The DSA Process For My Masters Degree

Since the academic year is starting up again, I thought I’d write about my experience with getting support for my Masters Degree as a disabled student. The DSA (Disabled Student Allowance) process can be very difficult so, having been through it twice now, I thought I’d share my experience. I don’t know if I’ve had a good, bad, or typical experience but I thought that simply putting the experience out there might be helpful to anyone at the beginning of this process, to give them an idea of what may happen down the line. As I’ve already said, it’s difficult and tiring but that’s not to say that I would discourage someone from applying. I was just very naive going into it the first time and was blindsided by how complicated and stressful it was; I’m lucky to have had help going through this both times. Having support from sources such as DSA can be hugely beneficial but I wouldn’t want anyone going into the application process unaware so I thought I’d share my experience as I haven’t seen many accounts of the whole process…

I wrote about my first assessment in great detail here, so I suggest reading that but I’ll also sum it up here to make sure I’m sharing the full experience in one place. So… That first assessment was a complete disaster. The assessor was perfectly nice but when we got to discussing what support DSA was willing to offer me, it went downhill fast. They would offer me a laptop, but not one with an operating system required to run the programs I needed for my course because apparently that was a course specific need rather than a disability specific need despite the fact that I – a disabled student – needed them to do my course. They wouldn’t offer me any travel support towards commuting because I’d ‘chosen’ to live at home when I actually had to live at home because of my disabilities. And they have no direct contact with the universities themselves so they couldn’t offer any support through them. So, essentially, they weren’t going to offer me anything because my needs didn’t fit their guidelines, because my disability didn’t fit with their idea of disability. It was hugely frustrating and distressing and I left in tears. I felt completely let down and abandoned.

By the end of the assessment, I was so utterly distressed that the assessor told us that we could appeal, which we did. The second assessment was with a different person, a really lovely woman called Rebecca, and was much longer and in much more depth. We went through everything again in minute detail: from the necessary computer specifications to the exact details of an average university day’s travel. She went through all the possibilities and all the potential outcomes, as well as the potential roadblocks and the reasonings behind them. It was a lot of information but I did leave feeling more hopeful; I really felt like she was on the case, like she was really committed to helping me get as much support as possible. Her report went through several different people before reaching a senior SFE (Student Finance England). It was initially rejected but then, when we provided them with documentation proving I receive PIP (Personal Independence Payment), they changed their minds and granted me a new laptop, software and apps to help with my lectures, independent study, and mental health, and mentoring through the National Autistic Society (although it seems that, due to the pandemic, this service no longer exists). I didn’t get any support for the travel but I’m grateful for what I did get, plus the travel costs haven’t exactly been an issue over the last few months… From that second assessment, it was four months before I received the support I was awarded.

In my experience, the whole DSA process is very slow. It was slow when I went through it during my Bachelor’s Degree and it’s been even slower this time, presumably due to the pandemic. I started this process in January – much later than intended but my mental health was so bad that I couldn’t handle the in person assessment – and didn’t get the equipment until June. Then the laptop that arrived wasn’t the right one and so we had to spend another two weeks – and a somewhat ridiculous amount of emails proving that it was in fact the wrong one – organising the swap, insuring that I got the one that my DSA assessment had determined I needed. A couple of weeks later, the new laptop arrived but setting it up took much longer than it should have. This was due to how the people who’d previously worked on my laptop had set it up, making the transfer of all my files much more complicated and messy. It’s still not as sorted as I would like it to be but it is functional.

Factoring in all of this, had I been doing my Masters in one year rather than two, I would’ve had this equipment for less than a semester before I finished the course. Yes, this was affected by the pandemic, problems with the university Autism support person, and the late start in pursuing DSA but that was due to the reasons I was in need of support so it’s not the most efficient system in that regard: what happens if you’re too disabled by your disability to seek help?

The laptop and software that DSA have provided me with has been invaluable, especially since my laptop was dying a slow death around the time I received the new one. We didn’t get everything we were hoping for but it’s definitely better to have it than to not. So, having now been through this twice, I thought I’d offer some tips that would’ve been helpful to me before going through the process…

