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Disabled Students Allowance – what you need to know

The Disabled Students Allowance – what is it and how to access it. A mental health review.

‘Disabled Students Allowance – mental health review’

What is it?

The Disabled Students Allowance is set up to provide support for students with recognised disabilities. The services, products and support provided as part of a DSA are unlike other government funded financial aid such as those given by Student Finance England (SFE) as these are free to the recipient and do not constitute a loan and are not repayable.

Who is eligible?

Anyone with a recognised disability is eligible. This includes various physical disabilities as well as mental health related disabilities. As the latter is what I received support for, this is what my experience centres around.

Eligibility is based on medical evidence provided by the applicant, usually the form of doctors note or records. The cost of which must be provided by the applicant, for which you are not reimbursed. This can cost from £10-£20 depending on the complexity of your case, but once you’ve received the note it can be used on multiple occasions as they require only a copy.

The only caveat is that you must speak with your doctor prior to applying for a DSA to ensure that your notes reflect the issues you wish to get support for. If not, your note may not evidence the full extent of your disability. Furthermore, it may not provide sufficient information to grant your application. It can be a pain with long waiting times for GPs but it’s an unfortunate necessity.

Mental health conditions?

As stated, my experience of the process is that of a student with mental health conditions, for which a variety of options are available after an initial consultation with a registered assessor.

Initial application process

The application can seem daunting at first but do not let it dissuade you! On the DSA website you can download an application booklet to fill out and apply. It looks full on, but the majority of the sections can be skipped, and the bulk of the booklet will be left blank!

It was during my consultation with my university that led me to apply for a DSA as they were familiar with the application documents so managed to put my mind at ease when it came to filling it out. So, it is well worth checking in with your university’s team!

Evidence

As previously mentioned, along with the application you must submit your evidence. It is important that you check ahead of time that the GP or evidence source is fully aware of your disability and that this is reflected in your evidence. The DSA team need to see a consistency between what you describe and what your evidence outlines. But don’t stress you can speak about this with your GP before you apply for the doctors note and ensure that the correct details are in your doctors records. Additionally, if your evidence doesn’t quite outline things the way you would prefer, you are able to request edits to the note within the first few days of it being submitted to you. Though this may differ at the discretion of differing general practices.

The next stage – needs assessment

After submitting your evidence and your application has presumably been accepted you will be contacted to initiate the next stage of the process. Note, the burden is on you to chase up this correspondence and organise it. You will be sent a confirmation letter and a link to the site in which you can register for the next stage.

This stage is the specific assessment of your needs. You must book yourself in for a session with one of these centres, the cost of which is covered by your DSA and you do not need to fund this yourself at all. Mine took place via Zoom due to covid regulations but usually they take place in person, so it is prudent to choose an assessment centre nearby!

This assessment took roughly an hour and was with a very helpful staff member – though due to various centres the standard and approach may vary between them! The key aim of this session is to assess the ways in which your disability can negatively impact on your studies and how this can be helped.

This means that the support available will vary greatly based on two key factors, your disability and the particular course you’re on. For me, short term memory and reading was a key difficulty, and I was provided with software to help with these factors. It’s advisable to check the assessor is aware of the fundamental aspects of your disability and the key requirements of your course. It is worth coming prepared with important aspects noted down to ensure you do not forget anything important.

What support you could get

From what I can tell the support for mental health conditions is split into 3 categories.

  • The first is software. Different programmes are paid for and provided as part of a DSA. It must be agreed that each programme would help in an area that your disability disadvantages you Vs. a typical student without this disability.
  • The second is hardware. As part of a DSA you may be provided with additional hardware such as a new laptop or microphone/headphones. For me this was due to my current laptop being too slow to operate the software I required. There is a £200 non-refunded fee the applicant must pay towards the laptop. It can be delivered to your door with programmes fully installed.
  • The third and final is tutoring. This comes in two forms, tutoring for programmes and technology provided to ensure the applicant can use the software to the best of its potential. The other is personal academic tutoring. Weekly sessions provided to help applicants stay on track throughout their course. All of which are funded by the DSA.

Accessing equipment with DSA letter

Roughly 10 working days after your assessment your final DSA confirmation letter will be sent out to you and your university. This provides you with a full rundown of what you will be provided with along with the costs for each item. This letter will also have the contact information for suppliers you need to access your equipment. This letter should be sent to these companies as evidence for your DSA after which they will place your order.

Overview

All in all, it’s a great option for those that feel their mental health negatively impacts upon your performance. Here are my final thoughts:

Pros:

  • Tailored to your needs – assessments allow you a good amount of time to discuss your issues and how the DSA could help mediate or resolve them.
  • Once evidence is provided it feels more relaxed and you are no longer having to ‘prove’ the impacts of your disability. It felt like my assessor was really on my side.
  • Non-repayable – Other than a £200 upfront fee for a laptop, you do not have to pay back any of the money used to fund the DSA.
  • Helpful assessors – the assessor I had was helpful and wanted to see me get the best outcome possible.
  • Training – this training also allows you to get the best out of the software or hardware provided. Taking place over Zoom.
  • Pretty straight forward – It does take a little while and can seem like a chore but overall, it’s pretty easy to access and understand what’s happening during the process. If I can do it, anyone can.

Cons:

  • You must do a fair bit of form filling and booking etc. But it isn’t as much as it seems at first.
  • Must do a lot yourself – like the point above, the burden is on you to book your assessment centre, order your equipment by citing the DSA letter etc. All of which can seem like a lot to worry about if you already suffer from anxiety or depression. My only advice is to focus on how it is worth it in the end.
  • Long lead times – the process is relatively quick but with so many components involved it can take some time (checking with your GP, application, providing evidence, booking assessment, waiting for assessment to be filed, waiting for DSA confirmation letter, ordering, and waiting for equipment, starting training etc.) Realistically it will take some weeks to complete the entire process, so it’s best to apply sooner rather than later particularly if you need the support ASAP.
  • Still up to you – obviously, this is no magic fix for your condition(s), the work still needs to be done and deadlines may still cause you stress and anxiety. However, the support should help counteract some of this.
  • Not covering breakages – the DSA receipt/confirmation letter states that the equipment is not covered for breakages or replacements so keep your equipment in good working order. Better yet invest in preventative measures such as a protective case. Additionally, you can insure your device(s) using student friendly tech insurers.
  • Upfront costs – while the majority of the DSA is totally free a £200 upfront fee is required if you need a new laptop. This is steep for most people, but it is fairly cheap compared to the overall DSA costs. You can seek support by applying for grants. Some universities also do offer a refund procedure for this, so it is worth checking with your disability or well-being team.

Overall, it is a helpful service that offers a lot of tangible support as well as providing the feeling that you have got back some control over your life. I know I felt in a kind of, freefall, for a while but now knowing I have put the effort in to take steps to help myself I feel more secure in what I can do.

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