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The cost of imperfection

Parents of students with disabilities are obliged to pay a high price for their children's university education, writes Susannah Kirkman Against the odds, Tim Roberts, who was born profoundly deaf, gained a university place. But he and his parents were appalled to discover that the family would have to find an extra Pounds 1,600 immediately, on top of the Pounds 2,000 they were expecting to pay for his maintenance.

Tim's father, Malcolm Roberts, who is headteacher of Colden Common primary school, in Hampshire, had always assumed that the Disabled Students Allowance to which his son is entitled would not be means-tested.

"If a child has a disability, I don't think parents should have to continually fork out just to ensure that he gets the same chances as everyone else, " Mr Roberts said. He and his wife, Brenda, who teaches at Rookwood infant school, Eastleigh, have already spent much time and money on extra support for Tim, who is now in the second year of a business studies course at Coventry University.

Tim needs someone to take lecture notes for him, and the cost about Pounds 1,600 this year is being borne by his parents. Last year he needed equipment worth Pounds 4,000 a specially adapted computer and software and a radio hearing aid. His parents also had to contribute Pounds 1,600 towards that expense before the local education authority would provide the top-up funding.

The Disabled Students All-owance is worth up to Pounds 7,280 a year over a three-year course. Unfortunately, because it is part of the maintenance grant, it is also means-tested, so that even families like the Roberts, who are not wealthy, have to make a substantial contribution towards the cost of essential "extras" for their children.

Tim is outraged by the unfairness of the system. "My parents didn't ask for me to be deaf," he said. "I would have been born a hearing person but for the fact that my mother contracted rubella when she was pregnant, and now the Government wants to penalise my parents."

Sophie Corlett, assistant director of SKILLS, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, agrees with Tim. "It is blatant discrimination," she said. "It's like asking parents with student daughters to fund the installation of ladies' lavatories at universities."

She points out that Pounds 2,340 is usually the maximum which the Government asks even millionaire parents of a student without disabilities to contribute towards maintenance, while parents with a joint residual income of Pounds 60,599 could be asked to support their disabled child to the tune of Pounds 5,800 a year.

Universities which have an unwelcoming approach to students with disabilities may push up the cost of their education still further. Some universities offer free help to apply for the Disabled Students Allowance, make all the arrangements for note-takers and other helpers and provide free support and counselling, but others charge fees for providing advice and engaging personal helpers.

Other unhelpful practices include failing to make book lists and lecture notes available in advance and, in the case of one lecturer, refusing to use a radio microphone to enable a deaf student to follow a lecture.

Sophie Corlett admits that any grants system is open to abuse but argues that the recent controversy over bogus "dyslexic" students claiming allowances which they didn't need is a red herring. "The problem is that there is no universally-accepted method of assessment of dyslexia," she said.

The Department for Education and Employment defends its operation of the Disabled Students Allowance by saying that means-testing should apply to everyone. Another problem is that the allowance cannot be disentangled from the means-tested maintenance grant without an Act of Parliament.

But Sophie Corlett thinks that the law should be changed to rectify the injustice to thousands of disabled students and their families. In any case, the total cost of their allowance, including parental contributions Pounds 6 million in 1993 1994 represents only 0.5 per cent of the total maintenance grant bill for students.

Meanwhile, Malcolm and Brenda Roberts are relying on their savings to pay for Tim's education. On a teacher's salary, Mr Roberts could not afford to take out a PEP or an endowment policy some years ago to fund the cost of his children's higher education, as his wife took a career break while their children were small.

"We can just about afford the extra, but many other families couldn't, " Malcolm Roberts said. "It grieves me that many youngsters will be denied the chance of a university place, after struggling so hard to get there. The chances of employment must be even lower for someone who is disabled and also has no qualifications."

For further information, contact: SKILLS, The National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, 336 Brixton Road, London SW9 7AA. Tel minicom: 0171 274 0565. Information service: 0171 978 9890 Monday to Friday.

TES2 february 16 1996 Disabled Students' Allowance, 19951996 The three allowances are: * Up to Pounds 4,850 per annum for non-medical personal helpers such as note-takers.

* Up to Pounds 3,650 over the whole course for major items of specialist equipment such as a computer.

* Up to Pounds 1,215 pa for items which do not fall within the remit of the above or to supplement them if necessary.

Parental contributions to maintenance grant and DSA: Joint residual income Contribution Below Pounds 15,510 Pounds 0 Pounds 30,000 Pounds 1,550 Pounds 35,000 Pounds 2,244 Pounds 40,000 Pounds 2,939 Pounds 60,599 or more Pounds 5,800

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