For many disabled people across the country, the clocks going back and temperatures beginning to drop mark not just the start of winter, but the start of an incredibly desperate time. Energy costs have risen dramatically in recent years, forcing many families to make difficult choices about how to stay warm in freezing temperatures without breaking the bank. And it’s disabled people who often bear the brunt.
Disabled households face myriad extra costs costs, from specialist therapies, to higher energy bills to run essential and specialist equipment like breathing machines and feeding pumps. Then there’s the costs of charging electric wheelchairs, paying for accessible transport, running the washing machine several times a day – they all come at a cost.
Heating is especially important to those who are less mobile and struggle to regulate their own body temperature. Disabled people tell us that getting too cold can be devastating – even fatal – for them, making their health and wellbeing worse. And while most families will notice an increase in energy bills during winter months, this will usually follow a ‘relief period’ of cheaper energy bills in the summer. Disabled households may not have had this luxury – equipment still needs power when the sun is shining, and if you cannot regulate your body temperature then sky-high bills for heating will just be replaced by air conditioning units and fans in the hotter months. There is no let-up.
Now disabled people are facing a second winter with insufficient financial support and many are feeling the strain. New research from national disability charity Sense, which supports children and adults with complex disabilities, reveals more than half of disabled people are coming into this winter already in debt, with two-thirds plagued by constant worries about bills.
In the face of spiralling costs and rising debts, people are looking to the government for support. But in Sense’s research, 44 per cent of disabled people said they didn’t feel they’d received enough support from the government with their energy costs – and we’re not surprised. Since the crisis began, the government’s financial support has not been sufficient, and characterised by one-off payments rather than long term support. These payments don’t go anywhere near covering the household costs disabled people need to survive.
Disabled people told us that they feel let down and sidelined and many have been forced to take drastic steps to make ends meet. Nearly one in five (18 per cent) adults with complex disabilities told Sense that they have cut back on charging their vital machinery, like feeding tubes and electric wheelchairs, in a desperate bid to save money. People’s mental and physical health is already deteriorating and as we move into winter, things will only get more extreme: nearly six in ten (57 per cent) people told Sense they’re planning on turning the heating in their homes down or completely off to save money, while half (51 per cent) will resort to ‘warm spaces’ in the community because they can’t afford their energy bills.
This situation is indefensible and more drastic measures are needed before many more disabled people are pushed into fuel poverty and into further debt.
Sense wants to see the government to introduce long-term support to help people through the financial instability caused by the cost-of-living crisis. One way the government could do this is by introducing a social energy tariff, which it was previously committed to consult on. This option has appeared to come off the agenda. A social energy tariff, which has widespread support from the charity sector, would protect disabled households who use more energy and recognise the extra costs that disabled people face through no fault of their own.
The charity’s research shows the majority (86 per cent) of disabled people would value a discounted energy scheme. The autumn budget, announced just weeks before cold weather really starts to take hold, would be the perfect opportunity for government to reignite its previous commitment to consulting on a social energy tariff. We would also like to see the government commit to increasing disability benefits in line with inflation.
We are in the middle of the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades, and government must act rather than watch for a second winter, leaving more disabled people forced into more debt and further ill-health. Proper, long-term financial support is desperately needed; otherwise even more disabled families will be pushed into total destitution.