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How is the cost of living crisis affecting disabled people in the UK?

Rising prices are having a disproportionately negative impact on people with disabilities: their living costs are typically higher and they are often excluded from full economic participation, particularly employment. Benefits offer limited support as they are falling behind the cost of living.

The disastrous rise in living costs in the UK will have a disproportionately negative impact on the disabled community. Disabled people – who make up one-fifth of the working age population – are more likely to have higher living costs and to live in a low-income household than their non-disabled peers. They also have higher rates of unemployment, under-employment and worklessness.

Just under half of all people living in poverty in the UK are disabled or living with a disabled person. Prior to the recent and extreme increases in energy costs, disabled people are already more likely to live in a cold home during the winter months.

As a group, disabled people can expect to struggle to cover their food costs more than their non-disabled counterparts. Given that we are all likely to feel the crunch in the coming months, we can expect that the cost of living crisis is going to have a catastrophic effect on people who are already struggling to get by.

This article explores the two central and interrelated reasons for the relative poverty of disabled people in comparison with their non-disabled peers. These are the extra costs of being disabled (in a society that is organised for non-disabled people); and the exclusion of disabled people from full economic participation.

Why is it more expensive to be disabled?

There are several ‘hidden’ costs to being disabled (Smith et al, 2004). Disabled individuals and their families spend more on essential goods and services, such as heating, insurance, equipment, travel, food and therapies. Basics such as travel become more expensive when one has to finance a carer’s travel alongside one’s own, or when travelling by train or taxi rather than by bus for accessibility reasons (Schmocker et al, 2008).

Some disabled people – for example, those recovering from cancer treatments – will require additional heating in their house or have to buy more clothes to accommodate their fluctuating weight.

Others use assistive technologies, which need regular charging, or need to eat convenience food rather than raw or unprepared food. This comes with additional expense, as do condition-specific specialist diets.

Why can't disabled people just earn more money?

Disabled people often face economic exclusion. This results from long-held prejudices about disability and the ability of disabled individuals to participate equally in paid employment (Barnes and Mercer, 2005; Grover and Piggott, 2015; Remnant, 2019).

As with other social systems, workplaces and stereotypes of what makes an ‘ideal worker’ have been developed in opposition to disabled people (Foster and Vass, 2013; Sang et al, 2015). Similarly, the legislative context of what it is to be disabled in the UK is predicated on an individual’s capacity to undertake paid work.

Historically, workers either recovered from illness and returned to work, or departed from the workforce permanently due to death or disability. Workplace policies were developed on this functionalist assumption: that disabled and ill workers would assume the ‘sick role’, whereby they were relieved of normal duties such as work while they recover or leave (Parsons, 1951).

Although this assumption is out of date, as it does not incorporate the more commonly experienced fluctuating or long-term health conditions found in the contemporary and ageing UK workforce, it can be identified in workplace assumptions about disabled people’s capacity to work (Remnant, 2019).

These issues manifest in what is known as the ‘disability employment gap’. This is the gap between the proportions of disabled working age people in paid employment compared with their non-disabled counterparts. This gap is around 20% for women and 30% for men.

Disabled people experiencing multiple conditions co-morbidly or those with mental health conditions face higher risks of being unemployed. This is alongside replicating issues faced by many in the wider population, such as not having qualifications, being older and living in areas with struggling labour markets.

The consistent gap between the employment rate of disabled people of working age and their non-disabled peers is layered with levels of ageism, which seem to be inherent in ‘ableism’ (van der Horst and Vickerstaff, 2021).

For example, research shows that for both disabled and older workers, employers deliver positive rhetoric but harbour negative views personally about the capacity of those workers (Hutton et al, 2012). In the current competitive and individualised labour market, older, ill or disabled workers are likely to end up competing against younger, non-disabled workers for scarce opportunities.

Although the proportion of disabled people in employment has started to increase again, this should be viewed critically. Changes in this statistic are driven both by disability prevalence within the working age population and by the overall employment rate of the working age population inclusive of non-disabled people.

