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How assistance dogs can make a big difference at university
Assistance dogs can prove invaluable for students who need support navigating university
Packing for university does not usually involve dog treats, leads and poo bags, but for students within the UK's growing 7,000-strong assistance dog community, these are essentials.
BBC Young Reporter Competition winner Millie is raising awareness about the vital support these dogs offer as well as the challenges faced. It comes after Millie's plans to experience freshers' year with the canine support of Reggie ended when he did not pass the training.
Here, they share their story and speak to two students who have experienced campus life with their dogs.
I'm Millie. I'm 19 and my dog Reggie changed my life.
I'm autistic and live with chronic pain and anxiety. This means going out in public can sometimes be overwhelming, but Reggie made me feel a lot more confident in public spaces and kept me calm in times where I could struggle, such as on transport.
Realising the lack of reliable assistance dog information during college, at 16 I created an online info hub called Cate UK to fill the gap and help others.
Social media has been a blessing and a curse, fostering community and awareness but also spreading misinformation.
The public often do not understand the difference between guide dogs and assistance dogs, who help with a wider variety of tasks and disabilities.
There is also a lack of clarity over legal guidance, training standards, and funding, leaving owners protected but lacking a formal definition under the Equality Act. Equalities and Human Rights Commission guides are the most detailed available.
This confusion can also affect how universities interpret the law, and spark lengthy misunderstandings with students.
Assistance dogs - a quick guide
Anyone can train an assistance dog, and the UK does not have a register or certification process for the animals
An assistance dog is generally considered fully trained when it helps the handler manage their disability, is toilet-trained and behaves calmly in public, without roaming freely
Under the Equality Act 2010, service providers - which include businesses and universities - cannot discriminate against individuals with highly trained assistance dogs, and must make reasonable adjustments to allow access
Landlords must accommodate disabled tenants with assistance dogs and cannot charge extra for them
This is why I and many others turned to training our own dogs. I worked with an online trainer, as well as in-person and group classes. Reggie got most of it fine, but struggled to control his barking and, despite our best efforts, ultimately we ran out of time.
I spent well over £1,000 in training costs, but the emotional toll was worse. When you spend time training a dog and they help you so much with your independence, it can be a devastating blow to lose that. It has taken me months to get over the feeling of guilt that I let him down.
Reggie is still with us, just as a pet and is still a complete goofball. I still love him completely.
I've loved my first term studying electrical engineering at York University and managed to cope in my own accommodation, but still hope an assistance dog may join me in the future.
Morgan and Sabbath - studying veterinary medicine and surgery at Harper and Keele Veterinary School
Morgan, 21, lives with anxiety and several health conditions, including chronic fatigue and Tietze syndrome - a rare inflammatory disorder causing chest pain.
Morgan and Sabbath
My health issues began at home and worsened during college. As a fresher, I tried to hide them, because back then I worried about being known as the sick or disabled person.
But by the second year, the combination of extreme fatigue, pain and regular fainting episodes led to me falling behind with work, causing a breakdown.
Thankfully I was able to resit the year and did well. During this time I also began looking into assistance dogs.
My first dog, Orla, was self-trained, but despite our strong bond, obedience became an issue. It was heartbreaking, but I had to find her a new home. Luckily, she is now with a wonderful family, and I can still visit her and receive updates.
A few months later, I met my current dog Sabbath and we have successfully managed to partner for this academic year.
The university has been supportive. Before allowing Sabbath to attend with me they required a minimum obedience level from her, which we demonstrated by our Kennel Club Good Citizen (bronze award).
As she is still young, we are continuing obedience training to prepare for her public access test, usually taken by assistance dogs at 18 months old. Our goal is for her to achieve the gold Kennel Club award.
These courses are not legally mandated, but are widely accepted.
Sabbath will not grow much bigger since she is a toy poodle, but she does not let size hold her back.
Her impact on my routine has been huge - she stops me spiralling and has massively boosted my university attendance. I have also gained confidence in leaving the house knowing she is there.
Daily tasks include reminding me to take anti-inflammatories, to alerting me to oncoming Tietze attacks and fainting episodes. She can also perform deep pressure therapy, using her body weight to slow my heart rate and avoid meltdowns.
I do wake up an hour earlier for Sabbath's morning walk, meaning there is no jumping out of bed 10 minutes before a lecture! She stays with me for all lectures, seminars and most practicals, except dissections and farm practicals, when I leave her in a kennel. Lunch gives her some relaxation time and a toilet break.
Students and staff know about Sabbath's role and how to act around her, and everyone has been fantastic on campus. They respect her more than the general public, who often try to pet her even when she is working, wearing a clearly-signed harness. I never feel embarrassed or nervous walking around my university, it is amazing.
Placements have been a little more challenging. Assistance dogs are very rare in my field and although Sabbath has transformed uni for me, more awareness is needed in wider society.
Jessie and Oscar - graduated in graphic illustration from Winchester School of Art
Jessie, 24, uses a wheelchair and lives with anxiety and chronic pain.