  • If you disagree with part or all of the final assessment, ask to talk to someone else – It’s not something you’re necessarily made aware of when you have the assessment but I was so distressed by the end of the assessment that the assessor told us we could appeal. My second assessment yielded quite different results than the first one so it’s definitely worth asking if you feel that you haven’t been heard or fully supported.
  • Ask what kind of documents act as proof of a need for support – The earlier you find out what paperwork might help your case, the quicker the process will go. We, unfortunately, didn’t know that the PIP documentation was helpful and the whole thing may not have taken so long if we had.
  • Take someone with you as it can be overwhelming and tiring – These assessments can go on for hours and there’s a lot of information to both give and receive. Plus, it can be a pretty emotional experience so having someone with you can make the whole thing easier; you have someone to lean on and two pairs of ears to take everything in.
  • Ask for everything that you would find helpful – You might not get it all but you definitely won’t get it if you don’t ask and hopefully you’ll get some of it. It’s also always worth asking what you’re potentially entitled to because there may be things you aren’t aware of that could be helpful.
  • If you’re told something isn’t possible, ask why – The assessors can’t know every relevant question to ask and you can’t know every relevant piece of information to give so if they tell you something isn’t possible or available, it’s worth asking why because you may have some information or some paperwork that changes the situation and what support you can get.

I hope this post is helpful for anyone considering or going through the process. I hope I haven’t made it sound too scary. I really do recommend it but I wouldn’t want anyone to be unaware of how difficult and stressful it can be. You deserve to get the support you need and I only want to make that easier, if only by arming you with information and advice. So, if you’re going through it, I wish you the best of luck and I’m rooting for you.

January 2020

January was tough. A lot of difficult things happened. Normally, I wouldn’t do a monthly round up but there were several things this month that I didn’t think would get properly acknowledged (in my yearly review or otherwise) if I didn’t. So here’s January 2020 and it’s highs and lows…

  • Assessments and meltdowns – I began the year working frantically and anxiously on assessments for the module I’d just finished. And as soon as I’d finished the essay, it was onto preparing the presentation, which absolutely terrified me. All of the work with no rest and all of the anxiety caused so, so many meltdowns. So it was a very stressful start to the year.
  • Presentation – My final presentation was very stressful. I worked ridiculously hard on a powerpoint presentation and script that described my progress throughout the semester with snippets of the songs I’d written and I thought I’d done okay but I was and am upset with my grade, mainly because the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feedback I got seems to contradict each other. There’s this thing we have called Results Counselling (or something similar) where we can go and discuss it all, which I’m gonna do as soon as I can get through it without crying (not just about the grades – it’ll come up later). Whether that will change the grade or not, I don’t know.
  • Choosing my timetable and beginning the new semester – My uni are really helpful about working with me to find a timetable that was best for my health, mental and physical. I really appreciate that they do that. I know that, as a disabled student, they have certain obligations to help me but this is something that causes me a lot of anxiety so I do really appreciate it. Special thanks to Ivy and Aislin for their help. And then the semester began. I’ve swung from overwhelming anxiety to calm and back again so many times that I’m dizzy. Right now, I’m okay. I think.
  • ‘Clarity’ came out! – The second track from my EP, Honest, was released on the 10th and for what is essentially a second single from an independent artist, it’s done really well. It was added to several playlists with lots of followers and it’s been played on a handful of independent radio stations, including Get In Her Ears, which I’ve followed for a long time. So that was really cool. It’s also had quite a lot of airplay on a couple of local independent radio stations, which feels very special even if bigger stations are ‘better’ for my career – their support means a lot to me. It’s been a lot less stressful and a lot more exciting than the release of ‘Bad Night’ (although that was probably because it was the first one and so all new and unknown). Having said that, there’s still a lot more to come…
  • My First DSA Assessment – As you probably remember from this post, it was a bit of a disaster. It was incredibly upsetting and we were basically told I would get no support as a disabled student. Things have changed a bit since then but I don’t want to talk about it until I actually know what’s happening, until it’s more than just speculation and hope.
  • Semester B – We’re only four weeks into the new semester so we haven’t gotten that far yet but it’s definitely difficult. Much like the first semester, the content is really interesting but there’s a new challenge this semester: the academic language. A lot of the time I have no idea what the texts are saying and that’s pretty distressing. It makes me feel stupid and like I’m not smart enough to complete a Masters and ‘what the fuck was I thinking trying to do this?!’ Just as I thought I had a question for my assessment essay, I decided it was too complicated and now I’m waiting to hear from my tutor about it. I feel frozen. It’s hard to research when you don’t know what you’re supposed to be researching, a problem I had last semester although in a different scenario. I’m doing my best though and I’m doing my best not to panic. But I’m keeping up with my writing and I’ve written songs that I like so that’s keeping me grounded even though they don’t get assessed. But it reminds me why I’m doing this: to write better songs.
  • Manic by Halsey was released – I love Halsey and I was very excited for this album and (Hurray!) I absolutely love it. It’s so different from Badlands and Hopeless Fountain Kingdom but they were really different from each other; there’s progression and evolution and exploration. This one is particularly emotionally vulnerable and to me, the often acoustic production reinforces that. I love all of Halsey’s albums and I think this one is the perfect next step. I love most of the songs but my absolute favourite are ‘Ashley,’ ‘Graveyard,’ ‘You should be sad,’ ‘More,’ ‘Still Learning,’ and ‘929.’
  • Sharné visited – One of my best friends from uni came to visit me (and my cats) and we had such a lovely weekend. We went to the beach at golden hour, made cookies, watched movies, and played with the cats. It was so, so nice. I had such a good time. She’s the best.
  • University gig – The full time students on my course put on a show and it was so cool to hear the songs they’d written and it was so, so nice to see my friends play and get the recognition they deserve because they’re such talented, hardworking writers. It was such a good gig and I wish I could’ve stayed to the end but I had to get home to Brighton.

