Opinion

It's time the government stepped up to help disabled people in the cost of living crisis

The cost of living crisis is hitting disabled people harder, but disability activist Rachel Charlton-Dailey didn't need new research to tell her that.

Image credit: Marcus Aurelius/Pexels

Disabled people are among the worst affected by the cost of living crisis and the government isn’t doing enough to support them. That’s the conclusion of a new report, but anyone with a passing experience of the benefits system wouldn’t need research to reach the same result. 

As a disability rights journalist and activist, I’ve seen the impact the cost of living crisis is having on disabled people in real time. Disabled people tell me almost every day how much they are struggling to heat their homes, and how inadequate the government’s cost of living support payments are. 

But first, a recap.

The Costly Difference report produced by Resolution Foundation analyses data from a YouGov survey of nearly 8,000 working-age adults. Over 2,000 were disabled or had a long-term illness. It then compares income growth over the past decade between disabled and non-disabled people and how that affects their ability to cope with the current cost of living crisis.

The research found that disabled people have on average 44 per cent less disposable income annually than non-disabled people (£19,397 and £27,792 respectively).

The report also found that disabled people are almost three times more likely to struggle than non-disabled people, with 34 per cent of disabled people falling into the lowest household income category, compared to 13 per cent of non-disabled people. This massively affects their ability to afford increasingly more expensive essential items and services.

Data from the report found that almost half (48 per cent) of disabled adults surveyed say they have had to cut back on energy use this winter, compared to 32 per cent of disabled people. 41 per cent of disabled people in the report said they couldn’t afford to heat their houses, meanwhile 23 per cent of non-disabled people said the same.

Finally, almost one in three (31 per cent) of disabled people surveyed say they have less money to spend on food, compared to 18 per cent of non-disabled.

It is worth noting however that this is just one survey and the data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) report on the impact of the increased cost of living on adults across Great Britain painted an even bleaker picture for disabled people. In that report over half (55 per cent) of disabled adults said they were struggling to afford energy bills, and over a third (36 per cent) were finding it difficult to afford their rent or mortgage payments compared with 40 per cent and 27 per cent of non-disabled people, respectively.

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I see the results of this daily. I see the disability community on Twitter banding together to share where certain items are cheaper and how the money-saving tips they already needed just don’t cut it anymore. Food is expensive enough but it’s even worse if you need to stick to a specialist diet such as gluten-free, which Coeliac UK estimates costs people three to four times more. 

The Trussell Trust regularly tweets about how important is it to donate free-from food if you can as these are some of the most sought products. When I was struggling on a low income I regularly made the choice to eat food that I knew would make me ill because I just couldn’t afford the gluten-free alternatives that I needed. This was seven years ago, I’m now also lactose intolerant and the extra amount both of these add to my food shop is eye watering. It’s heartbreaking to think how many people are having to make this choice now.

There are other considerations, too. Some people living with disabilities are more likely to have higher energy bills because to power equipment or higher heating. The horrifying phrase of “choosing between eating and heating” was a regular occurrence in 2022, but what if you need to power life-saving equipment as well?

The government recently set out plans for cost-of-living support payments, but millions who don’t qualify for means-tested benefits will miss out. While it’s great that 8 million disabled people on benefits such as employment support allowance , disability living allowance and universal credit will receive £900 in three instalments, the 3 million of us on Personal Independence Payment (PIP) miss out. 

We only receive £150 at the start of winter and won’t receive that again until next winter. That doesn’t even cover a week for those who need extra electricity, specialist food and need to keep warm for our health. 

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I agree with the Resolution Foundation that further measures of support are needed, but it’s not just in terms of financial support. The lack of accessible homes needs to be addressed so that disabled people aren’t forced to rent more affordable homes that end up make their health worse, through poor ventialation, heating, or accessibility. 

There also needs to be a cap on how much energy companies can charge. Lastly, they need to ensure all disabled people can qualify for the warm homes discount, not just those on means-tested benefits. 

“People with a disability – who account for a third of the poorest households in Britain – will require additional protection during the cost-of-living crisis, which the Government has acknowledged through their Cost of Living Payments,” said Charlie McCurdy, Economist at the Resolution Foundation.

“But more policy work will be needed, not just through this crisis, but to make more progress on closing the huge income gaps that already existed between disabled people and the rest of the population.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Rachel Charlton-Dailey is a freelance writer and disability activist. They are the founding editor of The Unwritten, a publication for disabled people to share their authentic experiences.

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