Disability and energy – leaving no one behind

Ashira Perera (2)

Ashira Perera,  Consultant at EEG

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 promises a global commitment to access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all. However, people with disabilities face multiple energy-related challenges – particularly in low-income countries, where the likelihood of having a disability is higher compared to high-income countries – and are often left out of discussions about energy poverty. Ashira Perera, a consultant on the Energy and Economic Growth (EEG) research programme, explains more, and suggests some practical solutions.

It is estimated that 15 per cent of the global population (one billion people) live with some form of disability – but due to the likelihood of underreporting, this figure could be considerably higher. People with disabilities are known to face discrimination, social ostracism, lack of access to healthcare, rehabilitation, social protection, and safety nets, and barriers to obtaining education and formal employment opportunities.

People with disabilities also face energy-related challenges, and the situation can be particularly acute in low-income countries; UN estimates suggest that 80 per cent of the world’s disabled populations are located in developing countries.

Despite this, people with disabilities have often been left out of discussions about energy poverty. The universal energy access agenda has focused on the inclusion of vulnerable individuals – typically women, children, and the elderly – but relatively little focus has been placed on those with disabilities.

The focus on people with disabilities has been increasing within the sustainable development agenda, and addressing the needs of the disabled community is an integral part of the UN’s SDGs. While SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy) does not explicitly mention people with disabilities, it does refer to ‘affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all’, and the UN Flagship Report on Disability and Development (2018) highlights four key priority areas regarding energy that affect people with disabilities:

  1. Access to energy (predominantly electricity but also other forms)

Access to electricity is low across Sub-Saharan Africa and disproportionately affects people with disabilities. Access is estimated at 43 per cent of the population, on average. In almost 50 per cent of developing countries covered in the UN Flagship Report, less than half of households with people with disabilities have access to electricity. In 37 out of 44 countries in the sample, households with people with disabilities have a lower electricity access rate than households without.

  1. Greater demand for electricity to operate assistive technologies

The Global Partnership for Assistive Technology asserts that over one billion people are in need of at least one form of assistive technology – this figure is set to double to two billion people by 2030. Assistive technologies comprise systems and services needed for assistive products that help people become more self-sufficient, including wheelchairs, eyeglasses, hearing aids, communication aids, memory aids, prosthetics, and personal assistance devices. Currently, over 90 per cent of people in need of assistive technologies do not have access to them. Assistive technologies are in greater demand among people with disabilities, which in turn leads to greater demand for access to electricity.

  1. Affordable energy

Affordability of energy among people with disabilities is a further challenge. Energy bills tend to be higher among households with people with disabilities, and this burden is increased by the fact that they often have fewer financial resources available to pay their energy bills. The additional cost will vary with type and severity of the disability, but the crucial point is that there needs to be greater affordability of energy services for people with disabilities.

  1. Access to modern forms of energy for people with disabilities who live in low-income households

The UN Flagship Report notes that more households with people with disabilities still used wood or coal for cooking than those households without. People with disabilities in developing countries are more exposed to pollution in the household, negatively impacting their health and safety. Indoor pollution kills more than four million people annually, of which 500,000 deaths originate in Sub-Saharan Africa. The increased exposure is due to the burning of traditional energy forms for cooking because of a lack of modern, cleaner energy services (2.9 billion people worldwide, including people with disabilities, still use traditional cooking fuels).

Addressing the challenges

The key to overcoming the energy challenges faced by people with disabilities lies chiefly in increasing access to electricity. Future energy access and development programmes may consider increasing provision to certain key areas of social infrastructure, especially educational services and healthcare.

Improving and sustaining electricity provision within educational infrastructures may incentivise greater participation of disabled individuals in the educational system. For example, electricity access would help visually impaired students through providing better lighting, as well as providing the power required for a range of assistive devices, including e-readers, audio books, and optical character recognition devices. Students with learning difficulties, or who have difficulties typing, may benefit from using programmable computer keyboards that use graphics to aid comprehension.

People with disabilities are more likely to need access to healthcare services, so undisrupted energy access in remote healthcare facilities is also likely to have a disproportionately positive effect on their lives. The use of telemedicine technology (which requires reliable electricity access) would enable healthcare professionals to connect with people with disabilities in rural areas using information and communication technology, meaning people with disabilities wouldn’t need to spend several hours travelling to distant healthcare facilities. Telemedicine facilities would also enable patients to gain access to the limited number of healthcare professionals. Doctors would be able to communicate with patients via mobile devices and would be able to issue electronic prescriptions.

In terms of energy affordability, disability benefits could potentially be linked to energy access, for example, by voucher schemes being tied to the purchase of energy products and services. The 2018 UN Flagship Report notes that at least 168 countries have schemes which support disabled communities with periodic cash benefits, and these existing mechanisms could be leveraged to address energy affordability among people with disabilities. Furthermore, social safety net mechanisms focused on energy have been created in developed countries (for example, the UK’s cold weather payments, warm home discount schemes, and winter fuel payments are provided to low-income, vulnerable populations, including people with disabilities) – such schemes could be designed and tailored to the needs of people with disabilities in low-income countries.

Investments in clean cooking are necessary to reduce indoor pollution. Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) stoves offer a viable alternative to traditional fuels, though questions around how people with disabilities would afford the LPG cylinders required to operate stoves would need to be addressed – voucher schemes and other cash transfer options could help uptake and affordability. Microcredit schemes may also be an alternative financial mechanism for people with disabilities living below the poverty line.

On a broader scale, engaging people with disabilities in the energy planning process would help policy makers distinguish between the different forms of disability (both physical and psychological), and how these affect energy needs. Increasing inclusion of people with disabilities across ministries, departments, and agencies would benefit the future design and effectiveness of energy access interventions.

Placing people with disabilities at the heart of programme and policy formation would ultimately help to ensure the energy access agenda truly leaves no one behind.

An EEG Energy Insight on energy and disability can be found here.

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