After being diagnosed with dyspraxia and dyslexia in the third term of the third year of my doctorate, I was advised to apply for DSA (Disabled Students’ Allowance). In the light of recent news reporting that huge numbers of students miss out, I thought I’d share what got in the way of me applying, and what I’d suggest as a result.
What is Disabled Students’ Allowance?
Disabled Students Allowance enables students with a disability to access funding for support with adaptations or additional needs during their studies – for example, it might cover assistive technology or specialist tutoring. What you get depends on your needs, so it can vary a lot. I’ve heard of things ranging from mind-mapping software to adjustable-height desks to BSL interpreters to an additional allowance for printing, but it’s different for different people.
So did you apply straight away?
Honestly, I wish I had, but I didn’t. I was given mixed advice about when to apply. The university were changing the process so that third years would automatically progress to a fourth year (having previously been required to request this as an extension), but my student records still said there were only a few months left of my course. Some people said I should wait until my records were updated. This is because in the last 6 months of your course, you aren’t invited for a needs assessment and are given much more limited support. Others said I should apply anyway because the process can take up to 14 weeks.
I really needed a clear answer and someone to tell me what to do at that point. I was overwhelmed with coursework, my thesis, placements, finally getting diagnosed, and my mum being incredibly distressed due to her own ill health. My time management skills had disintegrated, I was so very tired all the time, and I was doing the bare minimum I needed to do to make it to the end of the year. The only thing I could muster up energy for was placement. It would have been really helpful if someone had said: this is how you apply, you can get help with the form here, this is what you’ll need.
It wasn’t until after the summer that it even occured to me that the Neurodiversity Support team at uni might be able to help – that’s how tired I was!
What got in the way of applying?
Partly it was down to fatigue and trying to pace myself through to the end of the year in a way that allowed me to still be fit for placement. I was 2 hours from campus and travelling in just to get a report printed and a form stamped felt like a huge effort!
A lot of it was a combination of the application form and how my uni processed my progression through the course. It’s quite a straightforward form, really – it asks things like your course dates and you condition, whether you have student finance and your personal details.
It was the course dates that stumped me the most. The first year of my course was advertised just as part of the doctorate, but the way the uni enrolled us was that the first year was a masters and then you’re enrolled on a doctorate in your second year. So I didn’t know whether the course start date on my uni records was the year I actually started at the uni, or whether my records would show my start date as my second year (the first year at doctoral level). Then there was the end date – officially just a few months away on my records, but in reality a year and a few months away. So was I now meant to still put the original end date, or a year later, even though my records still had the earlier date?
The evidence was easy as I’d been so recently diagnosed – I know sometimes that can be tricky for people to obtain, though. You might need to pay for your GP to provide it if you don’t already have it.
The next hurdle was proving my identity and status as a UK citizen. I’d let my passport expire to save money. You can still apply, you just need alternative identification and an additional form. Unfortunately, when I read that it didn’t say where to get said additional form, that I could. Cue me sitting, feeling very stupid, thinking “Well where do I get that then?”
Turns out it was from the same place I got the original DSA application form. Which is embarrassing as I would like to think if I’d been struggling less, I’d have thought to look back to where I got the DSA form!
I won’t lie, by then I was just too exhausted from coping with the last three years to do the work to get the information I needed to fill in the form. I should have pushed myself to do it anyway, it wasn’t all that much effort really. But I didn’t.
What about later? Did you apply then?
I did eventually go to Student Services and get my official course dates. I found the form I needed to get completed to confirm my identity, and I even found someone to vouch for my identity on said form. All I needed to do was print the report from my dyspraxia assessment and put them in the post.
So what stopped you sending in the application?
Well, a small part of this was down to my poor awareness of time – that form I’d had to find someone else to sign? It had to be submitted within 3 months. I kept thinking, I must remember to print my dyspraxia assessment report so that I can send my DSA application off. Invariably I’d remember when I didn’t have access to a printer and think, I’ll do it tomorrow. It felt like maybe a month or two had passed – but when I finally remembered and was in a place I could access both my report and a printer, it had been over 3 months.
I should have set myself reminders. I should have made it a SMART goal. I didn’t. I’d lost my coping strategies along the course of my doctorate – both a result of struggling and a contribution to maintaining my struggles!
But the largest reason I didn’t apply was emotional. I felt too guilty to apply – why should I get extra help? Did I really deserve it? I’d made it this far, surely I should be able to cope? Surely if no-one had picked up on my dyspraxia it must be quite mild? Was I just making excuses? Did I have any right to apply for something aimed at disabled people? Did I think of myself as disabled – and if I wanted to, did I have a right to?
Do you regret not applying?
Definitely. Yes, I was exhausted, but I’m sure it would have been worth the extra effort. I think I’d be in much better position now, or at least be more confident that I’ve tried everything I can if I don’t manage to complete my course.
Now I’m waiting to hear if I’ll get a 6 month extension – if I do I will apply ASAP, even though what I can get will be much more limited than it would have been if I’d applied sooner.
What would you say to anyone applying or considering applying?
Do it as soon as possible! The earliest I’m aware of that you can apply is when you’re applying for Student Finance, even if you don’t have a university place yet.
If you need additional things – like medical evidence, or forms signed – make getting those things a priority. Set reminders on your phone, put it on your to-do list or in your diary, whatever helps you get it done.
If you’re struggling with the form, contact Disability Support, Neurodiversity Support or Student Services at your university and ask them to help.
You can submit the form either by e-mail or by post.
You do deserve this support.
Update: My extension has been granted (hurrah) and I sent off my DSA application just under 2 weeks ago. I’ve had a letter confirming it’s been recieved and I should hear more soon!
Where can I find out more and apply?
You can visit https://www.gov.uk/disabled-students-allowances-dsas to find out more about DSA and apply.
The UCAS website is also useful: https://www.ucas.com/finance/additional-funding/disabled-students-allowances-dsas