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(Luce Barka performing ‘Be More Kind’ – a very beautiful, meaningful song.)

  • Richard visitedRichard came down to visit me (and, again, the cats – I’m sensing a theme) and we did some writing and production, which was really fun, especially given that I was trying some new things. We also worked on some stuff for the rest of the ‘Clarity’ release cycle and for the release of the next song. Ooooh…
  • BeFries closed – My favourite restaurant in Brighton closed this month temporarily and then permanently and I’m absolutely gutted. I loved that place, I loved the food, and I loved the people. I’m so, so sad that it’s gone and I genuinely don’t know where my new meeting spot will be because that’s where I took everyone.

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  • Announced ‘Clarity’ music video – I announced via social media (I’m having major problems updating my website for some reason) that the ‘Clarity’ music video would be coming out in early February! I’m so excited for everyone to see it! (It will have gone up by the time I post this but this is where I am right now…)

Clarity Video Announcement

“I’m so, so excited to announce that the music video for ‘Clarity’ will be coming out Friday 7th February! @rsandersonphoto and I had such so much fun shooting this and there’s a pretty cool surprise in there so we hope you love it as much as we do!” (x)

  • Cheer – This might seem small compared to some of the other things on this list but I watched it after hearing all the good press about it and it absolutely held up. It was shot beautifully and the pacing was really good. The stories of all the cheerleaders had me so invested in each of them and their places in the series, and in their futures. I cried in almost every episode.
  • The Grammys 2020 – I have many, many  opinions about The Grammys, about who should’ve won which awards (*cough* Taylor Swift for Song of the Year with ‘Lover’ *cough*) but mainly I’m just super happy that Natalie Hemby and Sara Bareilles won their first Grammys. I can’t believe that this is a first for both of them, given how freaking talented they are and how successful they’ve been but regardless of that, this is amazing news and I’m so happy for both of them.
  • Waitress with Sara Bareilles – The best moment of the month was seeing Sara Bareilles on her first night as Jenna in Waitress the Musical in London. She was incredible. The whole show was amazing but she was a magic all of her own. When she sang ‘She Used To Be Mine,’ (which I know is a special song to her and is a special song to me too) the standing ovation went on for so long that eventually the only way to stop us was to continue with the show and therefore force us to sit down. She was truly awesome and I felt so lucky to be there. I’m fortunate enough to get to see her again before her run finishes and I’m so, so excited.

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  • Track of the Day – In the interval of Waitress, I discovered that ‘Clarity’ was going to be Track of the Day for BBC Introducing in the South and played on the radio, on a show I haven’t been played on before. So that was massively exciting (apart from some confusion about the date). Fortunately, I wasn’t in class when they played it so I could listen and enjoy the feeling! Hearing yourself on the radio, hearing people introduce you and your song and spread the message you’re trying to spread is so special.

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  • Lucky – If you follow my social media, you’ll know that we had to have our family dog put to sleep in the last days of January. We first met him when he was a couple of days old and he would’ve been sixteen on the 9th February, so he lived a long and happy life (I hope he was happy – he seemed happy and we did everything to make sure he was). But saying goodbye to him was agonising and there’s been a massive hole in my life ever since. I miss him desperately. I want to write more about him – it just feels like the right thing to do – but I’m just not ready yet.

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  • #30dayfeb – My tutor, mentor, friend, and super inspiring person, Sophie Daniels, is running a challenge throughout February (1st February – 1st March) under her artist project name, Liberty’s Mother (the name comes from the name of her daughter, Liberty, who tragically died the day before she was born), to raise awareness about baby loss and money for the baby loss charity, Tommy’s. The challenge is all about doing something positive for your wellbeing everyday for 30 days. I know a lot of people are going to the gym everyday, doing yoga, and so on but given my chronic fatigue and chronic pain, I can’t do those things so I’ve decided to focus on relaxing my brain: mindfulness essentially but in a slightly less traditional fashion. I’m going to try and make a piece of origami every day because I can’t think or stress about anything when I’m doing it because I have to concentrate so hard. And I could do with some of that. You can sponsor me to do this, to try and do this everyday. Here are some of my attempts so far.

