Are universities going to become more inclusive?

Martin-Mclean-cropped

Martin McLean, Education and Training Policy Advisor (Post-14), National Deaf Children’s Society

Pretty soon, lots of teenagers will be receiving their A-level and BTEC results and find out if they will go to their preferred choice of university. I can remember how exciting and also nerve-wracking it felt to go to university for the first time. If you are deaf like me I think it can be even more so: will it be easy to follow the lectures? Will I make friends? Is communication going to be a problem?

Some readers of this blog will remember our fight against the changes to Disabled Students Allowances back in 2014 and 2015. Whilst the Government decided to maintain DSA funding for specialist note-takers (people with training specifically in writing notes for deaf students), funding for ordinary manual note-takers was removed for the 2016-17 academic year along with some other forms of less-specialised support such as library support assistants and proof-readers.

One of the Government’s justifications for cutting DSAs was because it wanted universities to develop a more inclusive approach to teaching so that learning is accessible to more students. No objections to that – we have always wanted universities to be more flexible. There have been plenty of deaf students who have expressed their frustration over the years at reasonable adjustments not being made such as Dean Kamitis in his recent Limping Chicken blog.

The Government has published guidance for higher education providers on ‘Inclusive Practice’. The guidance encourages universities to make changes so that their courses are more accessible to students with disabilities. Some universities are leading the way. I recently visited Du Montford University in Leicester and was impressed with their approach:

You have been waiting for it and here is the ‘but’. Does a piece of guidance go far enough? – the Government does not appear to have any stick (e.g. loss of funding) to beat universities with should they decide to ignore this guidance. Also, a couple of practitioners have said to me that they are concerned that some universities see inclusive practice as simply about rolling-out lecture capture technology. See this lecture recording for an explanation of how lecture capturing can benefit disabled students: see this lecture recording – oh wait…..no subtitles! And here lies the issue for many deaf students. Lecture capturing is not going to make a difference and could actually make access worse if more course content and materials move online.

Deaf students are small in number – most university disability advisors might be aware of 2 or 3 deaf students at their institution at most. This means that in general, teaching staff are not in regular contact with deaf students and have little awareness of their needs. This is why the National Deaf Children’s Society has extended our Supporting Achievement resources to higher education. Supporting the Achievement of Deaf Young People in Higher Education aims to provide disability advisors and other higher education staff with the information required to ensure deaf students get the support they need.

I know from experience, having people around who understand the barriers you face and how to communicate with you properly makes a huge difference. For deaf young people starting uni this September, it might help reduce those fresher’s week nerves!

If you are a young person at uni and you hare having difficulties because your course is not fully accessible, you can get in touch with our helpline for further advice and guidance: http://www.ndcs.org.uk/family_support/how_ndcs_can_help/support_and_advice/

This blog is mostly relevant to students from England only as the DSA changes have not taken place in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, the Supporting Achievement resource is aimed at universities across the whole of the UK.

DSAs are important for deaf people – now I know why

Liam (radioshow photo)

Liam O’Dell former YAB member

I heard about Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA) a while ago. My deaf friends would turn to me and talk about all the changes that are happening to DSAs and Personal Independence Payments (PIP). It sounds bad, but for a long time I thought I couldn’t get DSAs, so the changes didn’t bother or affect me. It was only when I spoke to an advisor at my university that I realised how important they are to deaf people across the UK.

For a long time, I didn’t bother applying for DSAs because I thought the support available was just note-takers, interpreters and lip-speakers, which I personally don’t use. It was through that appointment with my university’s Disability service that I realised DSAs can cover more than that – and I was annoyed I hadn’t applied sooner!

After sorting out evidence for my application, an appointment with my DSA assessor was arranged. Although I had no previous experience talking to an assessor, I knew a bit about what it would involve through my work with the NDCS’ Youth Advisory Board (YAB). During my time on the YAB, I remember a lot of people saying how strict they can be with their assessments – but that definitely was not the case for me.

If anything, I think a DSA assessor is more like a lawyer who will fight your corner, but who will also be honest if they think something isn’t going to work. In the end, it was decided that I could benefit from having a palantypist (or ‘speech-to-text reporter), a dictaphone recorder, and someone to help me when listening to audio recordings.

Since then, all my support has been arranged and it’s amazing how much DSAs is helping me. Without this support, I would have had concerns. But, now that I have the allowance in place, this is not an issue. Now I know how DSAs can put the minds of deaf students at rest.

An update on Disabled Student Allowances

Martin McLean

Martin McLean, Education and Training Policy Advisor (post-14)

Back in August last year, I wrote about the Government’s plans to make changes to Disabled Student Allowances (DSAs) and our fears on how deaf students might be negatively affected. Six months on, it is time to revisit the situation and see where we are following our campaign.

