“People are really putting aside health and wellbeing to try and manage costs”
Blind and partially sighted people are particularly vulnerable during the cost of living crisis, charities have warned
26 September 2022
Blind people and those with visual impairments will be hit particularly hard by energy price hikes and the cost of living crisis, charities have warned.
The Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB) and the Macular Society, as well as Scotland-based North East Sensory Services (NESS) and Forth Valley Sensory Centre (FVSC), laid out their concerns to OT as the winter approaches.
The cost of living independently is likely to restrict independence and increase isolation as well as increasing the likelihood of physical incidents such as falls, the charities said.
RNIB policy officer, Roisin Jacklin, said: “We're hearing from hundreds of blind and partially sighted people about the really devastating impact that the crisis is causing them.”
Jacklin draws on a survey, carried out by the RNIB in May, that spoke to over 100 blind and partially sighted people about the cost of living crisis.
Two thirds of respondents said that their financial situation had got worse in the preceding six months. More than a third said they were already going without essentials such as food or heating, and “were really struggling to make ends meet,” Jacklin said.
People are now choosing to switch off their lights, and we’re hearing more and more about accidents and falls in the home as a result
She added: “We’re hearing this more and more from people: is it food or is it heating? The survey highlighted that more than two thirds were using less energy to try and save money. This is compared to a third of the general population.”
She added: “It’s important to highlight because we know that blind and partially sighted people need additional lighting. To safely mobilise around their homes, or to safely prepare food, a lot of people need additional lighting throughout the house, so they have task lights and extra lights. People are now choosing to switch off their lights, and we’re hearing more and more about accidents and falls in the home as a result.”
of visually impaired people of working age are not in paid employment
It’s a specific worry that is echoed across the third sector. Sara Burns, project coordinator at FVSC in central Scotland, told OT: “People with a visual impairment often are, as with other disadvantaged communities, the first ones to be impacted.
“People with some visual impairments need to have brighter lights in the house, including task lights, perhaps in cupboards or over cookers. There is a general usage aspect to that.”
A loss of independence
Energy price increases “have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable or disadvantaged communities, which includes people with a hearing and sight loss,” Burns said.
In recent months, her job has gone from advising people on energy saving and being climate conscious to helping navigate energy usage in a cost of living emergency – including with their meter readings and accessing support online.
Burns has seen a marked increase in people asking for energy help, she said.
She pointed out, though, that energy is not the only concern she has when it comes to the 400-500 people who use the Forth Valley Sensory Centre every week.
"People with sight loss are less likely to be in employment,” she said. “They are relying on benefits. These are all things that have accumulation effects in the cost of living crisis: knock on effects on housing, education, employment. It really doesn't end with energy. It's got an overall impact on every aspect of life, as people with visual impairments are less likely to have access to all sorts of services.”
Graham Findlay, chief executive of NESS in North East Scotland, pointed out that, of people who are visually impaired and of working age, 75% are not in paid employment – meaning “there is not going to be a huge income coming into the household anyway.”
He said: “The majority of people of working age who are visually impaired will be living off benefits. Food has gone up in price. That will have an impact on people who are not in employment and are unlikely to be employed.
“With people who have a history of sight loss, the chances are they’re not going to have huge savings. And if you’re visually impaired and registered, of course you don’t drive, so getting out and about, many people use taxis. That’s likely to be expensive for them.”
He added: “There is very much a postcode lottery as to how well people might be coping. In Scotland, there is free bus travel with a companion. Various things in Scotland are free that you might not have in other parts of the UK: free prescriptions, free eye tests, free personal care. So, where you live in the country might also affect your independence.”
If you can’t go out and see your friends or your family, that shatters your confidence. It makes people feel very isolated
Hannah Wilson, volunteer coordinator at FVSC, is also worried about independence being affected.
She said: “If someone can no longer afford to use public transport because of the cost of living crisis, that could mean that they will end up with some or total loss of earnings, which then means they won’t be able to actually get out or they won't be able to afford to heat their home.
