Funding is available, but needs to be more widely publicised, says Jennifer Willows.
With rising diagnoses and an increased awareness of the challenges facing students with additional needs, educational institutions have a role to play in ensuring students know that support and funding is available.
Students have access to several traditional supportive technologies including electronic worksheets, graphic organisers, optical character recognition, portable word-processors, variable-speed tape recorders, and software. Educational institutions may supply these technologies to students as part of their course. If this is not possible, students will have to fund it themselves.
Government funding for tech
To support the accessibility, reading and disability challenges for the estimated 332,300 higher education students throughout the UK, the Government set up the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) which covers study-related costs for higher education students. This can be due to learning disabilities, mental health conditions, long term health problems or physical and sensory disabilities. In the 2023/2024 academic year, undergraduate and postgraduate students can apply for up to £26,291 per year for support. DSA covers anything from specialist equipment such as laptops and computers to other disability-related study support.
The DSA is proving beneficial as a report commissioned by the Department for Education revealed that nearly three-quarters of DSA recipients received specialist software needed for their course. However, despite its availability, only 40 per cent of students had heard of DSA before starting their course. This shows the importance of increasing its awareness and the positive impact it can have on the learning experiences for students.
The power of assistive technology
For students with dyslexia and other reading challenges, technology can help them overcome barriers to their learning and enable them to study independently in and out of the classroom. Assistive technology can improve reading and spelling aptitude—among other skills—helping them to reach their full potential. While also increasing a student’s self-reliance and sense of independence.
This reinforces the value of DSA and its role as an enabler, helping to put technology in the hands of students. A typical DSA package allocated by an assessor will include a variety of different technologies such as a laptop, printer, scanner, copier, mouse and keyboard. These tools can help the student work more effectively. However, for those with dyslexia, more intuitive and personalised technology is needed to improve learning outcomes.
Higher education can be particularly demanding for students with dyslexia and other reading challenges. Having to review papers, books and documents can leave students with dyslexia fatigued, nauseous and experiencing headaches on a regular basis. Until recently, the only tools developed specifically for reading and comprehension difficulties were found on computers, which are not ideal when moving between teaching locations and completing home learning.
Students who struggle with dyslexia and other reading challenges have to overcome many hurdles to progress through their courses. Assistive technology is proven to deliver positive outcomes for students but funding channels such as the DSA hold a fundamental role in giving them access to the right technology.
Universities and colleges have a key part to play in increasing awareness of the support available to students. The aspiration should be to build an education system that is the most inclusive and accessible as it can be, on top of giving students a solid foundation to reach their full learning potential.