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Studying with a disability

Updated 03 December 2020

4min read

Nick Green
Financial Journalist

A disability or long-term condition should be no barrier to you getting the most out of life. And that goes for higher education too. If you want to pursue a degree, diploma or other qualification, there are many forms of support and care available to suit a whole variety of needs.

Enabling you for higher education

Every year, the intake of colleges and universities in the UK includes some 30,000 people with disabilities. All higher education institutions have a duty to offer support to make studying feasible, enjoyable and enriching for those with special physical requirements.

A college or university should have a disability adviser (also known as a learning support coordinator). This person or team is responsible for making sure all the facilities, learning support and studying materials are suitable for people with disabilities. They might help you secure extra time to complete your course, provide braille materials, or match you with a PA to help you get around, take notes or complete your exam (though the studying part does have to be all you!). These are just a few examples of how higher education institutions can make your experience less problematic than you might imagine.

Before applying to a particular university, it’s a good idea to find out what they can do to help you, as facilities do vary from place to place. It’s also best to apply and do your research well in advance, so you can speak to the right people about the support you’ll be needing and have it in place when you start.

Choosing a university or college when you have a disability

Whether you have decided to live at home or move away to study, it’s important to feel comfortable using the facilities when you’re studying.

A very good place to start is with the college or university’s disability statement, which they must issue every year (check their website). This manifesto outlines the measures they take to support people with disabilities. It’s best to think about where you might need support and to check whether the facilities and assistance are suitable for you. If they’re not, you should speak to the disability coordinator, as they may be able to offer a solution.

Always visit the university or college in person to take a look at the facilities. Pictures can only show you so much, and you might find it more difficult to get around than you imagined – or you could be pleasantly surprised. You might also like to ask whether there are care workers to help with any personal care or mobility needs. Just remember that the disability coordinator is there to help you, so let them know if you find anything difficult when you visit because something can usually be done.  

How do I choose a course that’s right for me?

The two most importing things to think about when you’re choosing a course are

  • Whether the subject and content interests you
  • Whether it will support your career aspirations

Depending on your particular disability, you may also like to think whether the learning materials, structure and exams will present any particular challenges for you. Don’t be disheartened though, because the disability adviser should find reasonable adjustments to the course to make sure you’re not at a disadvantage. In recent years, many higher education institutions have also made special provisions to support people with dyslexia.

Here are a few considerations to check:

  • Will I be able to participate in lab work?
  • Can I get the learning materials in Braille?
  • Can I get audiobooks of the text books?
  • Can someone translate lessons into sign language for me?
  • Will I be able to do any studying or assessments at home?
  • Is it possible to have a scribe to take notes and help me complete my exams?
  • Can I have extra time for assignments?

I need permanent care. What are my options for studying?

If you need support in your daily life such as getting dressed, getting about, cooking, cleaning etc., you can still go to university or college. You may be able to use professional care workers supplied by the institution. If you receive care via your local authority, you can ask them about getting it transferred to the place you will be studying. If you have private care workers, you should be able to transfer your care to another provider. The other option is to study close to home and look for support to help you travel for lessons and assessments. Just bear in mind that it can take up to a year to transfer care provisions, so plan well in advance.

Is there funding for students with disabilities?

The Disability Student Allowance (DSA) provides money to pay for the extra costs you have as a student because of your disability or difficulties. Please note, however, that you can’t use it to pay for any care or support you normally have. For example, you might use it to pay for the extra equipment you need to access the course materials, additional travel expenses and people who will assist you.

Your eligibility for this government funding depends on your needs, rather than on your income or savings (or those of your parents). You can apply for it through Student Finance England and they will contact you to arrange their own needs assessment. The DSA comes as an additional sum on top of your student loan, but you don’t have to pay it back.


About the author
Nick Green is a financial journalist writing for Unbiased.co.uk, the site that has helped over 10 million people find financial, business and legal advice. Nick has been writing professionally on money and business topics for over 15 years, and has previously written for leading accountancy firms PKF and BDO.