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Wednesday, 15 January, 2003, 17:36 GMT
Financial help for disabled students
Large numbers of disabled students are not claiming the allowance they might be entitled to, according to the latest figures released by the funding councils.
For the first time the funding councils have included the number of students claiming the disabled students allowance (DSA) in their annual performance indicators.
The move was praised by Skill, the disabled students' organisation, but it also expressed concern that those with unseen disabilities might not be claiming DSA either because of a lack of knowledge about the support available or because of fears about being stigmatised.
Skill believes between 4% and 5% of the student population has some form of disability, based on returns to the Higher Education Statistics agency, but only 1.4% claim the allowance.
The organisation said this low take-up might be related to the fact that the larger groups of students disclosing disability through the Ucas admissions service are those with dyslexia and other unseen disabilities.
Skill's chief executive, Barbara Waters, said: "Institutions must make sure that they make all students aware of the disability support available from the pre-admissions stage onwards."
Dyslexic students could get help with spell-checking computers and classroom support.
Students with conditions such as diabetes or epilepsy could employ notetakers if they missed lectures through hospital appointments, she said.
Apart from career development loans offered by commercial banks and the means-tested student loan, there are other financial entitlements that are open specifically to students with disabilities.
Disabled Students' Allowances
These allowances are meant to cover such things as the cost of specialist equipment, non-medical allowance, general and other expenditure allowance as well as travel costs.
"Both undergraduate and postgraduate disabled students can apply for the DSA," says Ms Waters.
"However, the amount that postgraduate students can claim is less than half of the amount that disabled undergraduates can apply for."
Postgraduate students from England and Wales are entitled to non-means tested support of up to £5,120 yearly.
Students from Scotland and Northern Ireland can get DSAs if they are receiving a studentship or bursary.
Application should be made to the local education authority.
"My advice would be to apply for DSA as soon as possible, even before you've been offered a place," says Stephen Portlock, 35, an MA journalism student at the University of Westminster who has vision and hearing impairments.
"Don't be surprised if you face a bureaucratic nightmare."
A needs assessment will usually be required from an appropriate organisation such as the Royal National Institute for the Blind.
This looks at how your disability affects you and what disability support you require in order to complete your course.
This assessment has its own advantage. For example, the assessors may be aware of solutions that you had not tried before, especially if you have been out of formal education for some time.
They can also take into account the higher education environment, which might be new to you.
Hardship and Access Funds
If you are not eligible for statutory funding, but face extra costs because of your disability, you can apply to the college or university access fund.
Many institutions of higher learning make disability needs a priority and may not take your income into account.
You could argue that a non-disabled student would not have to meet such costs - so it would not be fair to expect you to meet them yourself.
Social Benefit Entitlements
In the benefits regulations there is no limit to the amount of study you can do as long as you are treated as "not capable of work".
So if you cannot work because of your disability you may be able to study and claim Incapacity Benefit, Income Support, Housing benefits and Council Tax Benefit.
It is best to check with your local Citizen's Advice Bureau, university advice centres and the Benefit Enquiry Line.
Charities and Grant-making Trusts
There are charitable trusts and foundations that give out grants specifically to students with disability.
Skill provides lists of those you can apply to and information are also available at libraries and career advice centres.
Competition is keen and it is best to apply early. Doing just that helped Portlock.
"I heard about a bursary being offered by the Leach Trust in conjunction with Workable - the employment agency - for disabled people wishing to make inroads into journalism" he says.
"I was successful at the interview and was awarded sufficient money to cover university costs and also other expenses."
Skill - the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities - runs an information service that disabled people thinking about or already on courses can contact.
Skill's Information Service is open Monday to Thursday, 1.30pm - 4.30pm. Telephone: 0800 328 5050 (voice) 0800 068 2422 (text). E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Benefits Enquiry Line: England, Scotland and Wales - telephone: 0800 882 200, textphone: 0800 243 355. Northern Ireland - telephone: 0800 220 674, textphone: 0800 243 787
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