The Cost of Disability

Economic inequalities for people with disabilities are a barrier to citizenship, argues Sarah Lennon.

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  • People with disabilities are less likely to achieve higher education or have a job
  • People with disabilities face higher costs for many things including everyday items
  • Many people with disabilities are experiencing poverty
  • The government must introduce a Cost of Disability payment
  • Government should equality-proof budgets and policies to remove discrimination
  • The UNCRPD requires States to ensure the right to work and an adequate standard of living

Persons with disabilities face poverty, and consistent poverty, more than any other group in Ireland.

Almost one in four disabled people is in consistent poverty and this is acknowledged by the National Disability Inclusion Strategy. The way out of poverty is imagined through “making work pay” for people with disabilities.

We know that statistically, persons with disabilities are less likely to attend further education or be in work. If they do have a job, they are likely to have lower earnings.

But as well as income disadvantage, persons with disabilities often have to get more from less. Disabled people can have extra costs such as home adaptations, higher medical costs and disability aids. Everyday things can also cost more, such as higher costs for energy & transport.

There has been a long debate about how to address the cost of disability. As far back as the publication of Strategy for Equality in 1996 there have been calls for a Cost of Disability payment.

A number of reports and studies recommend a Cost of Disability payment, including the National Disability Authority’s 2004 report ‘Disability and the Cost of Living’, the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities and the National Economic and Social Forum.

There is evidence that the political system is listening, if not fully understanding. During the last general election, most political parties referred to the cost of disability in their manifestos. Unfailingly however, the phrase ‘Cost of Disability’ was used to dress up an extra €10 or €20 a week on top of the Disability Allowance to offset the costs. This amounts to little more than an embellishment of the usual auction politics. There is now an urgent need to address this misunderstanding, as while it’s positive that there is an understanding that disability costs more, a meagre increase on social protection payment will do nothing to address this.

A root and branch reform of our disabling society is required to address the cost of disability. If we start with income, then we must deal with the structures that create the “earnings handicap”, improve access to education at all levels including third level, ensure greater access to employment including reasonable accommodation, provide employee support and retention schemes, and increase the public-sector quota – all achievable actions.

The cost of disability will not be addressed through income alone; expenditure is also an issue to be addressed. Separate but equally as important, action must be taken to address the inequalities that exist within our society relating to cost.

These expenses may be specialist and disability-related in the form of adaptive devices, home adaptations, medicine, physio or other therapies. The expense may be simply in using more of something that everybody else uses, such as having to buy an additional ticket to events or concerts because a person needs assistance, or requiring additional heat, water, waste-disposal or additional bedding or clothes. In many cases, it is the inaccessibility of our society, such as inaccessible transport (closing doors to employment) or education, or requiring the use of taxis, that costs more. The cost of disability also encapsulates the lack of access to credit or loans or having to purchase things online.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires States’ Parties to recognise the right of persons with disabilities to work, on an equal basis with others, and to enjoy an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families, including sufficient food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.

There is a key lesson in the term ‘adequate standard of living’. Significant adjustments to our structures and systems are required to achieve this, but it is not unreasonable. Disabled people are not seeking a lofty goal with this ambition, merely the achievement of adequacy. However, we are a long way short of this, and instead many disabled people face poverty. This must stop.  Realising this right involves many challenging actions, but it will not be achieved without addressing the cost of disability.

The cost of disability is long established and embedded, but immediate steps can be taken to chip away at these costs. Firstly, a Cost of Disability payment could be made to all people with disability, not just those in receipt of a social protection payment. Having additional income can result in increased social inclusion for many people who are experiencing exclusion and poverty. These payments can improve independence and open doors to opportunities that had been closed. A Cost of Disability payment should be a short-term measure however, as part of a strategy towards equality for disabled people.

As part of our more ambitious goals, the equality-proofing of budgets should be carried out as has been committed to by the government. If budgets are equality-proofed, then budgetary measures should not disadvantage any category of person, and the potential discriminatory impact of measures such as taxation or social protection measures would be examined for their effect on disabled people and others.

Finally, there is significant opportunity through the public-sector duty to address many of the disabling aspects of our society. The duty is a positive one and is supported by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. Under this duty, public bodies (including government departments, local authorities, the HSE and many educational bodies) must take steps to promote equality and human rights and remove discrimination.

There are 600,000 people with a disability in Ireland, and one in four of these are in consistent poverty. Many of the ambitions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities depend on barriers being removed so that these rights are enjoyed. Economic inequality is a major barrier and without resolving it, many people simply cannot take part and remain on the fringes.

A part of our strategy for equality for disabled people in Ireland must be to remove the barriers that cost present. The UNCRPD requires it and we should demand it.

Sarah LennonSarah Lennon is the Campaigns & Policy Lead for Inclusion Ireland. Sarah has worked for Inclusion Ireland since 2006 and before that worked in vocational training for people with disabilities. Sarah has a Bachelor of Civil Law, A Master of Science in Equality Studies as well as qualifications in training, legal capacity and mental health law.

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