Breadline Voices: Disabled people facing 'a wave of poverty unlike anything they've experienced before'

Image of a wheelchair

Dan White works for Disability Rights UK and, as a mental health advocate and author who has published a collection of poems shining a light on issues surrounding mental health, disability, and politics, brings a unique perspective to the cost of living crisis.

"According to various economists the current cost-of-living crisis is the worst the UK has seen since the 1950s, and the crisis has yet to fully unfold. Inflation is rocketing and the system seems unable to respond its consequences. Food and fuel prices are rising and for disabled people the problems are particularly acute. Let me clarify. 

"Disabled families and individuals continue to face discrimination in employment, inadequate social security benefits and unfair charges for care. In a report by SCOPE in 2019, one in five disabled people faced extra costs of more than £1,000 a month, proof that life costs more if you have a disability.

"Disabled people in 2022 now face a wave of poverty unlike anything they have experienced before or since and there seems to be little if no help forthcoming to reverse these decades old issues.

"Many disabled people simply do not have the money for essentials like food and even less pennies in their pockets to live in decent, warm, accessible accommodation, warm being the key word.

"As I write, the head of energy regulator Ofgem told MPs that he expects the annual household energy price cap to rise to £2,800 in October, up from the current level of £1,971 (which only recently took effect).

"Energy use for disabled people is vastly different from any other household, it involves energy use for life’s sake, energy to maintain health both physical and mental. The list of essential equipment required to breathe, move, eat and live is vast and all of it relies on energy to function.

"Disabled people’s energy costs are higher than those of non-disabled people because they need to run the heating more, why? Well as an example my daughter has spina bifida, which means she has little mobility below the waist due to nerve damage.

"This in turn means she cannot regulate her body temperature, and if the household temperature is not constant her legs will go purple with cold and that could mean skin damage or worse, so the heat stays on and the bills soar and soar.

"My daughter’s scenario is repeated across the country and it’s not just extra warmth that prevents a hospital dash for people with temperature regulation issues or weakened immune systems, that is just the tip of the energy-related iceberg. 

Most medical equipment regardless of whether it runs on batteries or not needs to be charged at the mains at some point.

"Disabled people live with a dependency on equipment and the majority of it needs power. For example, ceiling track hoists that transfer individuals from beds to wheelchairs or toilet chairs, feeding pumps to aid eating, suction machines for tracheostomy blockages to prevent choking, oxygen machines filling lungs with air during sleep, sensory mats for children to detect seizures while parents grab a few minutes sleep, through floor lifts, all these few examples run either constantly or are charged for long periods intermittently, they simply have to be, eating their way through disability household energy bills.

"The biggest tragedy is that there are no areas where families or individuals can 'cut back' on equipment. Remove just one thing like a hoist and manual lifting comes into play - not OK if it’s a full-grown adult you’re lifting. Remove the power from a lift and you cut off independence, switch off an airflow mattress and bed sores spread.

"Access to food is supposed to be one of life’s certainties, however, finding cheaper places to shop is not easy if you have food allergies, swallowing issues or autism.

"Another issue with rising food prices is that many disabled people struggle to cook and rely on expensive ready meals. A combination of unaffordable food, poverty benefits and lack of access to shops is probably why more than half of people who use food banks are disabled. 

"Quite simply a combination of inflation, a slow government response and mediocre attempts at help from energy firms and the food industry are deepening the crisis and disabled people feel they have nowhere to turn and seemingly no real help being directed towards them."

This is part of Breadline Voices, a series from The Food Foundation highlighting the realities faced by millions of families plunged into food and fuel poverty as food prices reach a 40-year high.

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