The Government carried out a public consultation in September. Following the consultation, they announced they were going ahead with their plans to cut DSAs. Our main concern was that funding would no longer be available for manual note-takers who take notes for deaf students in lectures whilst they are lip-reading or following a sign language interpreter. I have some good news to report – the Government has recognised that this could put the education of deaf students at risk and have granted an exemption to the DSA changes for specialist note-takers for deaf or visually impaired students. This is someone who has received training on how to write comprehensive notes for deaf or VI students.

Provided that a DSA assessor makes a recommendation for a deaf student to receive a specialist note-taker, DSA funding will be available.

However, less good news is that there are some deaf students who make use of proof-reading services to ensure they are not unfairly disadvantaged when writing assignments by literacy difficulties. Proof-readers will no longer be funded by DSAs and responsibility for funding of this support now lies with universities.

What if this becomes an issue? The Government has introduced an Exceptional Case Process. Where a DSA assessor has made a recommendation for support that is to be provided by a university (e.g. proof-reading) and the university refuses to put in place this support, the student can apply to the Exceptional Case Process for temporary DSA funding to be put into place whilst a complaint is registered with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA).

We had concerns about the role of the OIA because traditionally it has taken a very long time to reach decisions (In 2014 cases took an average of 207 days to close). However, the Government has assured us the OIA will be expected to close the majority of its cases within 3 months in line with a European directive.

Finally, as well, as the changes to DSAs, the Government is introducing a registration system for providers of support funded through DSAs. We are uncertain as to whether this might mean there will be fewer interpreters and other forms of support available to deaf students.

We will be monitoring the impact of all of the changes and to do this we need your help. If you are a student at university or applying for support from DSAs and you do not have the support you need in place or have any problems, we want to hear about it. Contact our helpline to tell us about your experiences.

We want to say a big thank you to everyone who took part in our DSA campaign. Your campaign actions helped to raise awareness of the potential impact the changes could have had on deaf students and played their part in ensuring that higher education remains accessible.

The changes in Martin’s article affect students applying for DSAs from Student Finance England only. DSAs will remain the same for students applying from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, the Welsh Government is currently considering whether to bring in changes to DSAs for the 2017-18 academic year.

Another day, another problem with DSA

Martin McLean, Education and Training Policy Advisor (post-14)

Martin McLean, Education and Training Policy Advisor (post-14)

I have recently written about changes to Disabled Student Allowances (DSAs) that the Government has been consulting on. These are planned for the academic year 2016-17 and will affect new students starting their degree courses that year. However, for students starting this year, there is a new policy that might affect them.

The Government has introduced a cancellation policy for bookings for support workers paid for by DSAs such as interpreters, notetakers, speech to text, etc. DSA funding will now not normally be available for bookings cancelled with more than 24 hours’ notice. This policy is somewhat ill thought-out as most communication support providers have terms and conditions of booking which state that cancellations must be made at least two weeks in advance to avoid cancellation fees. This means that deaf students or university disability teams risk being left to cover the cost of cancellation fees which can be up to 100% of the cost of the booking (two BSL interpreters booked for two hours could cost £250 in total). Ouch.

Terms and conditions can of course be negotiated and it may be that some providers agree to waive their cancellation fees for the benefit of deaf students. However, it’s likely to turn many off from wanting to work in HE if they risk being cancelled at short notice. Ah, you might think what if you cancelled the booking with less than 24 hours’ notice? No, think again. Yes, the booking would be paid for through DSAs but if you miss or cancel at the last minute two or more times in one term then DSAs could be withdrawn altogether.

Now, the two missed sessions clause, we really do have concerns with and it could potentially be discriminatory under the Equality Act. Unlike hearing students, a deaf student who has an interpreter or notetaker booked for them will be required to attend every single lecture or their DSAs will be at risk. If someone is being a typical student (cue flashback to those wild nights), then we might expect them to miss a class or two. But now deaf students will have pressure on them to be paragons of virtue.

I’m not suggesting that it is acceptable for deaf students to have a disregard for any support that has been booked for them through the public purse. Where a student has continuously missed sessions for which support has been booked there are questions to be asked. However, this policy seems somewhat harsh as it means a student who is unable to attend a lecture for whatever reason (oversleeping, transport problems, illness, etc) have the additional stress of having to worry about whether their DSAs are under threat. Without the right support, deaf students are at risk of dropping out of university and this is not good use of public money either.

The Government have yet to publish full details of the new policy and they have told NDCS that our concerns will be passed onto the team developing the detail. When this comes out NDCS will develop guidance for young people as soon as we can. It is regrettable that as deaf young people start university over the next couple of weeks, starting an exciting new period in their lives, that we are having to warn them about this threat hanging over them.

