Martin McLean: Help us protect the future for Deaf students

Posted on August 28, 2015

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martin mclean

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 consultationwhich 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.

Martin McLean is the NDCS’s Education and Training Policy Advisor (post-14).

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