Going to university is often a really big change for students. There are lots of new things to get used to, whether that be living on your own for the first time, managing all your own finances, or adjusting to a more independent style of study. Going to university with a disability can add an extra layer to all this as you work out how your disability fits in with your studies. Fortunately, there is lots of support available to help you.
This article will focus in particular on a form of financial support: the Disabled Students Allowance. After completing all the student loan applications, the thought of yet more finance forms can be really off putting. However, the application process is nowhere near as scary as you may expect.
Read on for a complete guide to the DSA, that will answer all your questions about it so you can access the financial support you deserve to help you through university.
Table of Contents
What is the DSA?
The Disabled Students’ Allowance, usually shortened to the DSA, is a financial grant to cover any university-related costs students in England face due to a disability.
There are lots of additional expenses that come with studying at university – and they are likely to be greater as a disabled student. The DSA is intended to make sure that these costs are not a barrier to you wishing to study at university.
After a successful application, you will have a certain allowance to use on study-related costs. This can be anything from specialist equipment, to support workers, to travel reimbursements. For more information about this, check out this page on the UCAS website.
Of course, there is a lot to think about before you reach this point, including whether you are eligible, how much you will get, and how to apply. Keep reading for more!
How much is the DSA?
As stated on this page of the government website, the maximum allowance eligible students can get for the 2023-24 academic year is £26,291. This is a significant sum of money – around double the maximum maintenance loan, for comparison – but of course, not everyone gets this maximum amount.
As discussed, the DSA is meant to help meet costs to do with studying at university with a disability, so the amount of money you get will reflect your needs. The more equipment or aid you need, the greater your DSA should be.
The exact amount is decided through an application and assessment process. There’s plenty more information about this later in this article!
Another thing to be aware of is that the maximum amount changes slightly year on year. For example, the maximum in the previous academic year (2022-23) was £25,575. It’s worth making sure you have the most up-to-date information – the allowance for the current and previous year are available on the government page linked above.
Do you have to pay back the DSA?
In short, no, you do not have to pay back the DSA. People often associate funding at university with debt, and this is true in most cases – both tuition fee loans and maintenance loans are paid back over time. However, the DSA is a grant, not a loan, so does not need to be repaid.
Technically, there are a couple of exceptions to this, but they don’t affect most students. For instance, if you leave your course early, you may have to repay. To learn more about this, check out this article by Student Finance England.
What affects how much DSA you get?
How much DSA you get depends entirely on your individual circumstances. For this reason, it is impossible to say exactly how much your allowance will be for specific disabilities.
Although the specifics will be discussed through the application process, by the university stage, you will likely be aware of the education support you need. For instance, if you know you need regular support from an assistant like a sign language interpreter, your allowance will be more than if all you need is a one-off payment for a specialist bit of software.
Additionally, many people think that how much money you are eligible for depends on your household income, but this is not the case. While other student support is means-tested, such as the maintenance loan, the DSA isn’t. Instead, how much you get is directly related to your needs when it comes to studying with a disability.
You can find more about this once again in this page on the government website.
Who is eligible for the DSA?
If you have any sort of disability which impacts your ability to study, you should be eligible for financial support via the DSA. You will also need to be a university student who normally lives in the UK, studying on a course that lasts at least a year.
Of course, the word ‘disability’ can encompass a range of individual circumstances, and everyone’s situation is different. If you are unsure about your eligibility, it is always worth asking a disability advisor at your school or at a university you are considering – the worst they can say is no!
Physical disabilities such as visual impairment may be the first thing that comes to mind – but while these students should certainly be eligible, this isn’t the only form of disability.
Specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia and ADHD will evidently directly impact your studies, so you should get a DSA to support you with this. You are likely to also be eligible if you live with a mental health disability, including anxiety and depression, or a long-term health condition or chronic disease.
For more information on eligibility for the DSA, have a look at this page from the government website.
How do you provide proof that you are eligible?
As part of the application, you will be asked to provide some proof of how your studies are affected by your disability. This shouldn’t be a barrier for any student – it is just to make sure that the right people have access to the support.
Probably the simplest route is to ask your doctor for a report or letter that you can send a copy of to support your application. If you don’t think this will be possible, or will be difficult to get, you can instead fill out the DSA evidence form, which can be found on the government website here.
Alternatively, if you have a specific learning disability such as dyslexia or ADHD, you may not need a letter from your doctor. Instead, it could come from an assessment done by a psychologist or specialist teacher. Check out this article from UCAS which has this information about supplying evidence, as well as plenty more information about the DSA.
Are postgraduate students eligible for the DSA?
Yes, if you are studying at university as a postgraduate student, you are able to apply for the DSA. You are still studying at university, so any disability you have is likely to impact your learning in a similar way to if you were an undergraduate. Therefore, the DSA will provide support in a similar way.
The only thing that differs slightly as a postgraduate student is the way you apply. This is simply because undergraduate students apply alongside their applications for tuition fee loans, which you will most likely not be eligible for as a postgraduate. Instead, there is a separate form to fill out.
There’s more information on how exactly to apply for the DSA later in this article. If you are wondering about general financial support for postgraduate degrees, this page from UCAS may be helpful.
Are international students eligible for the DSA?
Unfortunately, you are not eligible for the DSA as an international student. This is primarily a source of support for students in the UK.
If you are an international student worried about how any disability you have will affect your university studies, the best thing to do is get in contact with your university (or any university you are thinking of applying to).
Most of them will have a dedicated support system for disabled students and will be happy to let you know about the aid available to ensure your disability doesn’t prevent you from studying there. For example, this page from the University of Cambridge’s website is full of advice and support for international students with a disability.
Are part-time students eligible for the DSA?
