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If your son or daughter has special needs or a disability (SEND), making the next step to university might appear overwhelmingly difficult.  However the message from universities is that they very much want applications from SEND students, and have well-established means of easing their path.

According to UCAS, nearly 40,000 students with a declared disability took up undergraduate places in 2016 – that was a record, and numbers are expected to climb further.  Manchester University told us 11% of its students have disabilities. 

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 allow the universities to help you with getting any additional funding you are entitled to, and to work with you to provide any extra support you may need.  Speak to the additional needs department – they will be happy to help you both before and after admission.

Choosing the right university: tips for students with special needs

Once you have narrowed down the appealing courses, you need to do your homework on the campuses.  The open days can be a bunfest – Exeter has recorded 10,000 visitors to its open days – 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. 

Students with physical disabilities

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 it’s worth looking at the website www.disabledgo.com, a superb resource which has 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/Asperger’s

The last five years has seen great strides in the support and understanding extended to autistic students, and a resulting 200% increase in university 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 to students with special needs?

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.

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 – which will give grants for essential study needs which are not covered through other funding streams.

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.

Communicating with parents

It’s important to realise that once the child reaches university he or she will be treated as an adult, and the university will not communicate with parents without the student’s express permission. Parent Denise Long told us: "Bournemouth were happy to talk to us up until my son started, and once he had given permission, they were happy for us to remain involved. There haven't been many occasions when that has been necessary, but we have been able to explain in more detail how he sees different situations." 

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