Disability benefits that can be life-changing

The value to recipients of disability living allowance and attendance allowance is assessed in a new study, reviewed by Jo Rees

 Professionals generally thought disability beneifts had a positive impact and helped service users maintain their independence

The value to recipients of disability living allowance and attendance allowance is assessed in a new study, reviewed by Jo Rees


Key words: Disability living allowance ❙ attendance allowance

Authors: Anne Corden, Roy Sainsbury, Annie Irvine and Sue Clarke

Title: The Impact of Disability Living Allowance and Attendance Allowance: Findings from exploratory qualitative research http://bit.ly/fFYMyO

Aim: To investigate how the disability living allowance (DLA) and attendance allowance (AA) benefits are used by recipients; to increase understanding of the difference these benefits made to the lives of recipients; and to contribute towards further research.

Methodology: Group discussions with 24 professionals and advisers in touch with people who claim or may be entitled to claim DLA or AA; and face-to-face interviews with 15 adult DLA recipients, the parents or carers of 15 child DLA recipients and 15 recipients of AA.

Conclusion: For adults, DLA and AA are used to pay for services and items, often to promote independent living and prevent moves into residential or nursing homes. For children, DLA is used to enhance future life chances – to pay for additional tuition, for example – and is sometimes used to provide additional support to family life by, for instance, enabling parents to access paid employment.


Social workers play a vital role in helping adults with disabilities and the parents or carers of children with disabilities to understand what benefits they are entitled to and how to use them. The Department for Work and Pensions has been carrying out research on disability benefits in order to help professionals understand the impact they have on the lives of service users.

This 2010 research report on the impact of disability living allowance (DLA) and attendance allowance (AA) was heavily informed and influenced by the conclusions of existing research, including Berthoud (2009). The three underpinning aims were to better understand the use and impact of DLA and AA, to better understand the difference these benefits made to the lives of recipients, and to develop questions to be used in future surveys of disabled people.


The report showed that service users often learn about DLA and AA from sources that are both formal, such as social workers or health professionals, and informal, such as family or friends. Social workers play an important role in providing information about benefits and offering practical support to complete the application process.

Findings suggest that DLA and AA are used in various ways. Some people might use the money for personal care, others for employment-related training.

Professionals generally thought the impact of DLA and AA was positive in that they provided a financial safety net and helped service users maintain their independence.

Recipients unanimously reported that the benefits made a fundamental difference to their lives. Some said that, without them, they would fall into poverty, struggle to manage bills or would be unable to remain living at home.

The findings discerned important differences between the needs of adult DLA recipients and the parents of child DLA recipients. The latter reported that DLA could be used to improve the future life chances of the recipient because it could pay for additional tutoring or speech and language therapy, for instance. But it could also improve the standard of life of the whole family. For example, it enabled the recipient to buy gifts to thank family members for their support and assistance.

The report acknowledges that, although in some cases it is easy to identify and quantify the difference made to people’s lives by the receipt of DLA and AA, in other cases the impact is more subtle and obscure. It is therefore important to ask the right ­questions when assessing the impact of ­disability benefits. Direct questions are useful when recipients are clear about the name and amount of the benefit they were receiving and how they use it. When recipients are unclear about these factors, or when the money is combined with other sources of income within a household budget, less direct approaches are more productive. The length of time the recipient has been receiving the benefit also affects the perception of the difference it makes. One effect is that recipients become accustomed to the money being part of their household income.


The report provides a thorough overview of the use of DLA and AA, and the often complex ways in which these benefits affect recipients’ lives.

It is a useful source of information for social workers and other professionals working with people who currently or may in the future receive these benefits. It is also essential reading for policymakers, who could gain a fuller understanding of the impact the benefits can have on lives. The report illustrates, in people’s own words, how receipt of DLA and AA may be the only factor preventing real poverty, or a move into residential care.

The authors acknowledge that the research was not comprehensive, as some groups were under-represented. These include participants with higher incomes, those in paid work, people with terminal illnesses, ethnic minority groups, people with specific impairments (such as deaf people) and adults with learning disabilities. In addition, there were no interviews with child recipients of DLA and no interviews with people eligible for DLA and AA but not claiming it. Finally, asking professionals for their opinions about the impact DLA and AA has on benefit recipients obtains second-hand views, which may vary greatly from the reality experienced by disabled people.


For social workers and managers:

● DLA and AA recipients are usually unaware of the existence of various disability benefits until the need for them arises. Social workers have a key role in providing information and practical advice in relation to supporting applications for benefits.

● It is important to consider the potential negative perception of DLA and AA: for example, recipients may find it difficult to use labels such as “disabled” or “mentally ill”. In addition, family conflict may emerge as a result of disputes over ownership of the benefit.

● The impact of DLA and AA can extend far beyond the individual in receipt of the benefits.

● Although people may forget or confuse names of benefits or how much they receive, they can still discuss how they spend and prioritise their money.

For policymakers:

● Receipt of DLA and AA may be the only factor preventing the recipient from experiencing poverty or from having to enter residential care.

● DLA and AA act as eligibility criteria to access other benefits, and can make an important economic difference to the recipient.

● The implications of DLA and AA increase in importance after the death of a spouse or civil partner, particularly for women.


Disability living allowance (DLA) and attendance allowance (AA) are non-means tested benefits targeted at helping meet the additional costs faced by people as a result of impairment.

DLA can be claimed by children and adults up to age 65 and has two components: care and mobility. It can continue to be awarded to people older than 65 if the claim pre-dates their 65th birthday and if they continue to meet the eligibility criteria.

AA can be claimed by people older than 65. It does not have a mobility component.

Both benefits were introduced in 1992. In 2009, 4.5m people were receiving DLA and AA payments totalling £14.7bn (Berthoud, 2009).

Further reading

● Berthoud R (2009), The Impact of Disability Benefits: A feasibility study, DWP Working Paper No. 58, The Stationery Office.

● Kasparove D, Marsh A and Wilkinson D, (2007), The Take-Up Rate of Disability Living Allowance and Attendance Allowance: A feasibility study, DWP Research Report No. 442, Corporate Documents Services.

● Thomas A (2008), Disability Living Allowance: Disallowed claims, DWP Research Report No. 490, Corporate Documents Services.

● Tibble M (2005), Review of Existing Research on the Extra Costs of Disability, DWP Working Paper 21, Department for Work and Pensions.

Jo Rees is a social work tutor at Swansea University

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This article is published in the 18 August 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “Disability benefits that can be life-changing”

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