Negotiating support at university

Starting University can be a challenging time for anyone as it may involve leaving home and living independently. It will also mean moving to an environment where you are expected to take greater responsibility for your learning needs.

Ensuring that you have the necessary arrangements and support in place for when you start University is vital. It is important to be realistic about what support will be ready for when you start your studies. The overwhelming message that has come from speaking to other young people who have gone through this transition is, ‘the earlier you start, the better’!
 
You don’t have to wait until you get your A-Level results to start the process of getting support as your first choice of University will be expecting you to attend that institution. 

Who to contact?

Support at university for students with a disability tends to be arranged by a central office, often called the Disability Support Office. Before your course starts you should make sure that you arrange to meet with a disability support officer to discuss what adjustments might need to be made to ensure you can access your course, the university facilities, and to be able to live independently whilst at university. As well as talking to you to find out more about how your vision impairment affects you, the disability support officer will also review your Disabled Student Allowance needs assessment report to see the support that your assessor has advised and details of the support you have been allocated through Disabled Students Allowances (DSAs).
 
Some students who have more severe vision impairments and who had complex access challenges (for example courses which had practical elements or used lots of diagrams) found it helpful when their Disability Support Office worked with their department to develop their support arrangements. If you think this would be beneficial to you, suggest this to your disability support officer.  
 
Alternatively some students found it easier to negotiate specific support with their department directly especially after they had been on their courses for a while and got to know the course staff:
 
“The disability support office as far as I know didn’t have too much involvement. I think they were really good and would have done everything they could and done it really well. I get the impression they are very competent… It’s just that the department were more impactful in how they could help” 
 
Whilst you might decide to work directly with your course leaders, it is still important to meet with the Disability Support Office to develop your initial support plan, make your exam arrangements, and find out about the wider support available at the university. 

When should you start thinking about your support at university?

If you have declared your vision impairment via your UCAS application, it is likely that the Disability Support Office at your university will already be aware of you and will make contact before you start your course. It is really important to respond to any communication they send you, even if your move to university still seems a long way off, as one Disability Support Officer explains:
 
“The [students] that don’t actually respond and engage with us until the end of August, when the results come out, are the ones we really, really struggle to support, because it doesn’t give us enough time, particularly with visually impaired students”
 
If you have not had any communication from the Disability Support Office, you will be able to find their contact details on the university’s website.  Get in touch as soon as possible!
 
Mark, a third year student at university, told us how valuable it was to make early contact with the Disability Support Office at his university so they could start putting support in place for him:

Mark’s early preparations for going to university

Mark has a severe vision impairment and is a braille and screen reader user. At university he decided to study a scientific course which involved a lot of mathematical equations. After early discussions with his department he decided that it would be best to access his course notes using a specialist piece of software. His department committed to transcribing all course notes into an electronic format, whilst he spent the summer prior to university learning to use the software with his screen reader. 

What support would be helpful to you? 

Reasonable Adjustments – know your rights!

Under the Equality Act (2010) all education providers are required to ensure that disabled people's access requirements are met and  colleges and Higher Education institutions are required to provide publicity and all other materials in a range of accessible formats (large print, Braille, etc). These institutions have an 'anticipatory' duty under the legislation and they should be able to provide materials in an appropriate format without difficulty. 
 
The Equality Act of 2010 states that education providers should make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled students to ensure that that they are not at a disadvantage in comparison to non-disabled students. Such reasonable adjustments apply to:
  • The admissions process
  • The examinations process
  • The examination process
When you meet with the disability support office you will work together to determine what the ‘reasonable adjustments’ are that the university should be making for you. 

Things to consider

Below are some ideas of what you may wish to consider when contacting your University:
  • Arrangements for accessing your course
  • Arrangements for exams and assessments
  • Accommodation arrangements
  • Arranging Mobility Training 
  • Guide Dogs on campus 
Download our ‘Negotiating support – what to consider’ guide to help you think what you may want to consider when negotiating your support at university.

Self-advocating

It is vital that you learn to advocate for yourself at university – Students and disability support officers advise that this is important in two ways:
  1. You need to be able to explain your support needs to disability support officers and teaching staff by describing how your vision impairment impacts your learning and helping them understand how you have been supported and what has helped you so far through school and college. 
  2. Students have told us that in situations where they were not receiving the support or reasonable adjustments that they were supposed to have, or where unforeseen problems had arisen, it was necessary for them to speak up for themselves and make staff aware that there was a problem. There were also occasions where they had problems with the Disability Support Office itself, and had to make formal complaints. Therefore it is important that you know what support has been allocated to you, and what reasonable adjustments the university should be making. This point was strongly emphasised by one disability support officer:
“I think you have got to be aware that they are now 18, and they are coming to university, they are independent adults, we are going to treat them as an adult, and that works both ways, in that they have to let us know if things aren’t right. And we will try and, you know, we will talk to them about that, try and change things if things are wrong, or work things out” 
 
Please remember to speak up if something is not working so that staff can help get it right and reduce the impact on your studies. It is important to remember that many of the staff you meet won’t have worked with a student with a visual impairment before, and so they are still learning themselves how best to support you.  

