Consumer research for older and disabled people

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Extra Costs Commission - how to empower disabled consumers

Jasper Holmes, former Rica senior researcher, writes:

Last week I spoke at the first Roundtable meeting of Scope's Extra Costs Commission.

The topic was 'Empowering disabled people as consumers' and we had a very interesting discussion about what costs more and why and what can be done. Rica thinks the answer lies in:

  • joining together to increase bargaining power
  • developing new models of supply based around community groups, but with nationwide reach
  • doing detailed research into extra costs to help target our efforts where they can do the most good.

The roundtable identified 2 kinds of reason for the extra costs facing disabled people and their families:

  • we have to buy expensive equipment/services that other people don't (powered wheelchairs, blood sugar monitors, care services, extra heating, clothing etc)
  • we have to spend more on 'mainstream' goods and services because we have limited choice or can’t access services (holidays, financial services etc)

Rica has carried out work in the area of specialist equipment and services for many years, recently looking at mobility scooters and powered wheelchairs. Mobility scooters are a good example of how opening up a consumer market can bring prices down dramatically. Wheelchairs are still provided or funded in part by statutory bodies and they are also a specialised market. We are contributing to the review of wheelchair provision underway in the NHS (My Voice, My Wheelchair, My Life).

On the mainstream side it’s for businesses to make their services inclusive. This isn't about making special provision for 'vulnerable' or 'disadvantaged' groups. It's about not disadvantaging anybody in the first place. Some businesses do a lot in this area, but the business case for inclusion has still not been generally accepted. Rica works with businesses and other organisations to help them understand their customers and to design inclusive services and offer products useful to and usable by everybody. See more about this work here.

Consumer power for disabled people depends on three things:

  • money
  • numbers
  • information

Successive governments have recognised that disability brings extra costs and given support in the form of benefits and services. Rica believes that this needs to be protected and welcomes the handing greater control over these budgets to individual disabled people as long as support and information are available where needed. We support the personalisation agenda and the widening of the use of direct payments to include equipment as well as services.

Often disabled people pay over the odds because markets aren't big enough to bring prices down. It also makes it a struggle to get the attention of mainstream businesses. Clubbing together gives us collective buying power that can be used to get more out of suppliers. This can work in specialist supply (wheelchairs, care services) and in the mainstream (insurance, utilities).

It will help with information too. Well informed consumers can get the right goods and services at the right price but our wheelchair user survey showed that too many people are not finding the right information when buying a powerchair.

Rica thinks that new models of supply, with local community groups offering brokerage and advocacy supported by a national network providing information and buying power, would help with the numbers and with the lack of information. We're doing some work with LCIL and Choice Unlimited and we think this could provide a good model.

Finally, the Commission needs to know where to focus its efforts to help reduce extra costs for disabled people. This is an empirical question really. The effort should be focused where the most extra costs are and where the most difference can be made. The Family Fund and Contact a Family have both asked families of disabled children about the extra costs they face, and Scope has done its own research. The gold standard for this research is the Joseph Rowntree Foundation work from 2004 and we'd like to see a detailed piece of work along those lines done again.


See also: Powered wheelchair user survey 2014 | Rica's research reports | Usability case studies