A link we must finally break | Professor Nicholas Watson

Nicholas Watson FRSE, Professor of Disability Research at the Centre for Disability Research, School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow.

A person posing for the camera

Many disabled people are faced with hardship and poverty in their everyday lives and, faced with an often unhelpful benefits system, they struggle to get by. It’s time to listen to their needs and act.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the link between disability and poverty was firmly established, levels of disability are far higher in areas of poverty in both the Global South and North. Recent work by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, for example, estimates that nearly half of all those who live in poverty in the UK are either disabled themselves or live with a disabled person and 31% of disabled people in the UK live in poverty compared to 20% of non-disabled people. Covid-19 and the responses to suppress its spread will magnify this effect. Prior to the pandemic, the relationship was complex, and it can be difficult to disentangle and separate out causative factors. In disability research, we distinguish between the impairment, or condition, and the socially produced barriers that discriminate against, and disable people with, impairment. Both of these are affected by poverty and the relationship is bidirectional. Poverty creates the conditions that exacerbate and increase the potential for ill-health and impairment while the onset of these conditions can lead to poverty, and disabled people who live in poverty experience greater disadvantage.

There are many reasons why disabled people live in poverty. The cost of living for many disabled people is often higher and they face additional costs. These may be associated with their impairment, for example, they might need to keep their house warmer or require special food. They may also be the result of barriers, public transport may be inaccessible, there may be limited low-cost accessible housing, and adaptations and aids to daily living are often very expensive.

Not only are outgoings affected, so too are incomes. Benefits in the UK have been deliberately set below the cost of living, ostensibly to encourage people to seek work and disabled people have been hardest hit by recent changes to the benefits system. Not only are disabled people less likely to work, in 2020 the employment gap was 28% and when they do work, but they are also often paid less than their non-disabled co-workers. Recent research by the TUC suggests that disabled workers earn £2.10 per hour less than their non-disabled peers. Disability affects pensions; disabled people often have to retire earlier, so not only are their incomes likely to be lower, so too is their pension. There is a very poor provision of special needs nurseries across the country, and the additional care required to support a disabled child often means that one parent cannot work, this has both an immediate and long-term impact on family income, affecting both income at the time, and future pensions.

Covid-19 has the potential to impact both the costs associated with disability and income. Many disabled people and their families have been forced to shield and this has added to living costs, people for example may not be able to access low-cost supermarkets and have to use home delivery services, increasing food costs. It has also made it much harder for disabled people and their families to work. In our ongoing research looking at the impact of Covid-19 on disabled people, we have talked to many people who either themselves or their family members have had to give up work. This is particularly the case for families where there is a person with a learning disability. This effect has been amplified by the suspension of a large number of services for this group and many now rely on their families for care and support.

We have known for a long time that if we seriously want to tackle the problems of poverty, we won’t be able to do so successfully unless we account for the needs of disabled people. The pandemic has reinforced this and, as Glasgow Disability Alliance describe, it has supercharged the inequalities experienced by disabled people.

Professor Nicholas Watson FRSE is Professor of Disability Research at the Centre for Disability Research, School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow.
This article was originally written for the forthcoming ReSourcE magazine Spring edition, focusing on issues of equality and diversity.
The RSE’s Fellows’ Blog series offers personal views from our Fellows on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

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Publication Date

May 2021