You know the UK is in a financial mess when Christmas advertisements are toned down, with a focus on "saving" rather than on spending. As the cost of living soars, many retailers have opted for muted campaigns. Retail experts have cautioned that scenes of bountiful buffets in some ads were out of touch, as families in the UK struggle with rising prices.
Traditionally, this is a time of year during which people spend more than in other months, but not this year. The UK is facing one of its most testing times in modern history – first Brexit, then Covid-19, followed by the political mess of the past year and now the cost of living crisis.
Sadly, with each of these crises, disabled people have often been hit hardest. One implication of Brexit was that some medications vanished from pharmacies, medical equipment was hard to source, and there were carer shortages.
When Covid-19 struck, many disabled people felt that their lives didn’t matter, with so many being asked to sign a "Do Not Resuscitate" notice. Then, when things began opening up, so many restrictions were lifted that those still at risk didn’t feel safe and felt forced to continue shielding. Now, with high energy and food costs, it is disabled people who will likely pay a high price. Life is more expensive for disabled people and their families, many of whom are on low incomes. Spending has increased, including on essential goods and services, such as heating, insurance, therapies, and to pay for extra care, home adaptations or for additional energy to power wheelchairs.
These extra costs mean disabled people have less money in their pockets than non-disabled people, or they go without. As a result, disabled people are likely to have a low standard of living, even if they earn as much as their non-disabled counterparts. New analysis published in November by the Trades Union Congress shows that non-disabled workers now earn a sixth (17.2 per cent) more than disabled workers. The analysis found that the pay gap for disabled workers is currently at £2.05 an hour – or £3,731 per year for someone working a 35-hour week.
This inequality in wages means disabled adults were less likely than non-disabled adults to be able to afford their energy bills, rent or mortgage payments.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) over half (55 per cent) of disabled adults reported finding it difficult to afford their energy bills, and around a third (36 per cent) found it difficult to afford their rent or mortgage payments compared with 40 per cent and 27 per cent of non-disabled people, respectively, in the latest poll.
Already the price of pasta, tea, chips and cooking oil has soared, according to new data, with vegetable oil going up by 65 per cent in a year. Overall, the price of budget food in supermarkets rose by 17 per cent in the year up to September, according to the ONS research. And inflation is at a 41-year high.
Energy for powering essential equipment, such as hoists, beds, breathing equipment, powered chairs and monitors, were already expensive. These are not optional extras that can be cut back. They are often life-saving equipment.
In many ways, disabled people in Britain are being hit even harder by rising prices than non-disabled people. The ONS statistics reveal that 42 per cent of disabled adults are spending less on food and other essentials, compared with 31 per cent of non-disabled people, because of the rise in the cost of living. Some 23 per cent of disabled people said they have had to borrow more money or use more credit than usual in the last month, compared to a year ago, against 17 per cent of non-disabled people.
Foodbanks are now a part of every UK community, becoming an essential aspect of British society, like schools and hospital. In order for people to function, several foodbanks have reported that more people were coming to them for help, while more than half reported fewer food donations from donors, as even those that used to donate can no longer afford to do so.
I began volunteering at a foodbank three months ago. In that period I noticed 370 more "guests" or foodbank users, many of whom are disabled. The foodbank is also supporting more people for longer periods, as repeat referrals come back for months, because their financial situations are not improving. Prices are increasing but not their incomes. While working at the food bank, I have met young mums, older people, people with disabilities and many with mental health problems, all of whom need constant help.
In the past, foodbanks were generally for people who needed an emergency parcel for something that had gone wrong or when an unexpected expense arose, maybe a relationship breakdown, or a job loss. They would need help for a short period of time until they got back on their feet. Now it's a completely different story.
I spoke to a few disabled people – they all asked to remain anonymous – on how they are managing financially. Sarah (not her real name), who lives in Glasgow, used to work in a charity shop but as Covid-19 struck, she didn't feel safe enough to return. Her only outing became driving her adapted car (designed to be accessible by people with disabilities). As the nearest bus stop from her is one kilometre away, she used to enjoy the freedom of getting in to her car with her dog and going to her favourite park, the beach, a coffee shop or to the gym.