This also requires us to reflect on the quality of work made available to disabled people. They are also likely to be under-employed. This can mean working in lower-skilled occupations, working part-time (and subsequently fewer hours) and/or working for themselves.

Even before the pandemic, the labour market context was increasingly defined by precarity, on-demand and self-employed work (Standing, 2014). This has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Lockdowns triggered major labour market changes, temporarily devastating sectors such as aviation and hospitality, while increasing demand for drivers, couriers and delivery services (Fana et al, 2020). These are occupations largely made up of casual workers who do not have recourse to sick pay, despite having faced the increased risks of being exposed to Covid-19.

The opportunities for economic participation available to disabled people are decidedly limited. This is relevant to our understandings of disabled individuals’ domestic budgets because if people are not in paid work, they are likely to require recourse to state welfare provision.

Can't disabled people get welfare benefits?

Although there are welfare benefits available in the UK to disabled people and people experiencing long-term ill health, there is extensive evidence to suggest that accessing them is increasingly difficult (Garthwaite, 2011).

This is in terms of how to navigate the complexities of the websites and forms necessary to claim, as well as understanding the nature of welfare distribution and the various types of welfare and related eligibility criteria. Research continues to find that people who become ill or impaired during their working life find it very difficult to identify what they are entitled to or how they can claim it (Saffer et al, 2018; Moffatt et al, 2012).

For disabled people of working age, there are two key welfare benefits available based on impairment and/or long-term ill health: personalised independence payments (PIP); and employment and support allowance (ESA).

PIP (which succeeded the disability living allowance, DLA) is paid in recognition of the additional costs of being disabled and is available to disabled people in and out of work. Qualifying for PIP – since it was introduced in 2013 – has become increasingly conditional, with one-third of people who had previously qualified for DLA having their claims rejected (Cross, 2013; Roulstone, 2015).

ESA is an income-replacing welfare benefit, designed for people unable to work due to impairment or ill health. Claiming ESA is also conditional: it is contingent on the outcome of medical assessments and, sometimes, participation in ‘work-related activities’.

An irony of ESA is that it can inhibit a disabled person seeking paid work that they can manage around their symptoms. This is because if they earn over a certain amount, it jeopardises their continuing receipt of the benefit.

Recipients can only work up to 16 hours per week before their ESA is reduced, which is further complicated if they work on a freelance basis. Freelance and self-employed work can often result in inconsistent payment amounts month to month, which can lead to continued benefit payments being withheld.

These issues are compounded by the widely evidenced view that UK welfare benefits have, for some time, not fully covered the cost of living. This was made apparent in the periods of lockdown and unemployment during the pandemic.

A £20 uplift was added to universal credit, which is paid alongside some ESA payments, on the basis that new claimants could not afford to get by on the standard payments. These are payments that disabled people have been living off for years.

Can it get worse?

In short, yes. Unless something changes, the situation will deteriorate for disabled people.

The windfall tax mooted by Rishi Sunak when he was chancellor would be used to provide targeted financial support to those who need it most. This included a £650 one-off payment to low-income households, £300 payments to pensioners and £150 payments to non-means-tested disability benefit recipients (Lea, 2022).

But these payments, which are not received by all disabled people, are likely to be insufficient, given the complexity of their work/welfare status.

High inflation has been outstripping both wages and benefit increases, resulting in a reduction in disposable income for UK households. Huge increases in energy bills are not sustainable for many low-income households, such as those with disabled and unwell members (Khan, 2022).

This is a disastrous time for disabled people, particularly as many feel unprotected now that the social restrictions imposed during the pandemic have been lifted. The virus is still in evidence, but masks are not.

We run the risk of entering an indefinite phase of eugenics-by-negligence by allowing the continued rise of poverty and health inequalities (Limb, 2022a; 2022b). Anyone can become disabled or impaired during their lifetime, temporarily or indefinitely. These issues are not a matter of ‘them and us’: it is we. We need to do something.

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Author: Jennifer Remnant
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