Bringing Disability to Light: The Urgent Need for More Inclusive Fuel Poverty Policy

We first conducted research into the relationship between fuel poverty and people with disabilities in 2011.  This was in the context of huge policy changes including the introduction of Universal Credit, changes to disability benefits, and revised fuel poverty policy.  At the time people with disabilities were highlighted by the Government as one of three groups considered vulnerable to fuel poverty and flagged as a priority for policy interventions.

Despite this policy focus, as we undertook our research, we found that limited work had actually been undertaken to try to understand either the complex relationship between fuel poverty and disability, or the energy needs of disabled people.  Moreover, the limited evidence that did exist was largely medical in focus, failed to recognise the diversity and nuance of disability, and perhaps most worryingly, did not feature the voices of people with disabilities. 

Man reducing energy consumption by setting thermostat temperature to 19 degrees. Close up on a knob. Composite image between a 3d illustration and a hand photography.

Returning to this research in 2023 we hoped that there might be a more solid evidence base and that some of these gaps might have been filled.  Indeed, there has been more work conducted – for example – the UN’s work on energy and disability (UN 2018; 2023 forthcoming), the broadening of the energy justice literature to consider issues relating to disability (Gillard et al 2017), more critical work around the measurement of fuel poverty in relation to disability (Snell et al 2015a; Snell et al 2015b; George et al 2013), quantitative work to calculate energy patterns of people with disabilities (Ivanova and Middlemiss, 2021), and the emergence of the voices of disabled people within qualitative/lived experience research (Mould and Baker 2017; Snell et al 2015a; Snell et al 2015b; Bradley et al 2019; Chapman et al 2022). However, despite this emerging evidence base, we still have far more to do in order to ensure that people with disabilities are recognised within fuel poverty policy. This piece lays out the extent of this challenge and should be regarded as a call to arms for those working in this space. 

Throughout our research we have found that people with disabilities are systematically sidelined, and in places rendered invisible in discussions about energy and fuel poverty.  This occurs in a number of ways: 

Despite the breadth of the term and our understanding of  ‘disability’, most policy tends to reflect a narrow understanding of what this might include, often focusing on specific physical impairments. As a result, the way in which disability is characterised in official datasets and measures of fuel poverty often has the effect of hiding the full extent of the issue amongst people with disabilities because the definitions and measures fail to count them. For example, in our early work published in 2015 we found that some official measures of fuel poverty overestimated disabled people’s incomes (by treating certain benefits as ‘disposable’ income) whilst underestimating energy needs. We argued that as a result, artificially low numbers of disabled people were defined as being in fuel poverty given that these two elements were critical to the calculation of fuel poverty. 

Burning gas burner. Blue fire with a red flame.

At the same time, whilst there is more qualitative, lived experience data about the relationship between disability and fuel poverty available, there has been very limited integration of this into policy, and limited attempts to engage people with disabilities/relevant stakeholder groups into meaningful policy discussions. As a result, we argue that the perspectives, and energy needs, of people with disabilities are not translated into policy and practice thus leaving them limited in scope and effectiveness. For example, it can mean that policy interventions are not available to all who need them due to poorly defined eligibility criteria, or are implemented in ways that are inappropriate or inaccessible. 

To address the above issues we urgently call for more nuanced research, policy and practice, starting with these three recommendations:

  1. Meaningful involve people with disabilities in co-designing solutions
  2. Impact assessments of eligibility cut-off points in support schemes and interventions, to ensure they are not further disadvantaging people with disabilities
  3. Recognition of all forms of disability in policy and practice

The article was published as part of the Fuel Poverty Evidence project.