Now because of rising fuel prices, each outing has to be considered. "I only make essential journeys and make my trips pay for themselves, so if I have a hospital appointment I will tie that in with going for groceries or going to get my hair done or running other errands.”
Sarah has had to cancel hospital appointments on two recent occasions because she was unable to afford to put petrol in her car. Getting a taxi is beyond her financial means and public transport could take hours. Sarah’s car is essential to maintaining her well-being. She told me she misses going out: “I am becoming a prisoner in my home again but instead of it being caused by my PTSD and chronic pain, it is being caused by the rise in cost of living.”
Amy (again, not her real name) has been disabled since the age of 14 and uses a powered wheelchair, which needs to be charged every night. It costs more to charge a wheelchair than to use a dishwasher. She also has to have the heating on in her flat in London's Norwood area, to keep warm because of her condition.
Amy said: “It is quite normal to have my heating on if the temperature is below 19 degrees. However, the cost of my utility bills has gone up three times since last October.” Now she mostly stays home and orders online to save fuel for essential journeys.
Jane, who only became disabled in her 20s, has intestinal failure for the past 18 years and uses a wheelchair. She said: “Disability comes with a lot of essential equipment much of which requires electricity”. She relies on parenteral nutrition (food taken intravenously through a tube) and this requires its own extra fridge. She also needs electricity for her feeding pump, as well as her adjustable bed, hoist and wheelchair. Jane explains: “None of these things are things I can choose to do without to save electricity.”
Although Jane is appreciative of the help from recent government grants for energy costs, it doesn’t cover the amount of extra expenditure. She also has to buy pre-packaged meals because of her condition. “I can’t prepare food myself, so have to buy things pre-prepared. I also can’t eat dairy so end up buying from vegan ranges.”
Food prices are going up, but there are no cheap alternative options when your diet is restricted by your condition. Jane admits that she is "lucky" in that she has a lot of her nutrition prescribed, so she can go without to an extent, but it is still hard. “After [paying for] food and energy, things like going out are no longer an option."
Melly, in her 70s, is paralysed from the chest down and has a permanent tracheostomy (a surgical tube into the windpipe) after falling down the stairs more than 10 years ago and breaking her neck at C6/7.
Melly also has to have a nurse and a carer round the clock live with her and her husband, meaning extra costs. One of her biggest problems is her inability to control her body temperature, which means her energy use is high. “I have to keep our heating on 26 degrees in the house at all times because when I get cold it is difficult for my body to regain its temperature.” Melly is at a loss of what to do. “All I can do is try and cut back, but we don’t know what’s next.” After 60 years of working in the care sector she is finding herself needing care and running out of her pension fund.
This is sadly the predicament for many disabled people, having to make hard choices, resorting to using food banks and even compromising their health.
I spoke with Anaam Hussein, administrative officer at Sufra NW London Foodbank, which is a local charity that since 2013 works on improving the cause and consequences of impoverishment in the community.
Ms Hussein explained that they provide their "guests" with the food and support they urgently need to survive, empower them to learn new skills and improve their well-being, and help them find work and become financially stable. By working together and harnessing the goodwill of our neighbours, we build a stronger community where no one suffers alone in silence.”
When I asked her whether poverty impacts disabled guests more than non disabled, “Some guests with disabilities require deliveries and/or access to our ready meals service. This entails either a weekly delivery of a food parcel or a ready meals parcel. We also have guests who are unable to collect due to health reasons such as mobility issues, etc.”
“We have seen a rise in the number of guests being referred to us in general in the past year, again some disclose disabilities and some do not. Unfortunately, we do have guests who express mental health issues, if we feel this requires more professional support we will signpost guests to more suitable agencies who can help with their needs.”
Few of the people I spoke with told me that they are simply not coping well. This should not be happening in one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world. Things can’t stay as they are. We need a new plan of action, one that includes disabled people.