Government Faces Legal Challenge Over Plans To Cut Support For Disabled Students

Lawyers Say Consultation On Changes To Disabled Student Allowance (DSA) Is Unlawful

30.01.2015

Dave Grimshaw, Press Officer | 0114 274 4397

The Government is facing a legal challenge from disabled students who are angry that they have not been consulted over proposals which will restrict grants that pay for essential equipment and support which helps people with disabilities to attend university.

Law firm Irwin Mitchell is seeking permission for a Judicial Review of the proposals by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to limit the support offered by the Disabled Student Allowance (DSA) which is given to over 60,000 students each year to help pay for support, such as specialist equipment and accommodation, to help them complete their studies.

The legal challenge, supported by the National Deaf Children’s Society and Ambitious About Autism, is being brought on behalf of a student with hearing difficulties who hopes to start university in September, when the changes are set to begin, and a current student with autism who currently receives DSA. Both say they would have wanted to be consulted about the proposed restrictions to DSA because they have concerns that it will prevent some disabled students from being able to complete their studies – or even start a degree programme.

Irwin Mitchell, which has successfully challenged cuts to services across the country, is asking the Government to halt these changes to DSA until a public and accessible consultation is conducted to enable all disabled students to take part.

The law firm has written to BIS to ask them to re-consider the way they have consulted as it is alleged that it is unlawful for the department to only consult with a select group and a full public consultation should have been undertaken.  In response the Secretary of State Vince Cable has stated that he has “no such duty to consult individuals” in these circumstances, even though they will be directly affected.

DSA is available for people with a disability, including a sensory impairment, autistic spectrum condition, long-term health condition, mental health condition or a specific learning difficulty like dyslexia.

The Government says it is expecting Higher Education Institutions to cover the costs involved through their duty to make reasonable adjustments instead of DSA being granted to the student.  The Claimants and the disability charities who are supporting their claim (the National Deaf Children’s Society and Ambitious About Autism) are concerned that in the absence of further funding that expectation is unrealistic. These changes would be applicable for people starting university in September 2015.

The First Claimant, Zanna Messenger-Jones, 17, from Ireleth, Cumbria, is profoundly deaf in her right ear and severely deaf in her left ear. She wears a hearing aid and a device called a cochlear implant which allow her to hear around 30% of conversation around her. Zanna is applying for Art and Design or Fashion Design courses at several universities but without DSA it is uncertain whether she will get the support she needs to follow group discussion classes and Q&As between teachers and other students.

She is currently provided some specialist equipment and software by her college and audiology centre, but she cannot take these with her to University as they are not owned by her. She will also need adaptions to halls of residence, such as a flashing fire alarm and adapted doorbell with visual signals.

Zanna said: “It’s really confusing exactly what support will or will not be paid for by DSA when I begin university. I’m really worried that if I don’t receive the appropriate support at the beginning of the academic year I might fall behind in my studies.

“Without proper support I would struggle to complete my course and I can’t believe that as someone applying to start university this year I’ve not been asked about the changes at all or properly informed of what is happening or changing.”

Zanna, who currently writes a blog about her deafness to raise awareness, adds: “There is a major need to break down barriers facing young disabled people. We should be encouraged to go to university but instead it feels like the Government is intent on making it more difficult. I am shocked that the Government openly say that they do not consider that they need to consult disabled students, and it makes me feel that they think that disabled students have nothing useful to say about these changes.  I feel we have a right to be consulted on such major changes which could affect our future prospects in life.”

Alex Rook, a specialist lawyer at Irwin Mitchell leading the case, said:

Expert Opinion
There is a real concern that disabled students will potentially be left without the support they need to attend and complete courses at university and other higher education institutions and we are determined to fight their corner to ensure their views are heard before any final decisions are taken.

“It is very surprising that disabled students are not being asked about changes to the way they will be supported when they start university in September this year, particularly when these proposals could seriously affect them. No one knows as well as current and prospective disabled students themselves what impact these changes will likely have on their lives and employment prospects following university. They should have been given an opportunity by the government to have their say before a decision is taken.

“There is a great deal of confusion among our clients and others in the disability sector over what is being proposed. This is unacceptable given that many of the proposals contained in the Draft Guidance are likely to have a detrimental impact on disabled students starting university as soon as September this year. In this case, the government’s decision making process has been so confusing that even charities who have been following the changes closely have told us that they cannot understand what is proposed.”
Alex Rook, Partner

The Second Claimant is 19-year-old Joseph Bell who has autism and began studying Physics, Astrophysics and Cosmology at Lancaster University in October 2014. Because of his autism he experiences a high degree of anxiety, particularly in unfamiliar environments or when his daily routines are disrupted. As a result, starting university was not an easy process for Joseph, DSA funded an assistant to support him when he first arrived at University to help him settle into university life and continues to fund vital support for him.

Although as a current student Joseph is unlikely to be directly affected by any of the changes, he has strong views on the provision of support for disabled students and as a current disabled student can provide insight into the potential effect of any changes to DSA.  He and other students in receipt of DSA would therefore have been well placed to provide invaluable information to the Secretary of State about the impact of changing DSA on disabled students but he has not been consulted on his views.

The National Deaf Children’s Society CEO, Susan Daniels said: “The Disabled Students’ Allowance provides vital support for deaf students at university, ensuring they have the help they need to access their course. 

“Having worked very closely with Zanna and many young deaf people hoping to pursue higher education, we are extremely concerned that changes to the DSA will mean that their access to Higher Education will be severely compromised, and we will see deaf students fall behind their peers, or worse still, drop out of university thereby jeopardizing their employment prospects and their future.
 
“The government needs to stop this reckless attempt to reform DSA without putting in place proper safeguards to protect deaf student’s support in higher education. As a priority, it must ensure that the impact on deaf students has been fully considered through an open public consultation, before any changes can be implemented.”

Read more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in Protecting Your Rights.