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Warwick University Research Shows Strong Links Between Poverty And Disability

April 19, 2010

Wealthy families in Britain are a third less likely to have a disabled child – a statistic that reveals an alarming social gradient because those families unlucky enough to have such children are pushed further into poverty by the pressures of caring for them, according to new research.

Despite 15 years of legislation attempting to ease the burden on affected families, disability among UK children decreases with social standing. Now the highest prevalence of childhood disability is found in poorest families, academics at Warwick University found.

In the paper, published in the journal BMC Pediatrics, researchers found that households with a disabled child were £50 a week worse off than those without. This is despite the fact that the extra costs of bringing up a disabled child means families need an extra 18% in income. Nationally, this heavy burden weighs on the 950,000 families identified in the paper as having disabled children.

“We think the official [figures] underestimates the actual numbers by 250,000 … and the huge inequalities that the paper clearly shows that is of some concern,” said Clare Blackburn of Warwick University’s school of health and social studies.

What is remarkable is the extent to which disability appears to be not simply just an accident of birth, she said, but a confluence of “intergenerational poverty” and modern medical progress.

Blackburn said that the exact extent to which “factors such as low income precede or follow disability is difficult to tell, but what we know is that poor diet and stressful living conditions do increase the chances of premature birth and low birth weight, which are indicators of future disability. Thanks to science, these babies live longer and medicine now keeps alive disabled children who may have died 10, 20 years ago.”

The Warwick researchers point out that debt was more common in those families with disabled children: the parents were unable to keep up with their council tax, water rates and telephone bills, and they were not likely to be able to afford basic items such as a family holiday once a year, a bicycle or even two pairs of shoes.

“It is a serious social gradient disabled families face,” said Blackburn. “A disabled baby needs more nappies. Families’ ability to work grows difficult, and finding childcare is a real burden. Households with disabled children will depend more on social security benefits and are faced with the additional financial costs associated with caring for a disabled child.”

Doctors said that Andrew Lomax’s seven-year-old daughter Emily would not make it “out of hospital” aged two weeks. Born healthy, she stopped breathing as a tiny baby. Those 20 minutes without oxygen had left her with a severe form of cerebral palsy. She was registered blind, unable to swallow, walk and breathe without an aspirator, so her two parents gave up their jobs to look after her and their two other children.

“Our income is £15,000 a year – about a third of what it was before,” said Andrew. “It’s all benefits, and I am a proud man who does not like to say it but family holidays come from the kindness of charities.”

Andrew says that he cannot afford to buy his elder son the Nintendo he craves. He is left scouring local papers for presents. His income is eaten up by fuel and petrol bills. “We have to keep the house very warm for Emily, who is susceptible to pneumonia and the cost of running the specially designed car is prohibitive. It only does 18 miles per gallon. Most months we are hit by bank charges and missed payments. I try to juggle, but it is robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Charities say that the disabled have lost out to other groups seen as more deserving – despite the disabled being in greatest need. Jonathan Welfare, chief executive of Elizabeth Finn Care, a poverty charity, said that the disabled have had their benefits cut while pensioners had been wooed with allowances.

“[By] denying the disabled the winter fuel allowance, the government has left disabled people out in the cold. Disabled children living in poverty are often housebound due to the nature of their condition and for those with the most severe disabilities a warm home can truly be the difference between life and death.”

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