Travel insurance companies are legally allowed to discriminate against disabled people – isn’t it about time someone challenged them?

Discrimination against disabled people is, in theory, banned in law, even if it’s depressingly common in practice. 

Unless, that is, you happen to be selling, say, travel insurance. Then the law says, go right ahead. Feel free to put the boot in. If that means people can’t travel well that’s just their bad luck.

What’s that I hear you say? Of course insurers have to be able to discriminate! My son was just quoted more than a grand for a third party policy on his car, even though it’s got an engine so small it would struggle to get up a steep hill. You pay according to the risk you pose to the insurer of having to pay out, and that’s the way it has always been. 

Well, up to a point. I didn’t hear too many blokes complaining when the EU banned motor insurers from discriminating on the grounds of gender in 2012, despite the fact that male drivers were held to pose more of a risk to their insurers. 

But let’s park that for now, because there’s an important caveat to the law regarding disabled people we need to discuss first. It doesn’t grant insurers a free pass.

According to Scope, the disability charity, some 26 per cent of disabled adults feel they are charged more for insurance, or simply denied it, on account of their conditions. 

While insurers can legally do this if, in theory, they are more likely to have to claim because of their disabilities they are, crucially, supposed to prove that this is the case through conducting risk assessments that are based upon information from reliable and relevant sources.

Scope questions whether this happens in all, or even in many, cases. 

Increasingly, insurers are standardising and automating their underwriting because it’s cheaper to do it that way. As a result of this, however, those considered to be non-standard risks often get quoted extremely high prices, if they can get cover at all. 

Full disclosure – I’m one of the disabled adults that gets charged more, although I haven’t yet been asked to pay quite as much as the appalling £500 that Samantha Renke, a 31-year-old actress and disability campaigner, was quoted for a two-week trip to Mexico. 

She has osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bones. However, she has had her spine straightened with rods. This should significantly reduce her risk of having to claim as a result of her disability, but the insurers she has tried appear to be completely unwilling to take this into account. 

Watch what the UN had to say about the UK’s treatment of disabled people

She also reports that, in the course of trying to obtain travel cover, she has endured intrusive 30-40 minute interviews with people who aren’t medical professionals, including their prying into details that have little or no relevance to her condition. For example, are you suicidal? That one had me spluttering into my coffee.  

Again, while I’ve never experienced anything quite that bad, it tallies with my past experience, and even if you get to speak to a medical professional it doesn’t always help.

I was once denied cover by a nurse because of a modest change to one of my medications. When I told my experienced GP what had happened to me, they were outraged, pointing out that the change would actually reduce the risk to the insurer of my becoming ill. 

As Scope says: “It is unclear whether the data insurers are using – and the interpretation of this information – is sufficient enough to build up a comprehensive picture of disabled people’s lives, particularly in instances where care, support or other interventions may mitigate potential risks.”

This was an incidence where an intervention was mitigating the risk I posed, yet I was denied cover because of it. 

Faced with challenges like these, a lot of people are choosing to roll the dice by travelling without cover, despite this being against Government advice, and even though the risk they pose is, in reality, little different to that posed by the average able bodied person. 

That sort of discrimination is not only unjustified, it’s illegal.

Disability need not, and should not, be an impediment to travelling safely, and if the insurance industry won’t change its practices by heeding Scope’s call for transparency to be brought to the process, and more support to be offered to disabled people, then it’s time for the Government, or the Financial Conduct Authority, or both to enforce change. 

Back to the point about blokes and cars. If you’re a man and change your name to its female equivalent (say Jane in my case) before feeding your details into a price comparison website, you’re very unlikely today to be offered a lower price, all things being equal. 

But men, however, often still end up paying more. Why? It’s because they tend to drive bigger, and more costly cars, drive more miles, hold more high risk jobs. 

Faced with the EU’s law banning gender discrimination, insurers got smarter, and sought more data before pricing up cover to accurately assess the individualised risk posed by a motorist. You can’t charge someone more for being a man. But you can charge the driver of a souped up BMW putting in 50,000 miles a year more than you charge someone who drives 10,000 miles in a mid-range Renault Clio. 

If you can accurately assess the risk posed by those two, you can surely assess the risk posed by me or Samantha Renke based upon our respective conditions. 

Scope’s research would indicate that the industry’s inertia is what is preventing it from happening and that disabled people are often simply quoted ridiculous prices to make them go away because insurers see them as too much trouble. 

As such, they need either a kick in a painful place. Or a thump, from those of us with bad legs. 

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