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University shouldn't cost more if you're disabled - but it did for me.

My name is Chelsea, and I started university in 2017. I had no idea what to expect, other than being short of money as a typical student. What I didn’t realise, though, was how much more expensive it would be for me to be there as a disabled person.

Before university, I was very aware that I had a higher cost of living because of my disability, and I struggled with it. I learned about Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) and how that would cover most of my additional costs like equipment and support. I looked at the available accommodation and saw that it covered a range of budgets. I thought I’d be fine until I realised how little of it was labelled as accessible. When I visited the university, I soon realised that there was only one housing option that was accessible to me. It was also the most expensive by far. DSA had changed in the couple of years prior - it no longer covered the difference in accommodation costs in most cases where a person had to live somewhere more expensive because of their disability.

The only reason I made it through my first year of university was because I had some savings from a car accident pay-out a few months before I arrived. If I hadn’t had those savings, I would’ve had to drop out within 3 months. Even then, while my friends were making the most of student discounts and going out, I was selling my belongings.

When it came to my second year, my friends had all moved out and into local house shares. I couldn’t. Finding a student-friendly home in my budget that had any accessibility features at all seemed to be impossible. Even now, a few years later, I struggle as a professional renter with a wider choice of properties. While my friends cut costs by living in cheaper houses, I remained in that same accommodation. The most expensive one. I didn’t have enough in savings by that point to continue, but luckily managed to get a suitable job with the university that provided me a 50% rent discount. Without this, I would’ve had to drop out.

I ended up being elected to represent disabled students at our students' union. I ran a survey and focus groups asking disabled students about the extra costs they faced. From more loads of washing in the communal laundrettes to inaccessible budget accommodation, it all added up. Soon after that, I read an internal university report that showed the alarming rate that disabled students were abandoning their studies and not attaining the same results that non-disabled students were. It was clear to me and the other students that the extra financial difficulties we faced were part of the problem. It helped me to understand why I struggled so much academically in my first year, when I struggled the most financially, compared to my third year when I had more money.

Universities are told to ensure that students are not disadvantaged in their accommodation choices (including financially) as a result of their disability. This isn’t happening at every institution. They need to stop ignoring this responsibility. Access to education is a right that we are not currently being awarded in all cases. I would like to see universities offer grants or rent reductions to disabled students to offset this large increase in cost where it cannot be covered by DSA.

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