Support for university students with physical or mental health conditions or a learning disability – it’s there so don’t be afraid to ask for it.
Life is far from normal for any of us at the moment but for young people living with a physical/mental health condition or a learning issue, leading a ‘normal’ life has always been a challenge. Knowing how best to help them to achieve their aspirations and move into adulthood, often starting with their application to university, is a terrain that can feel extremely uncertain.
At the point my daughter was applying to university she (and we) had had many years of coping with her OCD but she was actually managing it better than she ever had. She was extremely reluctant to mention her condition to the highly competitive universities she was applying to as she felt strongly that this could be a reason to reject her. At the time, I was worried about this too so we supported her decision to keep quiet. Looking back, although we did manage to get some vital support in place when a crisis point was inevitably reached, it would have been so much better if we had involved the university from the outset. When we finally turned to her university’s Disability Service, her problems did not magically go away but the help she received was crucial in helping her through her degree and successfully out the other side.
Any parent with a child who has physical or mental health needs will know how difficult it is to access the right kind of help and to get the continuity of support that is needed. However, part of any battle is understanding the systems that are in place and knowing what you can ask for.
In my role as Higher Education Consultant with the Girls Day School Trust, I put together a support guide aimed at students with additional needs who are applying to Higher Education which is also intended to provide some clarity for the parents and teachers who are helping them.
Here are my key messages.
Choose the right course: Universities deliver what sounds like the same course in very different ways. It takes careful research to uncover the contact hours, style of assessment and balance of lectures, small group teaching and practical sessions. You then need to match this with what you know would work best for you. Contact the university directly if anything isn’t clear. Some courses are available part-time or online.
Choose the right university: Although going away to university is often seen as a rite of passage, staying nearer home under the care of trusted medical professionals and supportive family or friends could be a key consideration. Would a campus university where everything you need is on one site work well for you? If you prefer city life, how far is the student accommodation away from your subject department?
Disclose your condition during the application process: The ‘Personal Details’ part of the online UCAS application includes a Disability/Special Needs section so make use of this to explain your support needs. Universities encourage schools to use the UCAS Reference to highlight any issues a student has faced that might have impacted on their academic performance. Using these sections of your UCAS application will trigger a contact from your chosen universities disability services to explore your individual needs in more detail via a Study Needs Assessment.
Tick the disability box in your online Student Finance application: This is the first step to claiming the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA). The majority of universities use this to finance any additional support you might need.
This support could include:
- providing laptops, recording devices, printers, scanners, assistive software and ensuring course materials are in accessible formats
- making sure buildings, facilities and accommodation are accessible and suitable for your learning
- prioritising the need to live in a particular type of accommodation (eg with ensuite facilities) and help with covering the extra cost of different room types
- arranging regular meetings with a mental health support worker or counsellor
- providing additional support and extra time during exams
- providing a note-taker for lectures
- providing a mentor to help with general organisation and lifestyle
- allowing additional time to complete courses
Collect the evidence you will need to show what your support needs will be: If you have an ongoing health problems and are intending to claim DSA you will need a letter from a medical/mental health professional who has been working with you.
In the case of learning difficulties, universities will usually require evidence from your school and relevant external organisations (eg a diagnostic assessment for dyslexia) showing that your needs have been assessed, together with details of the measures that have been put in place to support you.
My Top Tip is to ask your school’s SEND Co-ordinator to give you copies of all the documentation the school has accumulated about your condition and support needs. Having all the relevant information in one place will really help you while at university and also when you are starting out in your chosen career.
I hope that it will it be reassuring to know that universities are extremely keen to ensure fair access for all students. Many young people with physical/mental health conditions or learning difficulties have succeeded in gaining a place at their preferred university, received the support they need to achieve highly in their chosen course and had a wonderful time along the way!
I have tried to be comprehensive about the sorts of support that can be put in place but this is actually very individual to each student so it is important to be open and honest with universities about what would make a difference and not be afraid to ask for more/different support if things change.