The current debate over the drastic increase in living costs across Europe is often linked to the recent escalation in energy prices. Many population groups rightly argue they need support to cope with the consequences of soaring energy bills, and among the most vulnerable within this context are people with disabilities.
The recent increase in energy prices has a direct impact on their daily struggle against poverty and social exclusion.
In a resolution published last November, the European Disability Forum (EDF), an organisation representing the approximately 100 million people with disabilities across the European Union, asserted that about 24 per cent of this 100 million is at risk of experiencing energy poverty, a condition the European Commission describes as occurring when consumers “must reduce their household’s energy consumption to a degree that negatively impacts their health and wellbeing”.
Many experts and organisations from the disability advocacy sector have suggested that EU policymakers should work to alleviate the impact of the crisis through various financial, sectoral and other support measures. At the same time, many local authorities have put measures in place, such as asking their population to save energy.
But do those measures take into consideration the specific needs of everyone?
“Before I began losing my sight, my electricity bill would have been €80 to €100. Now my eyesight is worse, I need the lights on to do anything, and my bills are €150 to €200”
It’s important to remember that both the right to an adequate standard of living as well as access to social protection for persons with disabilities are enshrined in article 28 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
In practice, we have evidence that even though EU Member States, as well as the EU itself, have ratified the UNCRPD, they still have a long way to go to ensure its full implementation.
Ger McHugh, a visually impaired man born in Ireland and a service user of the National Council for the Blind of Ireland, is a clear example of this failure to fully implement the UNCRPD.
“Before I began losing my sight, my electricity bill would have been €80 to €100 every second month. Now my eyesight is worse, I need the lights on to do anything, and my bills are between €150 and €200,” Ger told me when I interviewed him earlier this month. At the same time, he also struggles with rising coal and fuel prices, which national policymakers in Ireland have failed to address.
“I worked all my [adult] life until age 48 when I had my stroke and was forced to give up the job I loved. As I have a partial work pension, I don’t qualify for certain financial supports from the government. What do the policymakers suggest I do?” asks Ger.
While many of the answers to Ger’s question lie in the hands of local and national authorities, the EU also holds a number of solutions.
It should do everything within its capacity to limit the increase in the cost of living, especially in the energy sector. Together with Member States, the EU should prioritise energy access for households of people with disabilities who are users of energy-consuming assistive technologies.
In the short term, the support to national efforts targeting vulnerable populations may require flexibility by the EU when applying its budgetary rules. This approach has shown its efficacy during the Covid-19 crisis, where countries were given financial breathing space.
In the longer run, the EU should also support energy-saving ways of building houses and infrastructure through its various funding mechanisms. Surely, these are the most effective supports for the Gers of the future.