One in five families with disabled children in Northern Ireland are missing meals and almost half cannot afford to heat their homes, according to research.
A survey of 106 families indicated that many feared their financial situation would get worse in the next year. Many said they had borrowed from loan sharks or quick cash schemes to pay bills.
The Contact a Family charity is to call on the government to exempt families with disabled children from welfare cuts.
The Counting the Costs 2012 survey found that families with disabled children were more likely to be living in poverty than others.
It indicated that 61% of families feared their financial situation would get worse in the next year, a rise of 15% since 2010.
The majority of people, 78%, cited welfare reforms as the main reason for their fear.
Katie Ogle, who has a disabled daughter, Mary, said her and her partner, Paul, were filled with dread when bills arrived at their door.
- 61% fear financial situation will get worse
- 78% cite welfare reforms as main fears
- 41% had borrowed money
- 54% had fallen behind with bill payments
“We try to ration as much as possible on everything. You are cutting down to the necessities,” she said.
Her daughter suffers from epilepsy and kidney problems.
Ms Ogle told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme her partner often worked seven days a week just to make ends meet.
“Only a few months ago we went without heating,” she said.
“Thankfully, the weather wasn’t bad but especially last year during the big freeze we struggled a lot because of the amount of heating and electricity to heat the house.
“If it hadn’t been for my parents and Paul’s parents who were able to financially help us, we just wouldn’t have been able to cope.”
The research also found that in Northern Ireland, 41% of families with disabled children had borrowed money from loan sharks, quick cash schemes, banks or family and friends to afford everyday essentials such as groceries and heating.
That was a rise of 11% since 2010.
It also suggested that 54% had fallen behind with payments for gas and electric bills, council tax, rent and mortgage, a rise of 2% since 2010.
According to the charity, it costs three times more to raise a disabled child due to additional costs such as transport, heating, special food and clothing.
The survey also revealed that the stigma associated with claiming benefits for disabled children took its toll.
Respondents reported that they feel judged as living off the state, lazy, work-shy and cheating the system. That put some off from claiming.
Contact a Family has urged affected families to write to their MP with the findings of the research as well as details of their own experiences.