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So that was January. Yeah, 2020 – the new decade – began on a very stressful and sad note. I’m thankful for the moments of light.

My DSA Assessment

So, for those of you who don’t know, DSA stands for Disabled Student Allowance, something you can apply for as a disabled student to help you get support during your university experience. They can help you with technical support, in uni support like 1-to-1 sessions, and so on. You apply for an assessment and then, if you get one, you talk with the assessor about the support you need, discuss what DSA can provide you with, and then they make a recommendation.

I had an assessment during my undergrad degree and they were really good. They provided me with a load of useful tech, including a macbook, a handheld recorder, and several pieces of software to make doing my work easier. I was (and still am) really grateful, even though the laptop’s memory isn’t actually big enough to run all of the software. It was still a laptop and a much lighter one than the one I had, which made commuting a lot easier – I was coming home with bruises from the bag I was carrying because it was so heavy.

The at uni support was less helpful. The first person I saw acted like a therapist (which I’m not sure she was supposed to be doing) and I already had a therapist so that wasn’t helpful. I spent the hour answering questions about my mental health and my Autism that I’ve answered a hundred times before. So I didn’t continue with that. And the second person upset me so much that I left before the session finished.

So it was a mixed experience but I’m endlessly grateful for the laptop because the old one was causing me serious problems.

I had to redo the application process for my Masters as what they offer is different and today I finally had my assessment – between the disability coordinator being very unhelpful (an understatement) and the semester being incredibly stressful, we’d just kept postponing it. It was too much to manage. But recently we finally managed it and it was a complete nightmare.

The guy was nice and we discussed everything – the problems with the disability coordinator, my first semester, my general experience of life, what would make university easier – but when it came to talking about what support was possible, it was very disappointing and upsetting.

Technology wise:

  • They will offer me a Windows laptop (which I would have to part pay for) but I can only run the software I need on an Apple computer.
  • They will not offer me a (lighter) Apple computer.

This is despite the fact that I need a light laptop, due to the chronic fatigue and pain I struggle with and an Apple one to run the software I need for the course. But apparently this is because these are ‘course specific’ needs rather than disability needs, yet I – a disabled student – can’t do my course without them.

Travel wise:

  • They will not cover or contribute to the train tickets to London.
  • They will cover cabs to the station.

This is because, apparently, I choose to live at home rather than living in London like most students studying in London despite the fact that I am unable to live alone and look after myself because of my disabilities. Apparently, this would give me an advantage above other students, which is bullshit because in reality, it would simply put me on a level playing field because I am disadvantaged by my disability. And the amount of effort that would go in to justifying each cab trip to Student Finance when Mum usually takes me (because they won’t simply give you an allowance for it) would take more effort and energy than I have to spare on something used so rarely.

And uni support wise:

  • They have no direct contact with the universities and so cannot offer any support through them.

So I will continue to have no specialist support at uni.

There was a moment during the discussion that I just realised that they weren’t going to help me and that I was going to be left unsupported, abandoned, again. And I just started crying. They’re not going to provide me with any support because my needs don’t fit their guidelines, because my disability doesn’t fit with their idea of disability. The assessor said it happens to a lot of people like me. I’m not sure why he told me this. Is it supposed to make me feel better? Because it doesn’t. 

We’d run out of things to discuss so the assessor left the room to give us a few minutes to talk and I just started sobbing. I just feel so unsupported. I feel so let down. These are people who are supposed to help me. Their very job is to help me and they are… letting me down. There was nothing to talk about and I was moments away from a meltdown so Mum packed me up and we headed for the door.

I was passing through the door when I saw this:

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What a joke. What a fucking joke. I’d walked in there calm and was walking out feeling… I don’t even know how to explain it. Just devastated all over again, I guess. I’m so tired. I’m so tired of working so hard to prove to everyone that I need help only to be ignored time and time again. I’m tired of being dismissed and invalidated because I don’t fit someone else’s arbitrary concept of something they have no real idea of but that I live with and suffer with every day. I’m tired of nobody thinking that researching or training in the understanding of Autism is important. I’m so tired. Of all of this.

Mum pointed out to the assessor how ironic the flyer was. I think offensive or appalling are more appropriate given the previous hour and a half but whatever. I cried all the way home and for a long time afterwards. I don’t know what to do now.

Obviously this is just one person’s experience. I’m not sharing this because I want people to avoid applying for DSA. It helped me during my BA. But I just don’t want anyone going into it without knowing how hard, how upsetting, how traumatic it can be. Getting benefits of any kind can be a real struggle and this one is certainly no different.