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Toni Pearce: Don't cut me out

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Today, NUS is holding a national constituency-based lobby of MPs opposing the cuts to the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA). It is incredibly important that we outline how dangerous and damaging these cuts can be.
 
You may not have heard, but I haven’t been to university. I know, shocking isn’t it? Despite NUS representing over 5 million students in Further Education, it’s a bit of a liberty for the president of NUS not to have a degree.
 
Recently it’s been pointed out again and again for everyone’s benefit and in the name of scrutiny and accountability that I haven’t studied at Higher Education level.
 
Some people have even enquired as to whether I’ve even been to an open day, others have been kind enough to send me a UCAS application form (that’s where I was going wrong, just couldn’t find one online). 
 
But I’ll let you into a little secret. I did apply to go to university. I really wanted to go, I desperately wanted to be a doctor. I went on open days, I wandered around huge buildings and even though all the advice says to ask questions, I resolutely kept my mouth shut in an environment that was pretty alien to me. 
 
I filled out form after form that I was sent, I ummed and ahhed over my offers and then one day I got a phone call. It was from the student services department at the University of Bath where I had applied to study maths. The guy on the phone asked me why I’d declared a disability on my application form and talked me through something called the Disabled Students’ Allowance. He explained how I could get support to study and live independently at university, how I could make sure that I had the same access to education opportunities that other students around me would have. 
 
I’ve talked a lot about my disability in the past, and you can read more about it here, but at the time I was terrified about the impact being disabled was having on my college studies, and how I would cope living away from home, being unable to make it into class regularly, how I would keep up with other students on my course when I was continuing to have regular operations, physiotherapy and drug treatment. I had begun to think that going to university would just be too difficult for someone like me. I had never heard of the Disabled Students’ Allowance before the student services man had rung me. I was grateful, and relieved, and I was excited about going to university for the first time without a cloud of fear over my head. 
 
In my experience, people respond in several different ways when they find out that you’re disabled. Sympathy is a pretty obvious one, wanting to find out how they can help. A palpable sense of awkwardness is close to the top of the list as well. There’s also a weird kind of “oh I don’t know how you do it, you’re such an inspiration” response that I find particularly odd to deal with. My disability isn’t inspirational, and as well-meaning as it always is, sympathy wouldn’t have made my college or university life any easier to deal with. 
 
What would have helped would have been support in catching up on lectures that I missed during operations or appointments, or the days when either the pain or my medication meant it was just impossible to get out of bed. Support with furniture and equipment that meant sitting in a chair or studying didn’t become back-breaking would have been helpful. Those are just some of the ways that the Disabled Students Allowance helps people like me to go to university and to succeed. Those levels of support are exactly what David Willetts is callously threatening to remove from students like me by cutting the Disabled Students’ Allowance. Let me be really clear, DSA isn’t an apology for being disabled, it doesn’t magically make everything better, it’s not a handout for people who can’t help themselves, but it goes some way to levelling the playing field for students who can’t access university in the way that students without disabilities can.
 
As hilarious as it is to point out that I haven’t been to university, it’s important to remember that it is because I made a choice not to go. Scrapping the Disabled Students’ Allowance would have taken that choice away from me, and it will take the choice away from thousands of students who rely on it every year. So here’s my message to David and Co. on our constituency lobby today - Don’t cut me out of university.
 
To find out more about the NUS campaign to protect Disabled Students Allowance, please click here.

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