People with disabilities are facing unnecessary extra difficulties when trying to tackle debt problems because creditors are failing to recognise their specific needs, according to the charity Citizens Advice.
About one in five people seeking advice concerning debt problems from Citizens Advice bureaux across England and Wales are disabled or have long-term health problems, and last year Citizens Advice helped more than 72,000 disabled people with debt issues.
But the charity’s Double Disadvantage report shows that disabled people also face additional detriment on top of their debt problems, including poor, untailored and inconsistent communications from creditors; aggressive and inappropriate selling practices; and unfair practice relating to debt collection or enforcement.
It also found that cuts to specialised debt advice services would hit disabled people disproportionately hard.
The charity said one recent client received standard bank statements and other communications in his preferred braille format, but other letters such as those to inform him he had gone overdrawn would arrive in a standard print format.
One woman who was blind and who also had extensive care and mobility needs was approached by a firm offering her a mobility scooter. She told the representative she could not afford any finance, but the firm arranged a home visit anyway. When the sales rep arrived she said again that she could not afford any finance, but felt pressurised and took out the credit agreement.
A mobility scooter was delivered and within a short while began to malfunction, but the firm said they could not find any fault. It then broke down completely, but the firm would not respond to further calls. The lady was left housebound and still paying for the finance, which made it increasingly difficult for her to meet her other financial commitments.
Citizens Advice warned that compliance with the Equality Act 2010 is far from embedded in the day-to-day business practices of all creditors, and it is urging firms to adopt an equality focus on dealing with people in financial difficulties.
Chief executive Gillian Guy said: “Being in debt can be very disempowering for consumers, but our research shows that disabled people in debt face a double disadvantage. They are disempowered by both their financial difficulties and the failure of creditors to take account of their needs through reasonable adjustments.
“Regulators also have a key role to play to support people and protect them from bad practice. They need to provide a clear steer on how to implement the rules governing consumer credit and retail banking to make sure disabled consumers’ needs are taken into account.”
Government cuts threaten further hardship
Citizens Advice carried out the research in conjunction with the Financial Inclusion Fund disability project, a partnership between Citizens Advice, the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), Action on Hearing Loss, Contact a Family and Mencap to give free holistic debt advice to blind and visually impaired people, people who are deaf or hard of hearing, parents of disabled children, and people with learning difficulties.
The Financial Inclusion Fund has now ended, but has been replaced with the Face-to-Face Debt Advice Programme, which has funding until at least April 2012. But it remains unclear whether this much-needed specialist support will continue beyond this.
Guy added: “Many of the clients we spoke to would not have engaged with their creditors without the help and support from specialist advisers who understood and met their needs.
“It is essential that all future plans to fund debt advice services are equality proofed. This means providing advice through a variety of channels, not just funding the cheapest option. One size does not fit all.”
Government cuts to the disability living allowance could also result in further hardship for some people living with disabilities. From 2013 a new single benefit called the universal credit will replace means-tested benefits, while the personal independent payment will replace the non-means-tested disability living allowance. The aim is to simplify payments to the unemployed, ill and those on very low incomes.
Although the government has claimed that 2.7 million households will be better off through the introduction of the universal credit, it admits 1.7 million will get less money than they now do. For example, people who suffer sudden illness – such as a diagnosis of cancer or a stroke – can currently claim disability living allowance after three months. But following the introduction of PIP in 2013 they will have to wait six months.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010