Guardian piece to go with this story: Disabled Students Could be Shut Out by Government Cuts