University Resources and Technology for Students with Disabilities
Higher education is an exciting stage of life, yet it requires a lot of effort and dedication. Each person entering a university in the UK is embarking on a challenging adventure. People with disabilities face this demanding lifestyle with additional obstacles.
According to the recent Labour Force survey by the UK government, only 14.9% of working-age disabled people hold a degree, compared to 28.1% of non-disabled individuals. Delays in diagnosing disabilities and insufficient support cause them to have lower average GCSE and A Level grades, making it harder to attain higher qualifications. Not to mention the fact that people with disabilities are significantly underrepresented in literature and media.
This is an atrocious statistic that causes controversy and turmoil in British society. Luckily, universities are doing everything in their power to make learning and campuses accessible to people with all levels of ability. Over the past decade, the number of students who have declared a disability has been consistently increasing. It isn’t clear whether this is because more disabled people go to university or because institutions acknowledge disabilities better.
It paints an optimistic picture for new applicants. There are plenty of resources available to aid your learning and everyday needs – let’s explore all the different options.
Support from the University
All UK universities have a disability support service. When you accept an offer on UCAS, your firm and insurance choice universities will start sending you newsletters. If you declared a disability when applying, one of the emails will be about their disability support unit. You can learn about it from the mail or search on the university’s website.
It’s key that you register with the service! You can access various types of support, from adjustments to exam conditions to counselling and personalised seating in lecture theatres.
Disabled Students’ Allowance
Not all disabled people are aware of this government scheme – a survey by the Department of Education has confirmed that as much as 40% of students are missing out on it. DSA is a funding plan that you can receive in addition to your maintenance loan to help you pay for disability equipment and services. Unlike maintenance loans, the amount of DSA you get does not depend on your household income.
Anyone who has a mental, physical or learning disability, qualifies for Student Finance and is a UK student can apply for DSA. Depending on your needs, you might be eligible for thousands of pounds. However, this money only covers the costs related to your condition. For example, when buying a new laptop, you’ll have to pay £500 out of your own pocket, but the allowance will finance any additional software and tech you need to use it.
Your university can help you with the application process. If you’re registered with the student support unit, you can request help from them in the form of a phone call, an email or a face-to-face meeting to assist you with the form.
More than 1.5 million people in the UK have a learning disability.
Dyslexia and Dysgraphia
Students with dyslexia and dyscalculia can get access to assistive software through their university. Schools provide transcriptions of textbooks and handouts to the OpenDyslexic font. Most importantly, you can order your exam papers to be printed in a more dyslexia-friendly colour and have adjusted font. For students with dyscalculia, calculators can be permitted during testing.
For your independent study both during and beyond higher education, there are multiple apps and extensions to aid your learning. For example, you can download a browser extension for any major browser that will install OpenDyslexic for all webpages.
- Ginger is a free tool that can aid with spelling and Grammar. It’s equipped with a text-to-speech feature and a dictionary.
- Immersive Reader – a Microsoft One Note learning tool that allows you to change text size, font, background colour and distance between letters to make the text less crowded. You can also highlight parts of speech and use line focus to only view a few lines at a time rather than the entire page. It’s equipped with a picture dictionary and text-to-speech options.
Autistic students that don’t feel comfortable in crowded exam halls can request a separate room with reduced noise during examinations, as well as counselling and mentoring. If you struggle to cope with the intensiveness of large lecture theatres, you can discuss your options with a disability advisor.
Charities such as the National Autistic Society provide specialist services funded by the DSA. They have their own diagnostic centres which you can self-refer to or access through your GP.
ADHD and ADD
ADHD and ADD are among the most under-recognised and under-supported conditions in the UK, especially when it comes to higher education institutions. Lack of proper diagnostics accounts for the fact that affected individuals suffer from mental health conditions by the time they go to university. Students can spend months on the waiting list for an assessment, which compromises their ability to learn.
Some universities are getting ahead of time and providing study skills and tutoring sessions for self-diagnosed individuals. If that’s not an option in your school, you can always count on note-taking services, peer mentoring schemes and online lecture recordings. If you are registered with the disability support unit, you can access extra time, breaks and altered seating during exams to help you focus and complete the paper.
There are useful applications such as Brain Focus or Pomodoro where you can create short study sessions and alternate them with breaks. They often contain additional features, such as disabling WiFi and sound for the duration of the work period and compiling tasks into groups.