The short answer to this is yes, part-time students are eligible to receive the DSA. Even if you are not studying at university all the time, you may still need specific disability support to make the most of your studies, and so the DSA provides this.
This also includes part-time students who are studying remotely, or via platforms like the Open University.
There are a few things to be aware of. The first thing is that your course intensity affects your eligibility. Course intensity is simply a comparison of how much you are studying compared to a full-time student. In England, your course intensity will need to be at least 25% for you to be eligible for the DSA.
To learn more about this, check out this page on the government website.
Additionally, as a part-time student, you will complete a separate form to apply for the DSA, rather than doing it alongside a student finance application. Keep reading for details on exactly how the application process works later in the article!
Are apprenticeship students eligible for the DSA?
Unfortunately, the answer to this question is no, apprenticeship students are not eligible for the DSA. This particular form of support is only available to university students.
However, this doesn’t at all mean that a disability should stop you from doing an apprenticeship. Get in contact with any companies you are looking at, to find out about any support they can directly offer you, and any accessibility schemes they have.
Additionally, there are other forms of financial support you may be eligible for to make sure your disability doesn’t prevent you from completing an apprenticeship, such as the government’s Access to Work scheme. You can read more about disability support for apprenticeship students on this page of the UCAS website.
Is the DSA affected by other financial aid?
If you are already receiving financial support to help you study with a disability, this will likely mean you can’t get the DSA on top of this. This includes funding from your university or an external company.
For instance, medical students may be eligible for the NHS DSA, which you can read more about here on the NHS website. This is essentially the same support as the DSA, just specific to certain students on healthcare courses – so it makes sense that you cannot get two of the same disability allowance.
Remember, this only applies to other support that is directly about your disability affecting your studies. Other student support, such as tuition fee and maintenance loans, will not affect your eligibility for the DSA.
How do you apply for the DSA?
The first stage of applying for the DSA is filling out a form. This involves basic information like your name, address, university and so on, as well as more specific information about your disability.
If you are a full-time undergraduate, this form can be filled in online as part of your student finance application. Otherwise – as a part-time or postgraduate student – you fill out a separate form, which can be found on the government website here. There is also an option to fill out a paper form and post it to the finance company instead of doing it online.
As discussed in the eligibility section above, for part of the application, you will need to send evidence of any disability, usually in the form of a doctor’s letter. Student Finance England will then assess your application, and hopefully, send you confirmation to proceed to the next stage.
Once you’ve heard back, you will need to arrange a needs assessment. This can sound scary, but it is just a conversation with specialists to discuss what kind of support you will need at university.
Check out this guide to the DSA by Save the Student for more information about this assessment – including stories from students who have gone through this application process themselves. Once you are ready to book an assessment, you can use this search tool from the government website to find an assessment centre near you.
Finally, the report from the assessment will be sent to both you and the finance company, who will process the entire application and confirm the DSA you will receive.
Of course, there will still be things to do – for instance, now you have the funds for any specialist equipment, you will need to buy it! But this is the end of the application process, and you now have access to the financial support you need.
How long does it take to get your DSA?
It normally takes around 6 weeks to get your application approved – however, it may be a total of up to 14 weeks before your support is fully set up.
For this reason, it is recommended to apply well before you intend to start university. It’s best to have the funding already in place when you start, and you may want to get it all sorted before the summer holidays, so it is off your mind, and you have extra time if there are unexpected delays.
As UCAS recommends, you can even do it before your university place is confirmed. For more about all of this, check out this guide by UCAS.
What can the DSA be used for?
Your DSA can be used to cover any costs that come about specifically due to studying at university with a disability. There are a huge range of things this can include.
Specialist study equipment can be covered with your DSA. This can include anything from software such as voice recognition, to specialist furniture, to a contribution towards a computer.
If you need it, the DSA also includes support from a non-medical helper. Once again, this can mean a range of things, depending on your individual needs. It may be that you need a notetaker or sign language interpreter for lectures, or a one-on-one mentor to support you outside of classes.
Another key category the DSA can help with is transport. For example, if you are unable to walk or take public transport between accommodation and your university, the DSA should reimburse the difference between this and your actual method of transport.
Have a look at this full guide to the DSA from Disability Rights UK for more information about what you can use your DSA for.
Generally speaking, the money will be paid directly from Student Finance England to the organisation providing the service, or to reimburse you for money you have spent on study-related costs due to your disability. This is a little different from the more well-known maintenance loan, where you receive a set sum of money which is then yours to spend as you choose.
What can the DSA not be used for?
As mentioned, the DSA is specifically meant to help you meet costs that come with studying at university with a disability. There are plenty of other costs at university, such as tuition fees, rent, and food expenses. However, these affect all students – they are not to do with any particular disability – so the DSA will not cover them for you.
Instead, undergraduate students can apply for tuition fee loans and maintenance loans to meet these costs. Have a look at this complete guide for student finance in 2023, from Think Student, for more about these loans.
Similarly, there may be costs associated with your disability that the DSA will not cover, because they aren’t anything to do with university study – the DSA is student-specific. Have a look at this page of the government website for a comprehensive guide to the financial support available to help with living with a disability.
Can you appeal DSA decisions?
Of course, we hope that your application goes through successfully and you receive the support you need. However, in the case that your application is rejected, or you don’t receive as much of an allowance as you think you should, there is an appeals process you can go through.
Who the appeal is made to depends on what exactly you are unhappy with. For example, if you think your assessment was inaccurate, you should get in contact with the assessment centre about their appeals process. In other situations, it may make more sense to appeal to the student finance company.
For more information on appeals, check out this page from the Disability Right UK website. Hopefully, however, you will not need to use this – with the information and advice about the DSA in this article, you can access the funding you need to support you through your university studies.