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.

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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/
 

RNIB Young People’s Ambassador: being a student and guide dog owner

Around this time last year, I signed myself up to volunteer as a Young People’s Ambassador for RNIB Cymru. Being an ambassador gives me the opportunity to share my insight and experience of growing up as a visually impaired person to help and advise others in a similar situation. RNIB Cymru has a number of ambassadors located across Wales, whom they will match with any young person who contacts them seeking support or advice from someone who’s been there and has the T-Shirt to prove it.
I know from my own experience how valuable a service like this would have been to me when I was a gawky teenager trying to figure out this whole “sight loss” thing, so I take my roll very seriously. Of course I am not a trained professional in the subject of blindness, but I hope that my personal experience of both mainstream and specialist education, higher education and being a young guide dog owner qualifies me to some degree to advise others on the topics. After all, you can study something until you’re blue in the face but you’ll never understand it as well as if you’ve lived it.
Most recently I was contacted by the RNIB to do some ambassading about having a guide dog at University. Most of the questions were ones I’ve been asked by blind and sighted people alike and that I myself had before becoming a guide dog owner, so I thought I would share a few examples of how I answered the FAQ’s about having a guide dog at University.
 
Q: How do you manage other people and students reactions??
 
A: I think it makes a massive difference if you set the boundaries straight away. The first time I brought Jazzy to a new lecture, I asked for a minute before the tutor began to introduce her but to explain that she is a working dog doing a job an consequentially should not be touched, fed or distracted. Clear explanations make people much more understanding and cooperative in my experience.
 
Q: When you’re in lectures or seminars, do you take a blanket or a bone for her?
 
A: I don’t. Usually she will sprawl out and fall asleep for the duration. I only poke her if her snoring gets too loud!
 
Q: In a lecture theatre where the seats are tiered, where do you sit?
 
A: I sit on the end of the row to allow her room to spread out, especially if it’s a long session. As long as she’s not blocking the way too much for anyone getting passed, there should be no problems.
 
Q: What if a flatmate/classmate is afraid of dogs?
 
A: Again, I think full disclosure is the best policy in this case. Be open to questions and be patient. When Jazzy moved into my flat, I distributed little leaflets under every door on my floor with some information about guide dogs and an invitation to knock on my door if anybody had any questions. Make sure your accommodation department is aware that you’re bringing a guide dog so that they can ask your potential flatmates about allergies before move in day.
 
Q: What do you do with your dog when you go out clubbing?
 
A: Guide dogs advise that it is fine to leave our furry friends alone for up to five hours, providing they’re in a comfortable and secure environment. When I go out without her, I leave some entertainment like a bone or a chew and leave some music/TV/audio book on to mute the noise of other students. I leave fresh water out and lock the door and she’s pretty content. At least I’ve never had complaints of howling or come back to a trashed bedroom, so I assume she just enjoys the alone time.
 
I hope this post has cleared up any trepidations you might have if you’re a guide dog owner soon to be fresher, but also that I’ve hopefully managed to clear up any confusion or questions about the logistics of being a student and owning a guide dog.
 
I will soon be writing a post about some blind student life hacks I’ve picked up while at University, so please keep an eye out for my upcoming blogs and remember to check out the Facebook and Twitter pages to keep up to date with See My Way!