International Disabilities Day: Cuts to Disabled Student’s Allowance

Why I’m against cuts to DSA
In light of today being International Disabilities Day, I wanted to share my thoughts on the issue of the UK government’s current plans to cut government funding for the non-medical help supplied by Disabled Student’s Allowance (DSA). 
This morning I read this article which brought the issue to the forefront of my mind again:

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/dec/02/government-to-cut-funding-disabled-university-students-jo-johnson
In this article Jo Johnson, the Minister for universities and science announces that from next September onwards, higher education institutions will be expected to pay for non-medical support for students with disabilities and that funding for specialist technology and adapted accommodation will be reduced.
Upon reading this article, I couldn’t help imagining how different my university experience could’ve been if I’d chosen to start my degree in September 2016 instead of 2013. 
How has DSA helped me?
Before starting my degree in English Literature in 2013, I used DSA to purchase a range of accessibility technology including a laptop, a scanner and software, a screen reader, a Dictaphone and a braille display. My laptop and screen reader is technology that I quite literally could not study a degree without; I access all my course material electronically and I’m able to complete all my assignments and exams independently using this technology. All of this essential equipment alone cost more than £5000.
I’ve also use DSA to fund non-medical support throughout my three year degree programme. This includes note-takers who write notes for me in lectures and who type them up in an accessible format for me in their own time. It also includes my research assistant who helps me access books/inaccessible materials that I need to complete my course, often spending hours manually scanning book chapters into electronic formats and helping me navigate the often complicated and almost always inaccessible online library. Additionally, during my first and part of my second year, non-medical help funding was used to pay for my mobility on campus. This was essential in enabling my independence and wellbeing, as being able to orient myself independently gives me much more freedom rather than having to rely on sighted guides. 
How would cutting DSA affect me?
If my university weren’t able to fund the non-medical help available to me through DSA I would be unable to:
• Take notes in class – I can’t listen to the lecturer, follow the handout with my screen reader and take notes all at the same time.

• Access course materials– If I was required to adapt all my course materials myself, I’d have no time to write my assignments, let alone have a social life (that is assuming I’d have the technology to do my own scanning).

• Complete required reading – I’m studying English literature, so without my library assistant scanning chapters and sometimes whole books for me I simply wouldn’t be able to study my course.

• Complete my assignments – without the notes from my lectures, completing the required reading, accessing course materials and having the ability to source secondary texts, how could I possibly write an essay or exam?

• Write a dissertation – without my research assistant supporting me in the library and sourcing accessible materials, I would be unable to complete an 8000 word piece of work comprising entirely of individual research, which is a required part of my degree.

• Get around campus independently – no mobility training would’ve deprived me from familiarising myself with campus consequentially restricting me from attending lectures, participating in clubs/societies and orienting myself independently.
DSA has been utterly essential in making my degree as inclusive and accessible as possible. The support that DSA has enabled me to access is something that I, nor my family, would ever been able to source from our own pockets and without being able to access that financial support,, I can say with absolute certainty that it would have been virtually impossible for me to obtain a degree.
Why is DSA, and getting a degree, so important to me?
I wanted to get a degree because I want the best chance possible of getting a job, building a career and making a life for myself. I have worked damn hard during these last couple of years to make the most of the opportunity given to me because I fully appreciate that without the support and resources available, like DSA, it would be impossible for someone like me to even consider attending University. It’s been difficult, draining and almost unbearable at times; my mental health has suffered and I’ve contemplated quitting more than once. But I’m still here and I am determined to come out of this with a first. 
Why? Because I read somewhere once that a disabled person with a degree is about as likely to be employed as your average Jo with standard GCSE’s. If that’s true, I don’t really want to contemplate what my chances of getting a job would be without any HE qualifications. Contrary to a depressingly common misconception, most people with disabilities wouldn’t prefer to be unemployed. Living off benefits, without a purpose or anything to get up for in the morning is not the life I want for myself. I want a career; I want success; I want to prove that I, and others like me, can do absolutely anything in spite of our differences. For me, the best way I feel I can achieve this is by getting a degree. And the cold, hard truth of it is that without support like DSA that would be impossible. 
What does cutting DSA funding mean to me?
Cutting government funding for disabled University students is to deprive us of our right to education, our right to equal opportunities and our right to shape our own futures. The quality of support available to students with disabilities is already so varied among establishments that expecting Universities to fit the bill of non-medical support is an unrealistic expectation that can only lead to even more inconsistency. . I fear that this is only the first step towards bigger and more damaging cuts to provisions for students with disabilities in the future and I believe that it’s a mark of how disconnected our current government is from the realities of what it’s like for young people with disabilities living in the UK today that they would even contemplate this ridiculous course of action.

Common Purpose and Santander Frontrunner Alumni Workshop

A few months ago I attended the Frontrunner Programme for Disabled Students run by Common Purpose in association with Santander, and I wrote about it in my first ever blog post here!
https://elinangharadwilliams.wordpress.com/2015/07/13/common-purpose-frontrunner-for-disabled-students-in-association-with-santander/
Now a couple of months on, I attended the Santander Frontrunner for Disabled Students Alumni Workshop and had just as insightful experience as I did on the course in Newcastle back in July.
 