Andrea’s Story

Andrea explained about her experience of not receiving her DSA equipment until very late and not having appropriate lecture materials.
 
“I started my course at University but still hadn’t received my DSA equipment yet.  My university’s disability services had contacted me prior to starting my course and were aware that there may be delays in getting equipment.  They therefore loaned me a laptop which had Jaws screen reader installed and a Dictaphone to record my lectures.  They also ensured that I had a scribe for my lectures and assistance with scanning materials and this was very helpful.  Another obstacle I had was that my lecturers had never taught a visually-impaired student before so when we were given our readings which were poorly photocopied, my scanner was making huge errors and I couldn’t read the texts.  Therefore the University arranged for one of my support workers to read the texts and I could listen to them on my Dictaphone.  This was a short term measure which worked at the time and from then on, we worked together to ensure that for future reading, we would contact the publisher for an accessible e-version of the text. I would definitely recommend contacting disability services before you start your course as they can answer questions that you may have and really helped to put my mind at ease when I started my course.” 

Declaring your visual impairment to teaching staff 

If you give permission for your support plans to be passed onto academic staff, in theory your lecturers should be aware that there is a vision impaired student in their lecture, but evidence shows that unfortunately this does not always happen. To avoid this problem arising, you may like to introduce yourself to your lecturers, and explain to them that you have a vision impairment, and how your vision impairment affects you. One student described how she had a much better experience in the second year of her studies after taking this approach:
 
“I have got all new tutors this year, but this year I did something I didn’t do last year, I went to see all of them before the lectures started, I went and had meetings before Freshers week, and we had a chat about my accessibility needs. They all got my inclusion plan, but I found last year that most of them didn’t really know… It was just better to talk face to face anyway, so I started a relationship with all my tutors. So that’s turning out a lot better, they are lot more helpful.” 
 
While this approach might not be necessary for all students, it is worthwhile considering if you do find that your lecturers are repeatedly failing to meet what is documented in your support/inclusion plan. 

What to do if things go wrong?

Sometimes things go wrong and it is important that you feel confident and able to speak up if things aren’t working for you. Staff are there to help you and so if there is a problem make sure you tell your Disability Support office, lecturers or friends. They will understand that the transition to university can be a challenging one, and that at times you may need additional help.

Things to consider:

  • Have you been provided with your DSA equipment? If you have any delays, your Disability Support Office may be able to arrange for you to borrow some equipment, or alternatively they could assist you in chasing up your order. 
  • Have you met your support workers i.e. note-takers or library assistance? Is the support working for you? Your needs assessment report is a working document, and can be amended should your requirements change during your time at university. You can request a top up assessment – see our DSA page for more information on what to do if my needs change throughout my time at university. Your Disability Support Office will be able to support you with these.
  • Are course materials being provided in an accessible format? It is the university’s responsibility to make reasonable adjustments. If these basic adjustments are not being met and you are unable to resolve these problems independently, your disability support office will challenge your department on this.
  • Have you been provided with sufficient mobility and orientation training to be able to get to/from your lectures and around campus? Your Disability Support Office could help arrange for additional sessions.
  • Are you happy with your accommodation arrangements? Do you need any further modifications?
If you are unable to resolve difficulties that you are facing by working with the Disability Support Office, some students have benefited by speaking to a member of Student Welfare, based within their student union. If your university has a Student Advice Centre this may be another potential source of advice and support.
 
Finally, if you have exhausted all other means of resolution, you should consider making a formal complaint. The procedures for doing so should be made available on your university’s website/intranet and/or in the university’s provider handbook. The Student Union may be able to help you with the formal complaint process.
 
If, after going through the formal complaint process you are unhappy with the result, you can contact the Office for the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) which is the independent review body for complaints in higher education.
 
If you have any concerns about your rights at university, you can contact RNIB Legal Rights team by calling the RNIB Helpline on 0303 123 9999 from Monday to Friday 8.45am to 5.30pm. You can also email helpline@rnib.org.uk
 

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