Disabled Should Band Together to Bring Living Costs Down
Disabled consumers should be “bold and loud” about their spending power, says disability costs commission. A year-long enquiry into the expensive lives that disabled people have has concluded that working together as a collective consumer force is necessary to bring down the cost of living.
Despite the sizeable £212bn spending power that disabled people and their families have, dubbed the Purple Pound, businesses are still not wooing this group and disabled people need to recognise their collective power to get better deals from businesses. The recommendations come from the independent Extra Costs Commission which was set up by the charity Scope to collect evidence and find ways in which disabled people could use their financial clout to their advantage. It is chaired by investment manager Robin Hindle Fisher.
In a 2014 report called Priced Out, Scope found that disabled people spend on average an extra £550 per month. Although benefits like DLA and PIP exist to account for this extra spend, on average disabled people get £360 per month from them, so still pay a “financial penalty” on everyday living costs. The commission wants to see these benefits maintained at their present rate but their recommendations are an attempt to nudge disabled people into more beneficial relationships which lead to businesses providing a good service through which they can profit and importantly to disabled people having less expensive lives.
Although a sturdy pair of shoes might last your average consumer a number of years, Annabelle Vaughan, a solicitor from Portsmouth, has to buy a new pair every one-to-three weeks. She has cerebral palsy and gives her shoes a serious battering every day due to her non-standard way of walking.
“My left foot turns in a great deal, so actually I tend to walk on the outer edge of my left foot rather than flat on my left foot,” she says. “And, of course, what that means is that it wears down the left outer edge of my shoe very quickly because there’s no even weight distribution.”
She buys a particular brand that are flat and wide which, at £40, are expensive for high-street shoes. She carries a couple of extra pairs around with her in case the one’s she’s wearing fall apart. “I have shoes all over the place,” says Annabelle. “I have about four pairs under my desk at work for the same reason.” With a weakness in her left side, she also has difficulty washing her hair. She can manage a mini wash daily but once a fortnight she goes to a local hairdresser where she gets it thoroughly washed to keep it presentable for work. It costs her between £19 and £30. “Most women would only get a wash and blow dry for a special event,” she says.
Costs that other people don’t have can mount up in a surprising way and become more complex over the years.
Robert Swan from Water Orton in Warwickshire is 64 and has a developmental spinal disorder which led to a great deal of surgery in his 50s. He’s a power-chair user and is now much less mobile. “My gas and electricity bills are much more expensive because I’m in the house 24/7 so the lights are on, the TV is on, the fan is on in the summer and the heating’s on in the winter,” he says. He asked his energy company to compare his bills to those of his neighbours. “They told me the average cost for ‘combined energy’ customers in this row is £70 per month on average. I pay £129.”
He has irritable bowel syndrome as a result of the meds he is on and now has to buy more expensive gluten-free foods. As well as purchasing urine bottles and pads for the bed (which cost £12 at the local rehab hospital), he now has to pay for things he previously used to be able to do for himself like decorating or fixing things around the house.
The commission has recommended that disability organisations club together to bulk-buy products from clothes and shoes to energy provision, and secure a discount that could then be passed on. Hindle Fisher wants to see big retail firms jumping into things like the lucrative £720m per year wheelchair market to bring much-needed competition to the disability sector. Powered wheelchairs can cost from £2,000 to over £40,000 depending on requirements, so should be attractive to business. Chair maintenance is also an on-going cost.
He says they have seen a number of instances of good practice, where companies have directly targeted disabled people, and they would like to see more of this. He says it’s very hard for disabled people to get car insurance because the companies charge more and make it harder for disabled people to get it. “The firm I get my insurance from has focused on disabled drivers and has worked out that, because they value their mobility so much, disabled drivers actually present a lower insurance risk.” He adds that adapted cars are less likely to be stolen because they are unique and more difficult to sell on.
The commission surveyed 2,500 disabled people and found that three-quarters said they have walked out of a store due to bad service or lack of disability awareness. The commission notes that those businesses are missing out on their share of £420m of revenue per week.
Other findings include: disabled people rate friendly and helpful staff (71%) and good accessibility (55%) as the most important factors when shopping. And six in 10 businesses surveyed said that they would benefit from better information about disabled people’s consumer habits and preferences.
Hindle Fisher, who is himself disabled, is in his mid 50s and says that working on the commission has been emotionally moving for him, especially when he realised that part of the problem is that disabled people are often reluctant to come forward and identify themselves as disabled.
“When I was a child in the 60s and 70s, disability was deeply stigmatised by society and many of us have resisted being called disabled because we don’t want to be in any way labelled as being inferior. We want to be another version of normal.” If more of the 12 million disabled people in the UK were prepared to identify themselves as being disabled, he says, they could become a much more powerful consumer group.
The Commission will meet again in summer 2016 to analyse the success of its recommendations.