“So, this is an ongoing cycle. They can't afford to get out because they don’t have a job. They can’t afford to get out to look for a job because they need to spend any money that they might be getting, through benefits or such, on heating. They’re losing their independence, because they’re not able to travel. You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to go my car today and go and drive.’ You do need to rely on public transport.”
Wilson added: “Loss of earnings, loss of employment – that’s a massive blow. If you can’t go out and see your friends or your family, that shatters your confidence. It makes people feel very isolated. Even if that might not be a direct impact, it has that knock on effect of damaging the self, which then makes people feel less independent. It ends up becoming a self-fulfilling cycle.”
The RNIB’s Jacklin pointed out that, when the charity’s survey was conducted in May, two thirds of people were already spending less on leisure activities or social travel. It is “something we are hearing from people, about the real mental health impact, not just the financial impact of the crisis – that they're having to cut back,” she said.
“Blind and partially sighted people are more reliant on taxis to get out and about, particularly in more rural areas where there might not be great bus connections. So, we’re seeing increased levels of isolation there. People are really putting aside health and wellbeing to try and manage costs. We ran a focus group for the disability unit last month, and a woman who lives in a rural area and has a toddler can’t afford the taxi fare to take her toddler to the group.”
Jacklin added that the Personal Independence Payment, designed to meet the extra costs that people with sight loss face, is now being put aside to meet rising bills. She told the story of woman who had previously been reliant on a piece of assistive technology, which is now broken. She is “lost without it” and no longer has the means to replace it, Jacklin said.
“In terms of independence, people are losing really important technology, which enables them to live independently,” she added.
To try and combat stories like these, the RNIB is calling on the government to urgently increase benefits in line with inflation, and to provide more targeted support so blind and partially sighted people can meet rising energy bills.
The cost of food is going up. If you are on a low income, it’s one impact after another after another
At the Macular Society, Daniels is concerned about vulnerable people, particularly those with associated health-related conditions, not claiming all the benefits that they could.
“If you have eye disease because of diabetes you have to think about your food intake as well,” he said. “The cost of food is going up. If you are on a low income, it’s one impact after another after another. Some people aren’t registered, so they struggle to get some of these benefits, or they don’t think they’re entitled to them, so they don't bother trying. They think, ‘I’m not there yet. I‘m not that blind, my sight isn’t that bad,’ so they don't do it.
“The other issue is that you have older people who think, ‘I have never claimed a benefit in my life, I’m never going to.’”
He believes that ensuring people get the support that they need and are connected with the right people to help them at the point of diagnosis is vital.
Accessibility of information
Wilson also highlighted issues with the accessibility of information for blind and partially sighted people, including letters from energy suppliers being difficult to read and websites with information not being accessible.
"It’s very difficult to even read the letter to understand what you are being charged,” she said, adding that this can potentially lead to vulnerable people receiving misinformation from other parts of the media or the people that they rely on to keep them informed.
Wilson added: “You’ve got all these layers that you need to try and get through – additional barriers that people who do have sight don't have to face. How is that acceptable? That just because you don't have vision, that this means that it is okay that you can't access the information that you need to understand what's happening.”
Jacklin said: “One of the things we've been trying to highlight, even before the crisis began, is that one in five blind and partially sighted people was struggling to make ends meet.
“For blind and partially sighted people, it is not just the rises that they’re facing now – they already faced additional and unavoidable costs, whether that’s being more reliant on taxi journeys or assistive technology or support in the home.
“Five years ago, these extra costs were already between £50 and £135 pounds a week. It’s about really stressing that life is more expensive with sight loss.”
Where to direct patients for help
- The RNIB Helpline can be reached on 0303 123 9999. More information can be found on their website
- The Macular Society’s advice and information line can be reached on 0300 3030 111. More information can be found on their website
- For patients in Clackmannanshire, Falkirk and Stirling, the Forth Valley Sensory Centre can be reached on 01324 590888. More information can be found on their website
- For patients in Moray, Aberdeen city, Angus and Dundee, North East Sensory Services lists helpline numbers on its website.