Passion and resonance
 
The course was held in Nottingham and was open to any alumni of the Frontrunner for Disabled Students programmes. Common Purpose hold a number of these programmes throughout the year in different locations across the country, so it was nice to see some familiar faces from the programme in Newcastle but also to meet other alumni of different programmes from the last couple of years.
In true Common Purpose style, I arrived to be welcomed by a very friendly bunch of people and was immediately made to feel at ease by the fact that all the access requirements I had requested had been met.
 
Side note: I can’t really emphasise how refreshing it is when this happens. It’s a depressing reality that I’ve gotten far too used to my requests being ignored or misinterpreted when I ask for things like work in accessible formats or accommodations for my guide dog, so that when it actually happens it leaves me flustered with disbelief and stammering an inner monologue along the lines of:
“You mean you actually paid attention when I asked for handouts to be emailed to me in Word? But… I only had to ask once…”
One of the things that makes me sing the praises of Common Purpose is that I only ever have to ask once for anything. More than that, they don’t make me feel like a massive pain in the back side for asking for something to be converted from picture PDF to Word or for someone to do a little orientation with me at the beginning. It’s a nice change not to be treated like a chore.
But Anyway! Enough of my wining, back to the workshop.
 
After the initial introductions, the first exercise we did was to get into groups and think about the different qualities possessed by six famous leaders – Oprah Winfrey, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, Richard Branson and Mahatma Gandhi. We were asked to think about words to describe them as leaders and afterwards to write down three words that we wanted to describe us as leaders. Mine were approachable, empathetic and fair.
Following a quick tea break, we then gathered to listen to our first speaker of the day; Peter Osborne has previously worked for the RNIB and now works as a Mobility Team Manager at the Hull branch of Guide Dogs. He shared his own personal experiences of leadership and discussed how passion and resonance play a part in effective leadership. I personally found this session very enlightening as a lot of Peter’s commented resonated with me and my hopes and concerns for my future career. It helped that Peter is an extremely approachable man who had the room laughing on several occasions.
 
Communicating your passions
 
Lunch was followed by our second speaker of the day Paul Bisping’s session on communicating our passion. After showing us some examples of both negative and positive ways other people communicated their passions, Paul asked us to get into groups of three to complete the task he’d set. In our groups, one was to be the talker and was tasked with talking for a few minutes about their passion, the questioner who would spend a couple of minutes questioning the talker about their passion after their initial speech and the observer who was to stay silent throughout and give feedback on both the talker and the questioner’s methods of communicating during the task. We were to rotate so that each person should have an opportunity to take each roll, so that’s what we did.
What was interesting to notice was that animation brings out different reactions in people; some people start talking very quickly, some people (like me) have so much to say they struggle to structure their points coherently, others find it difficult to express their thoughts about their passion especially if it’s something close to their hearts. One thing for certain though, there is no doubt that the difference between someone who’s really enthused about their topic and someone who isn’t is definitely noticeable. An important thing to remember in the context of leadership I think; you have a much better chance of persuading someone to believe or agree with you about something if you’re passionate about the topic yourself.
 
Passion in interviews
 
Our last speaker of the day was Jo Miller, a Branch Director within Santander. She spoke to us about the importance of conveying passion during the interview process. We practiced answering some interview questions using the STAR structure (situation, task, action, result) while conveying passion in our answers. The practice and feedback was very constructive and Jo’s insights into the recruitment process were invaluable.
 
Closing thoughts
 
Proceeding Jo’s session, the final session of the day was about reflecting on how to channel our passion into our goals. After taking a few quiet moments to imagine where we’d like to be in one, three, five years’ time, we regrouped and went back to the three words we’d noted down earlier in the day that we wanted to describe us as leaders. I volunteered to explain my words to the group. Standing up and talking in front of everyone was marginally easier than last time but I’m a way off from being able to own the room, though it’s a minor progress that I volunteered without too much hesitation to do it this time. Baby steps!
 
I will end this post by reemphasising how fantastic I feel Common Purpose are and how much I would highly recommend the Frontrunner Programme to any disabled student. Every single person I’ve ever met who works for Common Purpose have been refreshingly accommodating and friendly. Both events I’ve attended have been intense but immensely rewarding and I most definitely look forward to working with Common Purpose again in the future.
 
Find the Common Purpose website here:
http://www.commonpurpose.org.uk/
 

Independent isn’t alone: guest blog for VI Able Solutions

VI Able Solutions is a blog intended to share the problems we all encounter in our daily lives and how we have resolved them. Posts include solutions for anything from paring socks to making friends. The aim is to share experiences in the hope that someone else might benefit from what you learned.
Check out my guest post here:
https://viablesolutions.wordpress.com/2015/09/16/independent-isnt-alone/