I took part today in a really interesting and worthwhile cross party parliamentary consultation at the House of Commons about the provision of assistive technology within the DSA allowance. A mix of MPs and other professionals working within education brought a wealth of information and suggestions for improvement within the sector.
The provision of support to furnish students who experience barriers to learning barriers in HE and FE is vital. Assistive technology is one of the vital tools which makes higher education inclusive for disabled students. In HE in particular, Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) are a key means by which students gain access to assistive technology and related support. Students receive an individual assessment of the support and technology they need and this is then delivered – often in the form of a laptop, assistive software and one-to-one training sessions. However, recent changes to the DSAs system have had an unintended negative consequence: the introduction of a £200 equipment charge has meant that a growing number of disabled students do not take up the technology that is recommended for them. The impact of the introduction of this charge has been far-reaching. Since the introduction of the charge, the number of students who are awarded DSAs has continued to grow. However, the number of students who receive equipment DSAs has fallen by up to 17.6%. That is to say, a growing number of students who undergo a needs assessment that recommends assistive technology do not receive that technology.
The Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah MP, has stated that ‘The main reason for this fall [in equipment take up] is that the £200 student contribution to the costs of computer hardware took effect from September 2015.’ Students report that financial considerations affect their decision not to take up equipment DSAs. 69% of students who had not paid the charge said they could not afford to do so. A student not only has to find the £200 but if it is a new diagnosis, they will have to fund this assessment which is in the region of £350 for dyslexia. A recent SCOPE survey suggested that it costs disabled students on average an extra £500 a term for basic living costs.
The impact on students who have a need for support is far-reaching. Statistics suggest that 75% of disabled students were considering leaving courses compared to 35% of their non-disabled peers. The belief that I and many of you working within education and learning and development have that we all have a fundamental right to a good education is compromised when students who rely on assistive technology cannot afford to access it. One argument is that non-disabled students have to fund their own IT equipment so why shouldn’t disabled students also fund a laptop. The problem with this argument is that many of the basic study laptops are not powerful enough to run many of the assistive technology programs and a non-disabled student can always access IT facilities through the library in the way that I certainly did many years ago at university. Many HE and FE providers do not have the full range of assistive technology loaded onto their network computers so that there is the same access.
Some HE and FE organisations support assistive technology users by paying the £200 for the student and organising training. The problem here is that disabled students are then potentially having to choose their provider by the support they offer rather than their peers who choose the course they actually want to study.
Of course no assistive technology is going to be of any use if organisations do not make sure that the content on their virtual learning environments is not accessible – with the new EU directive on web accessibility coming in this should help to ensure that this is no longer the case in HE and FE.
We really need to look at ways that students can be supported more effectively with the equipment and access they need. After all who benefits when a student falls out of their HE/FE course – the answer is no-one! Can organisations afford not to address the needs of their disabled students?