There are 350,000 visually impaired individuals in the UK. Fortunately, since the Equality Act of 2010, the vast majority of universities started uploading lecture recordings and powerpoints online. Most of the time, these files have accessibility features such as text-to-speech translation to aid students with visual impairments.
You can always request any paperwork or textbook in an alternative format, including Braille. Note-taking services from your peers are available from the disability support unit. You can also count on accessible entrances and signs that you can read in Braille.
Aside from the assistance available at university, you can find plenty of apps for iOS and Android. Here are just a few:
- You can use Talking Scientific Calculator to verbalise calculations with full VoiceOver support feature. You can change the settings to make colours brighter and more contrasting.
- ChromeVox is an extension for Google Chrome that works both on Windows and macOS to read the contents of web pages. It plays a tune to indicate the page loading process and enables you to navigate the internet via keyboard.
Thomas Pocklington Trust has more information about sight loss and support available around the UK.
Every second or third person in UK classrooms has a speech or language disability. Since it’s a very common disability, it’s typical for students to ask for alterations to oral examinations, presentations and group assignments. University can help you access the services of an interpreter and a computer with a speech synthesiser or a communication board.
You can use the Speech Assistant AAC app as a text-to-speech tool. It’s easily customisable – different voices are available to suit your preference.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students
Most will be surprised to learn that there are as many as 11 million deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the UK. With such a high number of cases nationally, the fact that almost 46% of deaf students start university without support is upsetting. Most, however, manage to get reasonable adjustments as they progress through their education.
Some support options available are note-taking services from peers, Sign Language interpreters, as well as radio aids and streamers funded by the NHS or DSA. Streamers, in particular, are perfect for transmitting the lecturer’s voice into your hearing aids. You can request closed captions in your lecture recordings from the disability support unit.
Some of the tools that you can find online include Google Live Transcribe, which transforms speech into text in real-time. The app utilises a microphone and WiFi connection – a perfect solution for conferences.
When it comes to social life, you can use AVA instead of lip reading in group conversations. If everyone in the group connects to the app, the conversation can be transcribed to the deaf person’s phone screen.
Students with restricted mobility that require accessible housing can request private on-campus accommodation, self-funded care assistants and other living alterations when making arrangements through the disability support office.
Wheel-chair accessible entrances and elevators are normally found in all campus buildings. However, you can make sure by checking out the campus map and speaking to an advisor. Before starting the course in September, book a call with the office to discuss your opportunities – they will inform you about any note-taking services and alternative lecture theatre seating that you can have.
Once your DSA has been confirmed, you can start looking at high-end software. For instance, MathTalk – it’s a speech recognition maths tool that allows you to voice your calculations without the use of a keyboard. The only downside is that it costs £248 (or $325 – as it comes from the US).
Long-term Mental Health Conditions
Students that suffer from mental health conditions are more likely to drop out of university and less likely to finish their degree with a first or an upper-second class. It’s not surprising – being in full-time education is difficult as it is, and even more so when you have to manage crippling depression.
Universities provide those affected by mental illness with counselling, mindfulness and support groups and free therapy sessions. You can get exam adjustments, deadline and library loan extensions if your condition affects your ability to complete assignments on time. It’s easy enough to get these benefits if you register with a mental health support unit at your school.
We spoke to one of the former students at the University of Kent, Jane, who told us about her experience with dealing with mental health while getting a degree:
“During the course of my study at the University of Kent I received tremendous support from the Wellbeing Service. I didn’t even know I could get so many different adjustments! I had extra time and breaks during exams and we were in a smaller room, which helped a lot with my anxiety. I also got regular mental health advisor sessions which were most helpful for managing my depression and communicating with the School of Biosciences. Overall, it was a very positive experience and I have high hopes for getting a Masters and PhD!”
There are plenty of options you can explore: back yourself up with useful applications and grounding techniques, but never hesitate to ask your school for help. Disabled students bring diversity and value to academic society, and universities want to make sure that they are not disadvantaged in any way.
It’s reasonable to be stressed and concerned about your comfort before going to university. However, you can count on support from the faculty and the student union to accommodate your individual needs. Although countless improvements still need to be made, higher institutions are among the first ones to strive for equality.