Posted on Fri 04 Dec 2015 at 15:18 by Luke Pilot
In April 2014, the government's department for Business Innovation & Skills (BIS) published a document of proposed cuts to the Disabled Students' Allowance. The general response to the proposals was that of outrage, and strong opposition came from groups like the NUS and various disability rights charities. The government's plans were delayed by a year, while the BIS was forced to launch a full consultation with the public. Disabled students, charities, Students' Unions and Universities were given a very short time frame within which to scramble together a concerted effort to defend and protect the DSA.
Our Disabled Students' Officer Jenny Wheeler and I laboured over the lengthy consultation document, which was so poorly worded and constructed that it was, ironically, incredibly inaccessible to the point of just being insulting. Our five-thousand word response adopted a hard-line stance opposing the proposals, and we heavily criticised the document and the way BIS carried out the consultation. This same approach was adopted by numerous organisations across the country.
Yesterday, on a day of action against cuts to the Disabled Students’ Allowance called by the NUS – and, perhaps even more cruelly, on the UN's International Day of Persons with Disabilities - the government announced it is going ahead with the cuts anyway.
Jo Johnson, Minister for Universities and Science, confirmed that support via grants for non-medical support staff was to be removed, while funding for computer equipment and reasonable adjustments in accommodation will be reduced. To hear this news after such a lengthy and arduous consultation and campaigning process, on a day which we celebrate and embrace diversity, was absolutely crushing. The timing of this announcement given other current political events also rather cynically allows it to slip through largely unnoticed.
I truly fear for the accessibility of Higher Education Institutions. The 2010 Equality Act stipulates that HEIs have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for their disabled students – however, without the necessary safeguards in place to enforce this duty, there is no guarantee that HEIs will support their disabled students. With the responsibility now resting almost entirely on Universities to fund these adjustments (in keeping with the responsibilities of “other businesses” – a statement which says pretty much all you need to know about this government’s perception of and approach to Higher Education), the education of students who attend smaller institutions with higher populations of disabled students is now at risk, since these institutions fail to cover the expenses these adjustments require. With this extra control over the supply of funding and reasonable adjustments, disabled students are now more vulnerable to discrimination within their own institutions.
Non-medical support staff include note-takers and readers - staff who some disabled students literally cannot study without. These services are integral to disabled students' attainment and their wellbeing at University, especially when not all courses use lecture capture technology to help with accessibility issues. Without these services, our disabled students are put at a distinct disadvantage.
A Higher Education system which does not make the reasonable adjustments to accommodate and support students with a diverse range of abilities is inaccessible, and erects a direct barrier to education. This is an insult to the thousands of disabled students who aspire to succeed in academia every year.
The High Court recently ruled that the Welfare Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, unlawfully discriminated against disabled people by refusing to lift a benefits cap from careers working more than 35 hours a week. The DWP declaring disabled people “fit to work” was subsequently linked to the deaths of thousands of workers. While these two incidents occurred in separate contexts, it is symptomatic of this government's intentions to cut welfare provisions for some of the most vulnerable members of our community. These cuts are unethical, unconscionable and, as we have seen in the past, put lives at stake.
This government, with its austerity-driven agenda which continues to disproportionately affect and discriminate against under-served groups, is being both careless, callous and dangerous in the politics it is playing with the lives of real people. Now more than ever we need to oppose these cuts and fight for education which is open to all, with equal access and free from discrimination. These cuts are regressive and a major step backwards in supporting vulnerable students through their education - it's high time that governments realised changes like these are dangerous and destructive to disabled peoples' lives and futures.
I honestly do not know how they sleep at night.