Jessie and Oscar at their graduation
I have been partnered with Oscar, a yellow Labrador paired through charity Canine Partners, for over a year - he joined for my final year following a medical deferral.
I was originally due to top a waiting list in 2020, but Covid shut everything down. Looking back I am glad it did because Oscar, who was too young then, is now my perfect companion.
That is not to say the first few months together were easy - being responsible for another life on top of heading back to uni did feel overwhelming at times, but the benefits both physically and mentally made every tough moment worth it.
As a wheelchair user, Oscar's physical help eased the strain, from opening doors to helping me pick up dropped items or remove my coat. However, it was his emotional support that really changed things for me. I went from avoiding having to speak in front of people, to enjoying preparing for talks because he made it less scary by distracting me or licking my hands as comfort.
For my final project I decided to raise awareness of assistance dogs by illustrating a book from Oscar's perspective, talking about some of the tasks he does for me, what his favourite things are (mainly cheese) and showing his little oddities that make him special to me.
A page from Jessie and Oscar's graphic illustration book explaining his tasks and the world through his eyes
I am really proud of the response - people said it opened their eyes and hopefully it helped to educate.
By the end of the year, Oscar changed what was often a difficult experience into such a special time - walking the stage with him at graduation was one of the most special moments in my life.
Middlesbrough: Vulnerable autistic man feels trapped in home
Campaigners are calling for more housing support for people with autism
People with 'invisible' disabilities are lingering in inappropriate accommodation because of gaps in the housing system, campaigners say.
Left suicidal over housing issues, an autistic Middlesbrough man is among those calling for change.
He does not meet the criteria for specialist accommodation, but faces a daily struggle to cope with living in a property unsuitable for his needs.
Campaigners believe the current system ignores the needs of the neurodiverse.
Lee - not his real name - feels trapped in his housing association property
The 37-year-old, who the BBC is calling Lee, lives independently in a one-bedroomed flat managed by housing providers Thirteen.
After noise from neighbours and anti-social behaviour caused him to suffer repeated "meltdowns", he requested a move to accommodation more suited to his needs.
However, Middlesbrough Council does not commission specific accommodation for those with autism.
It can access housing suitable for those with complex care and support needs - but Lee has been assessed and, despite submitting supportive medical evidence, does not meet the criteria.
He feels trapped and has considered taking his own life, with mental health crisis teams called to his aid twice recently.
'There will be deaths'
"I'm not asking for the moon on a stick, I just want to live somewhere suitable and quiet," he said.
"I don't understand why there's specialist housing and quiet bungalows for older and physically disabled people, but nothing for the neurodiverse.
"We still have needs and if nothing is done about this situation, there will be deaths."
Thirteen's executive director, David Ripley, said the company takes reports of noise and anti-social behaviour seriously, adding that appropriate steps were taken when Lee reported noise issues.
'Appropriate housing is crucial'
The National Autistic Society says appropriate housing is crucial in enabling some autistic people to live independently.
But the right housing options are often unavailable, said policy and public affairs manager Joey Nettleton Burrows.
"Living in noisy neighbourhoods, by busy roads or bright lights, or surrounded by neighbours who just don't understand, can be unbearable," he said.
"Everyone deserves a suitable home, but too often autistic people are denied that right."
He said the situation is having extreme negative consequences, including long delays in discharging autistic inpatients from mental health settings.
'Invisible to landlords'
The Social Housing Action Campaign's Disability Visibility Charter encourages landlords to make reasonable adjustments for those with non-visible disabilities.
Calling for a tailored approach to housing for those with non-visible disabilities, a spokeswoman said housing associations are overlooking the needs of a considerable proportion of tenants and residents whose needs are "invisible to landlords" because they are not physical.
A government spokesman said it is bringing in measures to ensure councils are considering the housing requirements of disabled people.
He said the government's £11.5bn Affordable Homes Programme is investing in a new supply of supported housing, adding: "We recognise the growing demand for specialist and supported housing, including for autistic people."
Head teacher says autistic student died despite family's plea for support
Former head teacher Frances Akinde believes Isaac's death could have been prevented
A former head teacher has spoken out after an autistic student, whose family had been pleading for support, died.
Isaac Uzoegbu, 16, was hit by a car after he ran from his house into the road. His parents were struggling to manage as his behaviour became increasingly out of control.
He is the third autistic boy BBC News has identified to die in the Kent and Medway area over the past three years.
Medway Council said it had given prompt support to the family.
Isaac, who also had learning disabilities, died five days after the accident outside his house in Gillingham, Kent, just after Christmas two years ago.
The head teacher of his special needs school at the time, Frances Akinde, believes his death could have been prevented if his local authority, Medway Council, had put in extra behaviour support for him.
Experts have told BBC News that autistic children are far more likely to flee and put themselves in danger if they feel overwhelmed. Too often local authorities fail to recognise the risks and ways to manage a child's behaviour, they say.