Help us protect the future for deaf students

Martin McLean, Education and Training Policy Advisor (post-14)

Martin McLean, Education and Training Policy Advisor (post-14)

I risk being accused of bragging here, but in my lifetime I have managed to complete not one but three degrees – a BSc, a PGCE and an MA. I could not have completed any of them without Disabled Student Allowances (DSAs). This is government funding that disabled students can apply for to pay for equipment and support costs at university. For me it has covered the costs of radio aids, note takers, BSL interpreters and speech to text reporters. Thanks to DSAs thousands of deaf people can now call themselves graduates.

However, this is an age of austerity and public spending is being scrutinised. Last year the Government in England announced that it wanted to make changes to DSAs in order to redress the balance between funding from DSAs and the contribution Higher Education (HE) providers make towards disabled students’ support costs. These included:

  1. Removing DSAs funding for some types of less-specialised support workers such as note takers, proof readers and study support assistants. Instead it is proposed that they will now be funded by universities as reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act.
  2. Removing DSAs funding for adaptations to student accommodation managed by universities.
  3. Removing DSAs funding for some types of IT equipment and accessories.

NDCS is concerned. I do not have enough word space to talk about all of the proposals in detail here but let’s focus on note takers as they are currently used by lots of deaf students. They provide a valuable service for those relying on lip-reading or BSL interpreters which make it very difficult to take comprehensive notes during lectures and classes (trust me – try writing and lip-reading at the same time!). We fear that if note takers are no longer funded through DSAs and left to universities to fund we could see universities seek alternatives such as:

  • referring deaf students to lecture handouts. From my experience, handouts from lecturers can be very variable – some will provide detailed documents whilst with others you’ll be lucky to get anything more than a reading list they put together in 1995.
  • or encouraging deaf students to photocopy the notes of a fellow student. Thinking back to my frequently hungover and half-awake peers I dread to think what would have happened if my education had been dependent on quality of the notes of whoever happened to be sitting next to me!

Earlier this year NDCS Youth Advisory Board member Zanna Messenger Jones initiated legal action to challenge the Government’s proposals on the grounds of insufficient consultation (among others). The Government backed down and last month launched a public consultation which is now open to individuals and organisations to respond to. There is a response form consisting of 25 questions that can be completed online. Click here to see NDCS’s draft response.

We are encouraging deaf young people to contribute their views to the consultation. The 25 question response form is not particularly easy to complete. Therefore, NDCS has created a friendlier version of the form that the government has agreed to accept. The views of deaf people who currently are at university or have recently finished are particularly welcome as they will have experience of requesting universities to make reasonable adjustments.

It should be noted that the government is not proposing that more specialised support such as BSL interpreters or electronic note takers should no longer be funded by DSAs. However, these services still fall under the scope of the consultation questions.

It is not only England that these changes are being considered but Wales too with the Welsh government having carried out an engagement exercise earlier this year. NDCS believes that without sufficient safeguards the Government’s proposals risk making Higher Education less accessible to deaf young people or leaving disabled students in limbo where they get no support because the university can’t agree what reasonable adjustments it should make. It would be a crime if the achievement rates of deaf people in higher education were to fall in the drive to cut costs.

To respond to the consultation visit: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/disabled-students-in-higher-education-funding-proposals.

Or young people can complete our modified version.

Make sure you get your response in by the deadline of 24th September.

Campaign victory on Disabled Students Allowance!

NDCS - Ian Noon, Head of Policy and Research

Ian Noon, Head of Policy and Research

The Government has postponed its plans to cut back on support for disabled students, after a deaf young person initiated legal action.

The legal action had recently been given permission to proceed to a ‘Judicial Review’. A court would have considered whether the Government had acted unlawfully in failing to consult directly with disabled students about these changes. A Judge had already said that she was “not impressed” with the Government’s arguments that it didn’t have to consult.

Yesterday, the Department announced that it would allow more time for consultation, accepting that “there are concerns that some [Higher Education] institutions are not yet in a position to deliver a fully accessible service to students, and that this may result in a negative impact for some students.”

The proposed cuts would have meant that deaf students would be more reliant on universities to provide any support they might need. However, NDCS argued that the changes shouldn’t go ahead until proper safeguards were in place to make sure that no deaf students were abandoned without the support they need.

NDCS is extremely proud of Zanna, a member of the NDCS Young People’s Advisory Board, who had initiated the legal action. She has sent a strong signal to the Government that no changes that affect disabled people should be made without their involvement. We’re extremely disappointed that it was necessary for Zanna to take legal action to force the Government to listen.

The changes have been postponed, rather than abandoned – so we’ll be working hard to make sure that whichever Government is elected in May promises to involve disabled students directly on issues like this.