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Disabled people are struggling to access ‘lifeline’ services amid the cost-of-living crisis

University of Bristol research has uncovered a dire national picture around disabled people’s financial wellbeing. We spoke to locals who are worrying about heating bills and visiting crucial social spaces less often.

Image of Kevin Baker, who was left paralysed on one side in 2004, says money struggles mean he is less able to use support services, taken at Paul's Place in Coalpit Heath (credit: David Griffiths)

Kevin Baker says money struggles mean he is less able to use services that help him socialise (credit: David Griffiths)

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This story was updated on 30 October to include the news that Bristol City Council had extended the consultation period on its new care policy to January 2024, after pushback from campaigners.

Coalpit Heath cricket club is a lush green as the Cable arrives on a mid-October morning to visit Paul’s Place – a charity that operates a day service from the venue for disabled people living in Bristol, North Somerset, South Gloucestershire and BANES. 

Kevin Baker, from Thornbury, who suffered a major brain bleed in 2004 that left him paralysed on his left side, used to come to Paul’s Place three times a week. The organisation specialises in providing social activities, including accessible sports sessions, that help reduce people’s isolation. 

But Kevin has been forced to cut that to once a week over the past year. He pays to visit, and for his own transport to and from the service, and says he can no longer afford to attend more often. 

“I’m lucky in a lot of ways because I had some inheritance when my mum passed away [which pays for a limited amount of home care and visits to Paul’s Place], so I’ve been able to live off that, [although] it means I’m not entitled to any funded care,” says Kevin. Without it, he says, his life would look very different.

Like many disabled people across the city, Kevin has also had to battle to access benefits such as PIP (Personal Independence Payment), a government benefit issued to help disabled people with extra living costs. Austerity measures in the 2010s saw disability benefits cut and made more conditional, and today only about half of all PIP claims result in an award. 

Nor is Kevin’s current situation unusual. A study published this autumn by University of Bristol uncovered a dire national picture around disabled people’s financial wellbeing. It found 27% of disabled households were in ‘serious’ financial difficulty, with 33% struggling to pay for food or other necessary expenses.

‘Sometimes I can only put £10 on the electric’

“Disabled households were always a group that came out as being particularly badly off [from previous studies],” says Professor Sharon Collard, one of the researchers from the University of Bristol’s Personal Finance Research Centre. “This highlighted the need to focus on disabled people more closely, including by different types of impairment.”

Coming here is a lifeline – I get to be around other people who understand what I go through, and I learn from them too.

Kevin Baker

The research identified various impairments that put people at particular risk of experiencing financial difficulties, including physical mobility issues like Kevin’s, learning disabilities, mental health conditions and chronic fatigue.

Worryingly, nearly one in three (29%) of disabled people polled for the report across the UK said they found it ‘a constant struggle’ to meet bills and credit commitments.

“Sometimes I can only put £10 or £20 pounds on the electric,” says 52-year-old Chris Pope, who lives in Barton Hill and was born with a learning disability. He tells the Cable he’s been glad of the unseasonably warm weather, as he’s needed to cut back on essentials and worries about putting his heating on. 

We meet Chris at a drop-in at the Hive Avon in Kingswood, a charity supporting people with learning disabilities and autism. He explains the staff there, along with his mum and his support worker from social care provider Keyring, help him understand and better manage his money. 

The Hive Avon is important enough to Chris, who is entitled to a free bus pass but says Bristol’s unreliable services make him anxious, that he often walks the four-mile round trip from home. But he has gone from visiting the centre almost daily to going only on Saturday afternoons. “I was spending too much,” Chris says.

Benefits ‘stigma’

The Hive’s CEO Liz Cooke tells the Cable that over the past six to eight months “we’ve noticed people coming here less”. Cooke says this is because they simply don’t have the money, or are “worried about the fact that everything is going up in price”. 

“For a vast number of our service users, coming here is the only time they leave their house or see anybody,” she says.

Chris Pope at the Hive Avon in Kingswood, with the organisation’s CEO Liz Cooke (credit: Steph Cullen)

The charity provides a variety of services to support people to manage in the community, including money skills courses, along with the social drop-in. But doing so is not cheap – especially for an organisation that does not receive local authority funding. “We charge £12 for an afternoon drop-in, but it costs us £15 per person to facilitate, so we subsidise this,” says Cooke, who spends much of her time applying for grants and organising fundraising events to keep the centre operational.

Staff at the Hive often end up helping members fill in forms such as PIP claims, even though it is not officially part of their service. Many disabled people still slip through the cracks, Cooke says, because they aren’t aware they can access the support they need in the community. 

Professor Collard’s colleague and co-author Jamie Evans says one thing that stuck out when researching the University of Bristol report was “the level of stigma associated with being disabled and on benefits”. In all, 71% of respondents said they had been made to feel guilty about applying for benefits – which in some cases means a long wait for an eligibility decision – despite having disabilities that incur significant additional financial outgoings.

Disabilities’ financial impact

Back at Paul’s Place, safeguarding manager Sheila Hewitt is talking about how often the charity sees the financial impact of disability on their members. “So much of a person’s disability has a financial consequence,” she says. 

“Following a continence assessment, someone who has funded care may need incontinence pads, they’ll be entitled to four free pads a day – this is rarely enough and they have to top the rest up themselves, which is costly.”

Even getting a wheelchair-adapted taxi from central Bristol to Paul’s Place and back costs around £70, with many members, like Kevin, funding the journeys themselves. 

As with the Hive Avon, Paul’s Place is crucial to its members in holding on to their independence and maintaining good mental health. For Kevin and Chris, the reduction in their ability to socialise because of rising costs is just one of the ways their lives have been negatively impacted by the extra cost of being disabled.

“Coming here is a lifeline,” says Kevin. “I get to be around other people who understand what I go through, and I learn from them too.”

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