Can basic income be adapted to work for disabled people?

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Post by ~ Simon Duffy

This is a controversial topic. Many advocates of basic income tend to treat disability benefits as a special case which cannot fit within basic income. Some people with disabilities fear they lose out if we shift towards basic income because their extra needs will be ignored and their income will be reduced to a lower and inadequate level.[1]

However, me and some of my friends in the disability movement disagree - we think basic income could be a much better paradigm for creating a platform for independent living and equal citizenship.

The obvious advantage of basic income is that it creates an income that everyone gets and it takes away the stigma and extreme-mans-testing (or poverty traps) built into the current system:

•   People can work, work a little or not work - and the state is no longer in the business of pushing, questioning, punishing and shaming them.

•   People can contribute in many different ways - caring, creating, or contributing as a citizen - and this is recognised and validated.

•   People can save and not be punished by losing their income.

•   People can form a family and not lose a large part of their income.

•   Everybody gets a basic income, it’s normal and there is no stigma associated with getting it.

However, some people with disabilities fear that in such a system there are at least two risks:

1.   The basic income will be so low that it will keep most people in poverty

2.   The extra costs faced by people with a disability will be disregarded

Now I think that both these fears are reasonable. Given the horrific policies pursued by the current UK Government towards people with disabilities, we cannot be naïve about any policy. But there are solutions to these problems and by directly addressing these real risks will actually bring further benefits to disabled people.

To begin with, it is worth noticing that, in developed countries, most benefit systems still try to separate people without work (and without an income) into two camps:

1.   Those who can work - but currently are not in work - in mean-spirited times this group becomes the ‘undeserving’ poor.

2.   Those who can’t work - including people with disabilities - the ‘deserving poor’.

Benefit systems are then designed to give one kind of (lower) benefit to the first group and a different (higher) benefit to the second group. Does this kind of system really benefit people with disabilities? I think not - for several reasons:

1.   This system divides two disadvantaged groups - the poor and people with disabilities - and suggests their interests are different. It is a ‘divide and rule’ policy which leaves both groups weaker and unable to come together to seek social justice.

2.   It may seem better to be in the ‘deserving’ group - but once such a group is defined then all the mechanism of assessment, control and stigma creation impact on the ‘deserving’ group too. Many people with disabilities find they are ‘not disabled enough’ or fear that they will be reassessed as ‘work-ready’ or worry that others will see them as scroungers. This whole way of thinking is bad for society, and it’s particularly bad for people with disabilities.

3.   People with disabilities contribute to society in many different ways - some find paid work and work as effectively or more effectively than people without disabilities. But others contribute in different ways: through part-time work, by work that has been designed just for them, by caring, by the work of citizenship, through creativity or just by their very presence. The idea that paid work (employment) defines social value is terrible for people with disabilities, particularly for people with intellectual disabilities or people with a chronic illness. Employment should not be treated as the peak form of social value.

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Basic income offers a way out of this mess. We each get what we need, we each contribute as best we can. Basic income is a policy that goes hand-in-hand with a revaluation of contribution and it could make it easier for people to thrive and contribute. It is also a policy which is universal and in which every citizen - but particularly those living below the mean income - will have a stake. It could unite groups that are currently divided and help them to pressurise society for a fairer settlement for the poorest.

In addition, there is also a case for what I call Basic Income Plus - one shared basic income - plus some additional payments to reflect extra need.[2] Of course this does mean ‘assessment’ - but at least this is not an assessment for the basic income - just for the extras. And I think there are at least 3 kinds of legitimate extra payments (each of which could vary in size):

1.   Extra costs of disability - It is more expensive for people with disabilities to engage in society on an equal basis and so an extra payment to reflect the need for aids, adaptations, mobility or other costs could be estimated. In the UK the currently Personal Independence Payment (PIP) is supposed to define this cost.

2.   Loss of earning - Across the whole population it is probable that people with disabilities will tend to earn less than people without disabilities, so there is also an argument for simply redressing the balance with a payment that reflects that probability. In the UK the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) performs this function by offering a higher payment than Job Seekers Allowance (JSA).

3.   Support costs - Some people with disabilities need additional help and support and this could be converted into a budget which they can control. For instance, local authorities in England and Scotland are expected to provide personal budgets which enable the person with disabilities to organise their own support.

The most important thing in all these considerations is to remember that basic income is not a ‘thing’. It is an emerging social innovation; and if it starts to make headway it will become part of the social, economic and political system. It can become a useful tool for people with disabilities because it will help bring unity with other groups, it will help reduce stigma and it will help us move away from our dangerous fixation on ‘employment’ as the source of virtue.

But ‘it’ will not do so automatically - people with disabilities will need to play a key role in advocating for and shaping such a policy if it is really going to advance the interests of people with disabilities. In my view basic income will only really work well if we see a shift in power in the UK and the establishment of democratic, constitutional and judicial systems to protect human rights. Basic income or basic income plus will not solve these problems - but it does offer the kind of policy that it would be easier for people to understand and defend.

This is also why UBI Lab Sheffield will be developing proposals, alongside local leaders from the disability movement, for pilots programmes to remove some of the worst features of the current system.


[1] In this article I use the term people with disabilities, which is the term preferred by the disability movement globally. However, in the UK the preferred term is disabled people. This article has been written with the global audience in mind.

[2] I first set out this idea in Duffy S (2016) Basic Income Plus. Sheffield: Centre for Welfare Reform  [] a rather different model to the one proposed here was also explored in Martinelli L (2017) Assessing the Case for a Universal Basic Income in the UK. Bath: University of Bath.


More about the author

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Simon Duffy - Founder and Director of the Centre for Welfare Reform

Simon is the Founder and Director of the Centre for Welfare Reform. He speaks regularly on television and radio about the welfare state and social policy. He is best known for inventing personal budgets and for designing systems of self-directed support.