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Taking the Next Step: University, Disability and Special Needs

Bernadette John, Director of SEN for The Good Schools Guide

If your son or daughter has special needs or a disability (SEND), taking the next step to university can seem daunting. But, says Bernadette John, universities welcome these applications and have well-established means of easing the path.

According to UCAS, nearly 40,000 students with a declared disability took up undergraduate places last year – that was a record, and numbers are expected to climb further still as universities find more and more ways to smooth the transition for SEND students.

Should I declare a disability?

Some students, particularly those with a less obvious special need such as dyslexia or mental health problems, wonder whether it is wise to declare this on the UCAS form. The resounding answer from admissions departments is yes. It will not adversely affect your application – you will be judged on academic merit alone, the same as everyone else. However, it will enable universities to help you get any additional funding that you’re entitled to, and to work with you to provide any extra support you may need.

Choosing the right university

Once you’ve narrowed down the appealing courses, you need to do your homework on the campuses. The open days can be a bunfest – Exeter had 10,000 visitors to its open day this year – so if you have difficulties with crowds, you may want to arrange a private visit on a quieter day with the disability co-ordinator.

Be sure to meet the disability support officers in person. Are they welcoming and enthusiastic, do they have a can-do attitude, do you feel you could go to them if you had a problem? Take note of where the office is situated, which will tell you a lot about the university’s stance – in a well-resourced central office, or a broom cupboard at the edge of campus?

Ask the university how many people it has with your condition – if it’s common, expect that to be reflected in student numbers. And ask whether you can be put in touch with a current student with similar difficulties to you – they will be a mine of tips, and will be able to give a first-hand view on how well the university can cater for you.

If you have mobility problems, the hilltop unis such as Exeter and Leeds might be problematic. However Guardian blogger, Jamie Green, reported gleefully on his time at Durham, cruising up and down the hills in his powered chair past those slogging it up on foot (he concedes it might be a different matter for those using manual chairs).

Before you visit for a recce, check the website www.disabledgo.com, a superb resource with detailed information on each university and the accessibility of its libraries, student union, lecture halls etc, with in-depth detail on aspects such as the measurements of doorways, how heavy the doors are, where the disabled loos are and what side transfer they have.

Remember to look at not just your own accommodation, but whether you can you get into the rooms where friends will be living, so you don’t miss out on the parties.

And don’t forget the extra-curricular – one student shortlisted Cardiff and Nottingham as they had nearby wheelchair rugby teams.

Students with autism/Aspergers

The last five years has seen great strides in the support and understanding of autistic students, and a resulting 200 per cent increase in students on the autism spectrum.

Several universities including Birmingham City, Cardiff, Bath, Cambridge and Aberystwyth run a three day autism summer school, to help with the transition from school to university. These include stress and anxiety workshops, talks from other students with ASD, sessions on safe drinking and coping with teamwork, and an opportunity for students to familiarise themselves with student accommodation and the campus.

Others offer bespoke support packages. Warwick University will guarantee on-campus accommodation to autistic students, and offers an early arrival induction programme, mentoring to help with managing interaction with other students, and mental health support.

Brighton University’s mental wellbeing support officers help with settling in, offer one-to-one study skills assistance, advise tutors and lecturers on the best way of working with autistic students, and can organise extra time or rest breaks in exams. Leicester University can provide specialist support workers and one-to-one support from a study assistant for autism.

What financial help is available?

On top of the usual loans to cover tuition fees and living expenses, you can get grants towards travel, specialist equipment, and non-medical help. If you have an existing care package, this can be transferred to your university.

This Disabled Student Allowances can be paid in cases of physical or mental impairment, long term health or mental health condition, and specific learning difficulties (SpLD) such as dyslexia (note following cutbacks, since September 2015 this can only be paid in the case of an SpLD which is ‘complex’).

These allowances are paid according to need, and are currently up to a maximum of £5,212 for specialist equipment, £20,725 per year for non-medical help, and £1,741 for general expenditure – but unlike student loans, these grants do not need to be paid back.

Disability travel costs are also payable with no ceiling, but only where these are extra to the usual student travel expenses. You can also qualify for an additional living cost loan of £1,000, which is not means tested.

Universities are obligated to make your course accessible under the Equality Act – so you can negotiate with them to provide for needs such as specialist equipment, a sign language interpreter, IT equipment, a level access shower, or accommodation for a carer.

Aside from state funding, investigate trusts such as The Snowdon Trust, will give grants for essential study needs not covered through other funding streams. Other trusts make funds available for students with specific conditions, such as Gardner's Trust for the Blind (visual impairment); Joseph Levy Foundation (cystic fibrosis); British Kidney Patient Association (kidney disease) and Multiple Sclerosis Society (MS). See the Disability Rights UK website for details.

Getting the cash can be a lengthy process - UCAS advises that you start applying for financial help six to nine months before a course begins. And of course the usual rules apply – don’t blow it all in the student bar in the first term.

William Long, who has Asperger's Syndrome, is in his second year of a Design Engineering course at Bournemouth University. William was previously at the specialist Cambian Wing College for students with high functioning autism and Asperger's.

Accept all the help you can get, advises William, but also ask for it.  ‘Don't expect tutors or anyone else to see that you need it.  If there is a problem or you are uncomfortable with something, tell someone,’ he says.

Initially, William found it difficult to manage the workload, which threatened to increase his autism-related anxiety.  His strategy now is to tackle issues immediately.  ‘When you get an assignment, start it straight away. Don’t put it off as work can build up until you have too much to do and you end up not doing any because of the stress.’

William has managed to build up a good social life, and for those who struggle with friendships, he says joining the university clubs and societies is the way to go.  ‘But join several as some never really get going,’ he says.

It can come as a shock to parents who have heavily supported their child through their school years to feel shut out once the child reaches university, points out William's mum, Denise Long. ‘Universities will usually not speak to parents once the student has started the term. However, Bournemouth were happy to talk to us up until William started,’ she says.

After that, the student is required to give express permission for his or her parents to be involved – something that Denise is very glad that William did. ‘There haven't been many occasions when that has been necessary, but we have been able to explain in more detail how William sees different situations,’ she says.

If you need help with any aspect or stage of schooling for a special needs child, our team of SEN consultants can help. Our experience covers children with wide ranging conditions that impact on their learning, including mild specific learning difficulties to severe learning difficulties, autistic spectrum disorders, physical and sensory disabilities, mental health disorders, post-adoption issues, behavioural problems, chronic illness, and many more. Our services range from telephone consultations to sort out a particular problem perhaps with school, support, or diagnosis; through to full scale searches to find exactly the right school for your child.

Click here to find out more about our SEN consultants.

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