How much does a disability cost you? Let’s take the example that (slightly too easily) comes to mind for most people: a disability that means you need a wheelchair to get around – how much of a dent in your wallet is this, compared to an identical life without any mobility limitations? There’s the obvious costs, like the wheelchair. There’s the less obvious costs, like the fact that public transport is often an utter nightmare (the tube in London is spectacularly inaccessible), and so you need to pay for a car/taxi.
And then there’s costs that probably never occur to you – but which were cleverly revealed in a paper that came out earlier this year.
Getting fleeced: A field experiment
The paper is by Uri Gneezy (lovely name) and colleagues earlier this year (£), and looks at a series of different aspects of discrimination in the US – finding, for example, that young black men are less likely to be helped by strangers. But that’s not what concerns us here.
The experiment that shows these hidden costs of disability is refreshingly simple. Take 12 middle-aged men in Chicago, and get them to approach a set of 36 garages (i.e. car repair shops, for US readers lost in translation) using the same set of slightly battered cars. Half of the customers are in wheelchairs, and half aren’t – each pair of people approach a randomly selected garage with the identical car, and ask for an identical quote.
So what happens? The people who weren’t using wheelchairs were quoted $1212 – but the people in wheelchairs were quoted $1425! When they take account of some quirks of the design, they estimate that wheelchair users are charged 30% more than non-users to fix an identical car.
What’s happening here?
This was a bit puzzling to me – these were all wheelchair-accessible garages, after all. But Gneezy et al had a hunch, and then showed that their hunch was right. (Academic papers are designed to tell stories like this – people don’t usually tell you of the blind alleys they went down…).
Their hunch was that wheelchair users don’t shop around as much as non-users – so that when it comes to bartering prices, wheelchair users have a weaker hand. To check this, Gneezy et al first did a survey of customers and of mechanics. Their story here checked out: on averaged disabled customers visit half as many garages than non-disabled people when they’re getting their car fixed, and what’s more, mechanics knew this.
But still – how do we know this is the reason that wheelchair users were getting charged so much more? To really hammer the point home, Gneezy et al sent their volunteers out to 24 Chicago garages again. Everything was pretty much the same as before, except that the wheelchair users made a point of saying, “I’m getting a few price quotes”.
Bingo. In this case, there was absolutely no difference in the prices quoted to the wheelchair users and non-users (in fact, non-wheelchair-users had slightly higher quotes, but this wasn’t statistically significant). In other words, the reason that wheelchair users were getting charged more was ENTIRELY because they weren’t able to shop around as much.
The moral of the story
There’s several things I take out of this. Firstly, it shows to me (yet again) the power of social experiments – this really is much more convincing than the endless, increasingly complex analyses of people’s responses to questionnaires without any manipulation. I hold a guilty hand up here for past and future sins.
Secondly, and more importantly, it shows the continuing, hidden nature of disability discrimination. The US – like the UK – has anti-discrimination laws, and sometimes non-disabled people seem to suggest this has levelled the playing field. But the sheer spectrum and range of disadvantages goes beyond the situations that the law can deal with – not just in this particular case, but also in many others which I’ll come back to on the blog.
Third, it highlights the logic of having benefits to pay for the extra costs of disabilities, separate to benefits that are paid to people who are not working due to their disability. There’s a vast literature looking much more broadly at the extra costs of disability (I won’t review this all here, but see my comment below the post). But aside from affirming the importance of this benefit, there’s a couple of things to note:
- The numbers claiming this extra cost benefit in the UK is being cut by 20%, as it moves from being called ‘Disability Living Allowance’ (DLA) to ‘Personal Independence Payment’ (PIP) – two genuinely bad names, and a change that will be devastating for those affected.
- And amazingly, while we have this benefit to cover extra costs, it’s treated as ‘income’ in our official poverty measures, rather than as meeting extra needs. So the real levels of poverty in disabled people are much higher (for example, see Chanfreau & Burchardt 2008, p9).
And as a last word – if you use a wheelchair and have a car, then let us know if this tactic works with garages near you!
[As a general disclaimer: I've used the term 'disability' very loosely here, because this is a blog post, and repeatedly talking about 'people with impairments' has a tendency to put off some readers. But the social model of disability is underlying this, and hopefully readers familiar with these debates can pick this up. Apologies if not, and I promise to use terms more carefully in academic papers!]