Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Energy market “inaccessible” for people with learning disabilities, study finds

The energy market is inaccessible and difficult to navigate for people with learning disabilities, according to a study undertaken for the ‘Being Warm Being Happy’ project.

The study’s results suggest that people with learning disabilities often struggle to access support when they need it, and may be paying more than necessary due to inaccessible energy information.

The Being Warm Being Happy project

There are over one million people with learning disabilities in England, who are likely to be at higher risk of the potential health risks and consequences of cold weather and fuel poverty than the general population.

However, there has been little research into the fuel poverty experiences of adults with learning disabilities and the causes and impact of living in cold, damp housing within this group.

The ‘Being Warm Being Happy’ project aimed to understand and characterise fuel poverty and energy vulnerability from the perspective of adults with learning disabilities.

The study looked at the intrinsic factors which influence the lived experience of fuel poverty amongst adults with a learning disability.

The project adopted a co-researcher model where people with learning disabilities were members of the research team. The interviewers undertook qualitative interviews to understand and characterise energy vulnerability from the perspective of people with a learning disability.

The interviews took place before the pandemic began between December 2017 and April 2018. In total, 10 participants were interviewed by the researchers, some of whom lived alone and some with family members.

Participants struggled with the range of providers, frequent changes in tariffs and offers

The study found that most of the participants interviewed were able to keep their home above the recommended 18C. However, it is important to note that the interview took place before the energy cap rise, and even at this time, most of the participants said they worried about having enough money to meet their energy needs.

The researchers note that attitudes to using and paying for energy were critical in understanding the recorded temperature data and how an adult with learning disabilities can end up in a cold home or struggle to avoid fuel poverty and its negative impacts.

For example, two of the participants noted that they had to keep their houses warm for health reasons (one due to arthritis and one due to epilepsy).

However, while some were aware of the importance of being warm at home for their health, the researchers found that many found the energy market inaccessible and difficult to navigate.

Participants struggled with the range of providers, frequent changes in tariffs and offers, difficulties contacting energy companies for advice and support, and energy technology, and billing and payment systems that are difficult to understand.

Some found it hard to access support, or were too proud of their independence to seek support except from trusted sources, who may have limited or inaccurate knowledge themselves.

The authors say this finding supports the idea that “emotions play a part in shaping energy vulnerability, with factors such as stigma, embarrassment and trust either facilitating or preventing the receipt of support for energy vulnerable households.”

The findings therefore show that adults with learning disabilities are disadvantaged in many ways regarding current energy policy and practice, for example in relation to accessing and using energy payment systems, accessing energy efficiency and fuel poverty strategies.

Energy services are often inaccessible for people with learning disabilities, meaning it is harder to access support, learn about different forms of payment methods and ways to be more energy efficient, which will ultimately cost them more money.

As the researchers explain: “Beliefs about energy practices, technology and payment methods may lead to a greater sense of control; however, these beliefs mean that people with learning disabilities are often spending more on energy than necessary and using strategies to ration energy use. This increases the likelihood of being in a cold home or going without other essentials by making trade-offs, with the potential negative impacts on health and wellbeing.”

Further research needed to explore impact of rising cost of energy bills

In light of the findings, the researchers make various recommendations which would improve access to support and help people with learning disabilities to save money. This includes:

  • Raising awareness by providing information about the Priority Services Register (PSR) for people with learning disabilities, how to improve provision, how to detect fuel poverty and how to signpost/refer to appropriate support.
  • Making information more accessible by providing easy-read energy information and bills, improving telephone advice systems and ensuring support workers, advocates and family members are linked into relevant communication and information from energy companies and services.
  • Improving technology by making smart metre designs more accessible and creating an accessible device to control heating, access up to date information about household energy use and cost and get information about energy efficiency and deals.

The researchers say further research is now needed to consider the impact of the rising cost of energy bills and to look at the experiences of those who receive intensive support or live in residential care.

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