Guide to Studying With a Disability

Attending university can expand our knowledge, prepare us for a career, and give us the chance to live independently for the first time, making it one of the most important periods in our lives, but also potentially one of the most challenging, particularly when the experience is complicated by a disability.

Guide to Studying With a Disability

Studying with a disability can require some extra effort but support is available to help with both educational and financial challenges.

Challenges for Students with Disabilities


Disabled students can often face more challenges when going to university

Moving away from home and studying at degree level is a challenge for all students, but when you have additional needs in your study and living arrangements, it can be even more overwhelming. Luckily, universities can provide plenty of support to help with these additional challenges, through study support and adjustments to dorm rooms. It is important to recognise your own needs and to learn how to ask for the support that is available from student support services and individual lecturers. Dealing with other people can be one of the most difficult challenges for disabled students who are used to relying on parents or carers, but it is an essential skill to learn. You will be responsible for informing your university of your disability and the adjustments you will need, which you can do either when you apply or after you have been accepted.

A different type of challenge arises from the fact that a disability can sometimes incur additional costs at university, to buy specialised equipment or pay for personal care, for example. This challenge is recognised by many universities and funding bodies, who will offer additional financial support for students with disabilities. Although it is still often necessary to rely on the usual student loans, supplementary funding may be obtained through scholarships, bursaries and government schemes targeted at students with disabilities. In some cases, bursaries may cover the entire cost of university. School and university advisors can help identify sources of funding, but it can also be worthwhile searching for scholarships online.

Equal Access to Education

Universities in South Africa are required by the South African Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act to help students with disabilities cope with the challenges of higher education, and many foreign institutions will provide the same sort of support to international students with disabilities. More than 6000 students from South Africa choose to study abroad each year, with most going to the UK and USA, where support for students with disabilities is often excellent.

Studying in South Africa

The opportunities for disabled students to participate in higher education in South Africa have improved significantly over the last two decades, with universities now obliged to provide the necessary support to ensure equal access. However, the level of support can vary between universities, so although basic assistance is universally available, it can be worthwhile checking disability services before applying. Universities that have dedicated Disability Units may be better prepared for students with disabilities and make it easier to request and obtain adjustments.

South African students typically fund their studies through private bank loans or Eduloan, with National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) providing an alternative combination of means-tested loans and bursaries. Students with disabilities can apply through their university’s financial aid office for a special NSFAS or Department of Higher Education and Training bursary that can cover tuition and living costs as well as additional disability-related expenses. The Department of Labour also runs a bursary scheme covering tuition and living costs for students with disabilities on career-oriented courses. Additional sources of funding may also be available, and can often be found through the annually published Bursary Register, which can be obtained through school and university libraries.

Studying Abroad

Students from South Africa often choose to complete part or all of their degree programme abroad, and since many foreign institutions are very welcoming to students who have disabilities, there is no need to forgo this opportunity if you have additional needs. The two most popular international destinations for students from South Africa are the UK and USA. Both of these countries have excellent English speaking educational systems that can provide extra support for students with disabilities.


The Equality Act ensures equal access to education in the UK, so all universities are required to make reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities and appoint someone to handle disability issues. International students will often have to rely on private sources of funding in the UK, but if you are eligible for UK-based funding, then studying at a British university is a good choice because of the extra financial support that is available when you have a disability. Eligible students may receive a special support grant as well as a maintenance loan from the Student Finance organisation, and may also be able to access additional funding through a Disabled Students Allowance. The DSA can cover additional costs related to your disability and incurred specifically because of your studies, including the purchase of specialist equipment and the cost of a non-medical helper. However, universities will fund basic adjustments themselves, as required by the equality act, even for international students.


International students in the USA are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prevents discrimination and requires all universities to ensure that everyone has equal access to education. This means that if you attend a university in the USA, they will be required to make reasonable adjustments to ensure you can live and study there, such as ensuring the campus is accessible or providing you with textbooks and class materials in alternative formats. Many universities also provide additional support through student services and a large number of scholarships are available, although eligibility is often limited to US citizens.

Disability Support Services

Individual universities in South Africa, the UK or USA will offer their own support services for students with disabilities. British universities typically appoint someone as a contact for students with disabilities, while larger universities, particularly in the USA, often have a dedicated department for students who need additional support.

Universities in South Africa usually offer support for students with disabilities through their general student services, although some have developed separate disability units. Some universities may also offer their own bursaries or scholarships to help with costs. Universities will usually ask about any disabilities or study support you may need at some point during the applications and admissions process, but you can also approach their student support service directly. It can be reassuring to talk to them before you apply if you are worried about how you will cope with university life. Other students who have attended university with a disability can also offer useful advice on managing your finances and studies and making use of support services.

It is important to think about the type of help that you will need at university and to learn about the support services that are available, so that you can make the most of them as soon as you arrive and avoid missing out on funding opportunities. Support services can offer help with many different aspects of study and university life, such as finding specialised equipment like screen reading software, a recorder, or suitable dorm room furniture, ensuring exams, textbooks and study guides will be available in the right format, or arranging a non-medical helper to assist with mobility, note taking or sign-language interpreting.

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Author: SmartStudent

SmartStudent is an educational portal that provides information & advice to aspiring students. regarding applying to university, choosing a course, what to take to university, finding student accommodation and much more.

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