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Businesses could prosper if they only tried to understand

Businesses could prosper if they only tried to understand

How financial support for disabled people can help everyone...

In Stoke-on-Trent in around 1995, a retail manager looked my students up and down and said: “Sorry duck, but could you leave please? It isn’t appropriate.”

This incident has stayed with me throughout my career. As a newly-qualified further education teacher, I had taken my students to a well-known clothing store as part of a consumer skills course I taught – part of our curriculum for students with learning difficulties and disabilities. I had planned a whole morning of activities to introduce my students to basic shopping skills, from writing a shopping list and planning a budget, through to choosing items and paying for them at the till.

However, on entering the shop we were all asked to leave, and it was obvious why: we made the staff feel uncomfortable and they were worried about what their other customers would think. I was fuming and promptly wrote to the company’s head office and demanded a written apology. I got it – and pinned the letter up in my classroom. A new consumer advocate was born.

No longer in teaching, I have pursued a professional life in consumer advocacy, of one sort or another, ever since, and somehow ended up working in financial inclusion. It’s a fascinating area but one that can too easily be talked about rather academically, a topic where well-meaning policy professionals (such as me) debate the issues to death. I have lost track of how many times I have heard the phrase “empowered consumers driving the market” – if only consumers (people) were better at negotiating, searching and switching, a virtuous circle could be created where a suite of tailored financial products would exist for all.

With a decline in public welfare spending the need for individual fiscal responsibility is, arguably, set to increase. The market can help you to become 
financially resilient, providing insurances for all manner of things, from income protection and critical illness to protection for your home and travel. And if you need access to credit to help you through a temporary period of uncertainty, there is a plethora of providers to explore.

But what happens when you are not quite a “standard” consumer? What if the computer says no when you state your needs or circumstances? Who steps in when a period of depression or cancer many years ago goes against your application for income protection and who helps out if your postcode dictates a home insurance premium you simply cannot afford? Sometimes your unique needs mean that you need a product tweaked so you can benefit from full protection, or protection at an affordable price. You may have had the all clear from your doctor following cancer treatment, for example, but you still struggle to find affordable travel insurance.

Last year an independent commission, set up to investigate the extra costs faced by disabled people, published its final report. There are many financial costs for disability, including energy, clothing and bedding, specialised disability equipment, taxis and insurance. The report aimed to find ways of reducing them. As an independent member of this commission, I was surprised by many of the findings.

More than 12 million people in the UK are disabled, which equates to a total of £212bn being spent a year by households with at least one child or adult with a disability – money households have to spend on everyday needs such as food, clothes and transport. At the same time three-quarters of disabled people have left a store or business because of a lack of understanding of their needs. These businesses are missing out on a lot of money.

Disabled people are less likely to be able to cope with financial shocks than non-disabled people and much more likely to turn to non-mainstream credit, such as door-step lenders, to help with everyday expenses. Many disabled people have also reported difficulties affording insurance: the report found  that 2.5 million people felt they had been overcharged and at least 500,000 believed they had been denied insurance because of their disability. 

Far from asking insurers to step into the social policy space, however, the commission was pointing out missed opportunities – firms could make money 
by providing insurance to this sizeable population if they only tried harder to better understand disabled customers.

It is great to see some insurance groups starting on this journey, with one partnering with disability charity Scope to help disabled people insure their homes appropriately, despite unique equipment such as stair lifts or hoists. Other areas are ripe for exploration, such as travel insurance and  tailored income protection products. Our ageing society means more of us will develop unique needs, related to mobility and dementia, for example.

I would like to see all organisations that have a role to play getting together to look at opportunities to meet needs, rather than focusing on risks or potentially outdated assumptions. The market can only take us so far, but surely it’s time to try to bridge the growing gap.

Reproduced with kind permission from