Isaac Uzoegbu, who was autistic and had learning disabilities, died aged 16 after running into the road
Mrs Akinde contacted BBC News after reading about our investigation which highlighted the dozens of autistic people who had died following serious failings in their care by their local health and social services across England and Wales.
The coroner said if children with complex needs were not given access to the care and treatment they needed, it was "predictable that a similar incident may arise". Mrs Akinde said the failings in Isaac's care resembled those in Sammy's death two years earlier.
She told the BBC: "I said to myself, if I stay quiet on this, I'm part of that system."
Sammy and Stefan died within two years of each other. Both were autistic, both went to the same school, both were under the care of NHS Kent and Medway and both experienced serious failings in their care.
Sammy died in April 2020, nearly two years before Isaac. He fell from a cliff near his house in Ramsgate.
His autism - combined with Prader-Willi Syndrome, which causes learning disabilities and behavioural challenges - meant he could often run away after becoming overwhelmed and would disassociate from the world around him. At these times, he would lose any understanding of danger. Sammy's mum had begged for more support.
Six months before Stefan's death, he began to really struggle with his mental health. Despite a referral from his GP, NHS Kent and Medway rejected his family's pleas for help.
The coroner ruled Stefan had died as a result of his own actions, but she said she could not be sure of his intention.
Isaac's family have given Mrs Akinde permission to tell Isaac's story on their behalf.
"He was just the most joyful young boy," recalls the former head teacher of Rivermead School in Gillingham. "Everyone remembers Isaac for his smile."
His behaviour began to change as he hit adolescence. Mrs Akinde says as he started to struggle socially, he became increasingly anxious, frightened and began to lash out.
The coroner examining the deaths of Sammy Alban Stanley and Stefan Kluibenschadl warned of the risk of other fatalities
Isaac's behaviour began to escalate in early September 2021, and Mrs Akinde says the school was doing all it could to manage it. She says she was in regular contact with the local authority but, despite her pleas, little support came. Medway Council disputes this, saying it was not made aware of Isaac's issues until late November.
His family adapted their small, terraced home, by changing the living room into a bedroom and living area for Isaac - to give him more space and to try to prevent him from feeling so overwhelmed.
Mrs Akinde says the situation reached crisis point in early December, just a few weeks before the accident. A referral to the local authority had been made on 25 November and assessments were still taking place.
With the Christmas holidays approaching, Mrs Akinde and her team were worried how Isaac would cope without the structure and routine of school.
The school offered respite provision over the holiday to help Isaac and his family, which would have had to be paid for by Medway Council.
The former head teacher says this offer was turned down because it was not seen as financially viable.
The local authority told the family to lock the door every night in case he ran away, as his behaviour became more unpredictable and volatile.
Mrs Akinde says they felt they tried everything they could. "We had begged the local authority for help at school and at home, we checked in with the parents," she says.
But their worst fears materialised. On 28 December, his father, who was also caring for his three other children, fell asleep and didn't lock the door.
Isaac escaped barefoot and ran into the path of an oncoming car.
He died five days later after suffering major head injuries.
Holding a card from Isaac, in which he had drawn a big smiley face, Mrs Akinde says tearfully, "he shouldn't have died in this way".
Isaac sent this card to Mrs Akinde to thank her for helping him feel safe while he was at school
Dr Sarah Cassidy, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham who specialises in autism research, says between 30% and 50% of autistic children may flee an area when they are overwhelmed - which researchers call "elopement".
"As many as a third who elope experience severe or even fatal injuries," she says.
"There is a clear lack of understanding of autism in this case and it's something we see time and time again."
She says even ordering the family a magnetic lock so the front door was secured automatically might have made a difference.
Mrs Akinde highlighted the lack of support for Isaac's family in a child death review - a process which takes place after any child dies in England and which should inform the coroner's investigations at the inquest.
BBC News has obtained an audio recording of Isaac's inquest. Neither the school or the local authority were asked to give evidence.
The coroner ruled that Isaac's death was due to a road traffic collision.
The BBC approached Kent and Medway Coroner Service for comment but it did not respond.
The accident that killed Isaac took place on the road where he lived in Gillingham, Kent
Medway Council told the BBC it had acted promptly to provide direct support to the family, and it arranged an emergency review about Isaac's future education after becoming aware of the former head teacher's concerns, adding it was "truly a tragic accident".
While Medway Council has responsibility for social services provision, NHS Kent and Medway oversaw Isaac's child death review.
Alison Cannon, Kent and Medway's chief nurse, said the loss of a child is traumatic and it took its statutory role very seriously, adding that it had "followed all national guidance and law".
Anne Longfield, the former children's commissioner, told BBC News that having so many different organisations involved in a child's care often means it is hard to find who was responsible after a tragedy.
She said: "No-one is clear enough whose job it is to keep these children safe."
Mrs Akinde says she was not only devastated by Isaac's death, but also by the lack of accountability afterwards.
She says: "I want Isaac to be an example of what happens when you don't care enough."