Speak up for the disabled who are devastated by debt

As spending on basic needs pushes some people £50,000 into the red, lenders are urged to show more understanding

But one group caught in the debt trap has been largely neglected - the disabled, an issue highlighted in a report out this week entitled "In the Balance".

Leonard Cheshire, the charity behind the study, wants to raise awareness of the heavy debts of the disabled - a plight that is not down to extravagant spending but the financing of basic needs.

Research shows, for example, that they are less likely to be in paid work - with nearly half of all disabled people unemployed, compared to 19 per cent of the non-disabled population. Their main income is, in many cases, supplied by state benefits such as the disability living allowance and incapacity benefit,

Meanwhile, more than half of those questioned for the Leonard Cheshire study reported annual incomes of less than £10,000 - compared to the national average of £22,060.

Many disabled people are living below the poverty line, "In the Balance" points out, yet they often have to shell out vast sums due to their conditions. They may have to pay, for example, for electric wheelchairs, home modifications, communication aids and personal care, as well as facing extra heating and electricity costs.

The result of this mix is higher borrowings - run up on credit cards, bank overdrafts and personal loans. Figures show that the average debt among Britain's disabled stands at £8,750, but it ranges as high as £52,000 in some cases.

"Disabled people are being forced into arrears," says John Knight, head of policy at Leonard Cheshire. "A significant amount of this debt comes from essential purchases, such as food, heating and clothing, rather than luxury items. This leaves them particularly vulnerable to spiralling debt which they have little prospect of clearing."

It is feared that this financial predicament is having a big effect on well-being. Findings in the report show most respondents feel that debt has harmed their health, while 12 per cent said they had gone so far as to contemplate suicide.

The report goes on to say that high levels of debt have affected their basic quality of life. The vast majority of respondents reported that they had been forced to make cuts in essential spending - most often on food or fuel - while a similar number had scaled back on services, equipment or aids.

But despite all this evidence of hardship, there are concerns that the banking industry is not being sympathetic enough.

Leonard Cheshire believes many creditors lack knowledge and understanding of disability, and as a result, pay insufficient attention to the needs of those who have difficulty paying off their debts.

Just under half of the participants in the survey claimed creditors had been unhelpful, and in most cases, this was because the lender had treated them exactly the same as other borrowers and made no allowance for their circumstances.

Leonard Cheshire is calling on the Government and the credit industry to make a number of reforms to reduce the debt problems facing disabled people, and has drawn up a list of recommendations. It plans to use these - alongside the findings in its report - to form the basis of a campaign over the coming year.

Among these, the charity says the Government should amend the Consumer Credit Bill to place a statutory responsibility on all banks and financial providers to lend responsibly.

It is calling on the Department of Trade and Industry to ensure that credit card companies are unable to raise credit limits without the specific request of the borrower.

Meanwhile, Leonard Cheshire wants the card firms to provide people with more information on their debt. All statements, it says, should make it clear how long it would take the customer to clear their balance should they just make the minimum monthly repayments.

It also recommends that debts should be written off where a customer's financial circumstances change as a result of the onset of long-term disability or health problems.

Credit bill that can't be cleared

Alison Hunt owes £2,000 on a credit card and bank overdraft, which she is desperate to clear. However, she says this is impossible given her low income and high outgoings.

Alison, 49, was diagnosed with a congenital condition 12 years ago, and was advised by her doctor to give up her job as a cleaner because it was too strenuous for her condition.

Her problem was compoun- ded by a move from Scotland to Bristol for family reasons - at which time she says she was housed by the council in an inappropriate home.

But her debts really started to escalate five years ago when she supported her eldest son through college, and could only do so by dipping into her disability living allowance.

Ms Hunt now survives on less than £200 per week (with rent and council tax paid), and in a bid to reduce her debt, she spends as little as possible. Her cuts include essentials such as heating in a large, draughty house and the expensive batteries for her wheelchair, making it virtually impossible for her to get out of the house.

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