The transition to university can present significant challenges even for uninjured people, including more independent study than at school or college, taking responsibility for their own learning, making new friends and socialising, all whilst potentially living away from home for the first time and being largely responsible for their own welfare.
For a person with a brain injury, these challenges can be particularly pertinent.
Common difficulties following a brain injury
People who have suffered a brain injury commonly suffer a range of difficulties, which could include some or all of the following, which have the potential to impact upon their ability to access university education:
- Cognitive fatigue;
- Memory problems
- Slow information processing speed;
- Reduced attention / concentration;
- Reduced motivation/initiation;
- Sensory problems (eg changes to vision and/or hearing);
- Physical problems (eg pain, weakness, gait, posture, motor skills, balance etc);
- Communication and/or social difficulties;
- Psychological difficulties (eg anxiety, depression);
- Behavioural difficulties (eg disinhibited behaviour, impulsivity, low frustration tolerance).
Challenges of University
University students with a brain injury have the potential to struggle with various aspects of university life:
- Domestic activities (eg cooking, cleaning, shopping, self-care, finances etc);
- Regulating potentially impulsive or disinhibited behaviour, given their new level of independence (ie ‘keeping out of trouble’);
- Communicating with peers, with the risk of social isolation;
- Keeping up with the pace of delivery of their chosen course;
- The complexity of the subject matter and/or terminology used;
- The amount and/or intensity of work;
- The requirement to take responsibility for their own learning;
- Understanding timetables (ie when and where they are supposed to be);
- Navigating to/from and around campus (eg finding the right lecture theatre etc.);
- Use of IT and remote learning (particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic);
- Communicating with university staff, meaning that they struggle to access help.
Help for students with a brain injury
Thankfully, a great deal of help is available for university students with a brain injury. It is worth noting that the onus is on the student to seek the help and support that they need. As early as possible before starting university, students should make contact with the disability advice team at the university and inform them of their situation and likely additional needs.
Of course, that might be easier said than done for someone with a brain injury and, dependent on their situation, they might need to be assisted by a family member. Students with a personal injury claim will probably have a privately funded Case Manager and/or Occupational Therapist, who can support them in approaching the university and deal with as much of the dialogue as appropriate.
Whilst at school or college, students with a brain injury will often have had an Education and Health Care Plan (‘EHCP’), documenting their difficulties and additional needs. It might be helpful to forward that to the university to give an indication of their likely needs.
Universities are legally required to ensure that disabled students’ additional needs are addressed to enable them to access university, without being placed at a disadvantage as a result of their injury or disability. Whilst there are various forms of funding and support that can often find ways to meet a student’s needs, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be able to manage the course content and the independent nature of university in order to succeed. Some of the support that might be available to a student with a brain injury is outlined below.
The student should be allocated a disability advisor, who will identify barriers to their learning, before making recommendations for reasonable adjustments and assisting with submitting applications for any appropriate funding (see below), as well as providing a point of contact for the student, monitoring any ongoing needs and updating any adjustments, as required.
Disabled Student’s Allowance
The student might be entitled to a government grant called a ‘Disabled Students Allowance’ (‘DSA’). The disability advisor should support the student in making an application for such a grant to Student Finance England (‘SFE’). The DSA should provide funding for equipment or support that is relevant to the student’s particular difficulties. Depending on their needs, funding might provide, for example, for IT hardware (eg a laptop, printer, scanner etc), software (eg dictation, ‘mind-mapping’ and field-specific spell-checking software), training on how to use the software, study skills support, funding for transport (eg taxis) and/or printing costs. If the student has physical difficulties as a result of their brain injury, the DSA might also provide for an ergonomic assessment, to make recommendations for any equipment that might support them, such as specialist seating, an ergonomic mouse or keyboard or other items.
University funded support
Depending on the university, funding might be provided by the university for support that would help the student, but is not covered under the DSA. That might, for example, include a note taker in lectures, a support worker in practical sessions or other support.
The university must make reasonable adjustments to facilitate a student with a brain injury accessing their course. Depending on the student’s particular needs, adjustments might, for example, include extra time, rest breaks, a scribe or a reader in exams, sitting exams in a separate room and/or access to lecture slides or handouts in advance.
Students with a brain injury who have a personal injury claim often have a privately funded rehabilitation package, with a Multi-Disciplinary Team (‘MDT’), potentially including a Case Manager, an Occupational Therapist (‘OT’), a Speech and Language Therapist (‘SLT’), a Psychologist, Support Workers and/or other support. It is important that the MDT engage with the student’s transition to university at the earliest opportunity. For example, the OT might help by liaising with the university, facilitating access to any support and teaching independent living, travel and budgeting skills etc. The SLT might focus on any communication difficulties and strategies for learning and remembering course-specific vocabulary. The Psychologist might address any psychological barriers to accessing university, such as anxiety. Support Workers can help by implementing and practising those strategies between sessions and, if needed, supporting the student to remain safe whilst in the community. As with so many areas following a brain injury, timely and appropriate rehabilitation will likely be the key to success.
About David King and Irwin Mitchell
David King is an Associate Solicitor in the Serious Injury team at Irwin Mitchell’s Leeds office. He specialises in helping people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, often as a result of a road accident or an accident at work.
Irwin Mitchell are a national law firm whose solicitors work hard to make things easier for their clients and their family. Over the past 2 years they have helped clients recover more than £1 billion in compensation, but this is only part of the story, their solicitors also help clients access the rehabilitation, medical care and support needed to achieve the best recovery possible.
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