Living with a disability, health condition or neurodivergence can mean that getting help and support is a constant fight and often includes assessments that can be incredibly traumatic (ask anyone who has ever applied for Personal Independence Payments or PIP).
When I started studying in 2020, I was not in the best of places mentally as I was coming to terms with my life being changed completely as my physical and mental health declined. All of this meant that I had to apply for PIP and the stress and trauma of having to go through the assessment process meant that as soon as the word assessment was mentioned in relation to DSA, I couldn’t even contemplate going through that process again so I never claimed.
Through my work as Vice President Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (VP EDI) and with the Disabled Student Group (DSG) I have realised I missed out on valuable help and support and that the process is nowhere near as intense as the PIP claims. As I do not have personal experience, I reached out to members of the DSG to gain more insight into the process, their experiences and some top tips. Massive thanks to everyone who has contributed to the article.
What is Disabled Student Allowance?
Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) is a component of student loans that is available for students who need extra help or support and are unable to attend a brick university because of a disability – this includes Chronic health conditions, physical disabilities, mental health difficulties and neurodivergence such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism and ADHD.
The support from DSA can range from practical support such as sitting and standing desks or seating to specialist study equipment including e-reading software or recording equipment for tutorials. DSA can also make recommendations for support that the OU can provide from the use of alternative study materials including printed module packs and comb-bound textbooks, to making exam adjustments if applicable.
DSA is not a means-tested benefit and as you do not directly receive money and as the allowed funding is designated for study support it does not affect any other benefits such as Universal Credit.
DSA is available for all students based in the UK** entitled to Student Finance and as with the tuition fee loan applications they will need to be renewed each year. DSA is applicable for most undergraduate and postgraduate courses but is not applicable to apprenticeships.
**Student Finance Scotland DSA funding will not always cover general computing equipment such as laptops/ PCs, just the software or aids that directly relate to your study needs due to disability. The OU does have a discretionary fund that you may be able to access for computing equipment if you are on a low income, more information can be found here - Scholarships, bursaries and grants from the OU | Help Centre | The Open University.
What does the DSA process look like?
You can make an application for DSA through Student Finance when you make your tuition fee loan application. There is a requirement to provide some evidence of your health condition which can be in the form of a letter from GPs, consultants, mental health teams etc and through a needs assessment.
The needs assessment is an informal meeting that is conducted by an external provider. You will be contacted by the assessment centre to arrange this and during the meeting, you can discuss the sort of help or equipment you need to be able to study effectively.
Following this assessment 10-14 days later, you will be sent a copy of the report to sign so you can be sure this has captured all the information discussed. Once signed and returned, if you have been awarded funding, you will receive an entitlement letter with a full breakdown of the support and equipment that has been approved.
When this is completed the OU Disabled Support Team (DST) can help with the contact details for providers who supply Student Support Workers or specialist equipment and implement any recommendations that the OU can assist with.
What students say about claiming DSA
When asked about how students with DSA found the whole process there was an overwhelming feeling of positivity and that the process, while it can be time-consuming, is a supportive and straightforward process. Some of the comments included:
Very friendly and accessible. COMPLETELY different from PIP process. They help you identify your needs and suggest things that may help meet those needs - which was useful.
The assessor was very understanding and suggested things she thought would help and worked with me rather than against me. My assessor recommended an eye gaze device. She arranged a trial to see if would be suitable for me and then managed to get it approved by DSA.
As with most processes no system is perfect, so I also asked about any barriers to making a DSA claim or any concerns they had about making an application:
The main concerns identified included the length of time the process can take, and that needing to reapply every year can cause anxiety. Having to provide evidence from other healthcare professionals such as GPs can make the process difficult as they do not always provide the right information and there can be charges to prepare letters or complete forms. However, once you have been through the process once you can reuse the needs assessment and information to complete the forms.
Top tips when making a DSA application:
I also asked students who receive DSA if they have any top tips or things they wish they knew before they made their applications, this is what they said:
- Apply for everything and be honest.
- Make sure you are filling out the correct form each year.
- Get the information from your GP first before applying so you don’t have to cancel the application.
- Apply as early as possible. It’s nothing like DWP disability assessments.
- Check before you have an assessment (for dyslexia etc) that the person had all their paperwork etc up to date!
- Apply for it! Be open and honest with the DSA assessor - they want you to be successful and will guide you to get as much support as you need, and in my case, more support than I realised I needed!
- Be honest and give as much information as you can even if you are not sure if it is relevant. Remember to answer as if every day is a bad day. When uploading any letters, it does not matter if they are not recent as some (like for me) health issues are ongoing for many years. Also, ring them if in doubt - they are lovely and super helpful. IT IS NOTHING like applying for DLA/PIP and is a breath of fresh air in comparison. Good luck.
- Be open-minded about what's suggested to you and take EVERYTHING that's available to you. It's better to have too much support and not need certain things than not have enough. And don't be afraid to contact your assessment centre again afterwards if your needs change or you realise there's something else that could help you.
If you are entitled to DSA and may have been cautious or not felt able to apply please do not hesitate any longer and if you need any further help or advice take a look at some of the resources below.
Further information and resources
The Disabled Student Group (DSG) is run by disabled students for disabled students! If you have not already done so you can join up here - Join the Disabled Students Group
The OU Help Centre pages have further information about the support available for disabled students including alternative funding sources for those not eligible for DSA - Disability support | Help Centre | The Open University
Student Finance England -Student finance for undergraduates
Student Finance Wales - Home | Student Finance Wales
Student Finance Scotland - Student Awards Agency Scotland
Student Finance Northern Ireland - Student Finance Northern Ireland
Help and support are also available from the Citizens Advice Bureau which can help with completing forms and advising on any other financial help and support you may be entitled to. Their service covers all four nations - Citizens Advice