The Disabled Students’ Allowance and the Open University – My Experience

Let me tell you about my experience with the DSA, and by extension, the Open University, which is currently under threat. You should know why both are necessary to an accessible, decent society.
I had to leave university nearly 20 years ago when I got sick and was far too ill to stay in place, or pick up my studies later. Eventually, I decided that it was important to me to continue studying, even if it was in a different field, and I began a writing degree with the OU. It allowed me to do my work part time, with the ability to work from bed when I needed to. The OU is a world-class university, respected everywhere, and is absolutely invaluable to some of the country’s most marginalised groups – disabled people, single parents, the working poor, etc. It provides a stellar university education, over a longer period of time, with tons of support and flexibility.
However, a couple of years ago, I had to defer a module because the way it was set up just wasn’t working for me and I realised I needed more help than just the flexible and remote learning provided. The OU recommended that I apply for DSA and then I could start again with the support I needed.
I was terrified the day I went for my assessment. Having been through DWP assessments, I had a couple of panics beforehand and considered just dropping the whole thing. But still, I showed up.
It was a vision of the world we could have. It was beautiful. I cried my eyes out when I got home because it was the first time I had ever been in a situation where the basis of the interaction was ‘what do you struggle with? What do you think you need to be able to take part? And here are a bunch of things which are available which you might not even have thought of but which will make your life much easier.’
It wasn’t just equipment, though they set me up with a laptop which I could use from bed, an adjustable frame which would hold the laptop in bed or on a sofa or wherever I needed it, a headset and Dragon for when I struggle to type, an audio recorder for note taking, and some other bits. They also provided programmes which helped address some of my OCD issues by getting stuff down in map forms, for when I got overwhelmed by a blank screen, and a programme which took my audio notes and split them into sections for me to refer to.
And they also provided personal support, though in the end I didn’t need it – someone who could meet up with me every week or month or whatever I needed to see how I was getting on, to help me plan stuff out, to overcome some of the issues with remote learning and disability which make it hard to stay on track.
It was beautiful. I went back to my studies, and am in my second-to-last year. It is still my shining example for what the social model of disability in action looks like. ‘What support can we give to ensure you are able to take part in society?’
The OU is currently under threat, facing the loss of a third of its courses and transition to just being a ‘content provider’ instead of a world-class university. Because it isn’t profit-making. It is an institute of higher learning, which makes further education available to people who would never be able to go to university otherwise. The loss of the OU would be tragic beyond words. It is a public good, it is a benefit to the whole of society. Fight for it.
And, when developing plans for inclusion, look to the DSA for how to do it well.

Beyond The Default

I make a conscious effort to read outside what is normative – reading sci-fi by people from other cultures, like The Three-Body Problem or Lagoon, for example, or economics books by women like Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?: A Story About Women and Economics (these are affiliate links, which I’ve never tried before, but these are books I absolutely recommend). I am trying to be better at looking for women or POC to cite when I’m citing stuff, because they tend not to get the press or the credit for their work and I want to help address that.
When you’re looking for people for a panel, look for people from marginalised communities. It makes a huge difference, not just to them but to your work. It makes your work better to include people with different experiences.
I was recently at a conference where the majority of the attendees were disabled. After one workshop, the presenter commented to me that she was stunned by how many new ideas we had and that we weren’t just coming up with idealistic concepts, we were talking about how they would be implemented, governance structures, possible pitfalls, how to navigate conflicts of interest. I pointed out that disabled people have to problem solve on a level most people never have to. We require project management skills just to live our lives, to go to the shops, to get to work, to interact with people. We have a wealth of skill and experience that would make any project better. Employing us, inviting us to panels, consulting us – it isn’t charity. It benefits you.
So I try hard to extend the same consideration, the same awareness of how it is good for me, for my readers and for the people involved, to any organising I do from the construction of conferences down to who I choose to link to in online arguments. I have a long way to go, but the more we talk about doing this explicitly, the easier it becomes.
If you are looking for a citation, a guest for a panel, a speaker, a book to read, don’t just go for the defaults. Go past the easiest, obvious choices and it will do wonders for your work, your life, your world.