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Being Warm – Being Happy: Understanding Disability, Fuel Poverty and Energy Vulnerability for Adults with a Learning Disability


Although there is a substantial literature on different aspects of fuel poverty, studies that have investigated the experiences of people with a learning disability, the factors placing them at risk and the issues shaping their needs and behaviours are extremely rare, despite the evidence this group is highly vulnerable. When this project was commissioned, there had been no studies that used participatory techniques to generate research from the perspective of people with a learning disability.

The project aimed to generate a much better understanding of these factors and assess the level of fuel poverty risk faced by households that include someone with a learning disability. it also sought to identify potential ways to address these risks.

(Full list of authors: Jodie Bradley, Melanie Chapman, Chris Damm, Vicky Farnsworth Annie Ferguson, Jan Gilbertson, Alison Owen, Bernard Stafford, Beth Taylor, Angela Tod and Dan Wolstenholme)

Summary of activity

A mixed methods approach involving three phases. The project used a ‘co-researcher model’ recruiting people with learning disabilities to the research team. Delivery was guided by a Reference Group of Adults with a Learning Disability (AWLD) from a third sector organisation in Yorkshire some of whom were also researchers on the project. A Project Advisory Group comprised a mix of academics and research team members.

Phase 1 was a quantitative secondary analysis of data from the the Understanding Society Survey (USS) 2014-2015 and the English Housing Survey (EHS) 2013. Data was used to estimate levels of fuel poverty among households where one or more adults had a learning disability, as compared to a) households where adult residents recorded other categories of disability and b) all households.

In Phase 2, qualitative data was collected via semi-structured interviews. These were carried out with 10 households that included one or more adult with a learning disability (AWLD). In parallel, temperature data was recorded from each property and deprivation indicators were used to provide a local context.

Phase 3 used co-production techniques to develop two community workshops attended by seventeen people from stakeholder groups. Participants were asked to suggest ways fuel poverty could be prevented or mitigated. These recommendations formed the basis of a design challenge for students at Sheffield Hallam University, who were tasked with turning the ideas into research proposals.



Findings were generated from each phase of research. The analysis of survey data (Phase 1) indicated that people with a learning disability in private housing were at far greater risk than either of the comparator groups on both the metrics used in the EHS (The Low Income High Costs indicator) and that used in the Understanding Society Survey -  although the LIHC measurements suggested the risk was considerably greater than those employed in the USS.

The data from the interviews (Phase 2) could be grouped under three themes:  energy need; emotions, attitudes and values; and knowledge and experience. The evidence generated numerous specific findings including:

  • Energy use was often determined by the specific household composition – e.g. whether it was shared with others
  • AWLD often found keeping warm a cause of anxiety, with fuel cost the primary factor, although benefit changes were aggravating this situation.
  • Most preferred the control offered by prepayment meters rather than other methods such as direct debit payments . This was one mechanism AWLD used to manage the anxieties associated with keeping warm – others included restricting heating use or using other options to ensure comfort such as putting on more clothes or having hot drinks.
  • Having access to family and/or advocacy significantly improved outcomes for AWLD.

The co-produced workshops and the subsequent student research projects (Phase 3) proposed a number of solutions. These included better communication and training, more awareness of fuel companies’ Priority Service Registers (PSR). Innovative technological solutions were also proposed.


Separate recommendations for practice, policy and research were devised.


  • There needs to be better awareness of fuel companies’ Priority Service Registers (PSR) among both AWLD and organisations that support them. Linked to this is the need to train support agencies in assessing fuel poverty risk
  • Advice and information that is tailored for the needs of AWLD should be developed across telephone, web and print formats. This should include app-based systems and other technologies. Smart meters and pre-payment meters should be made more accessible for AWLD.
  • Any interventions that are developed for AWLD should be implemented across the board to ensure a common approach.


  • Government must adequately monitor the impact of changes to the welfare system on the ability of AWLD to avoid fuel poverty and keep warm.
  • There should be proper assessment of the impact of fuel poverty and energy efficiency interventions before rollout to ensure they do not penalise AWLD.
  • Policy has a role in ensuring there is standardisation of advice and guidance for AWLD when new resources or technologies are introduced.


  • More research needs to be undertaken to test the findings of this study with a larger cohort.
  • Assessments of the effectiveness of different interventions on the thermal comfort of AWLD should be carried out

Other themes



Find out more about our Fuel Poverty themes. Discover our projects and related reports.