23 years ago, a disabled lady finally got on a waiting list for a council house specially designed for the disabled. She had suffered from arthritis and other conditions since the age of six and it was important that she got housing that suited her needs. However, it took 11 years for her to finally get the house she needed. The disabled lady is my wife and, like many others, she suffered from a case of high demand and low supply. Sadly, the problem continues to exist to this day.
We have all heard about the housing crisis. It’s something that has existed for a long time. In general, there is a serious lack of affordable housing. The ill-fated Liz Truss premiership also led to a significant increase in the cost of mortgages. With social housing the supply has gotten progressively smaller since Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy. However, it’s so much worse for disabled people. The severe lack of accessible/adapted housing means many are forced to live in accommodation which does nothing but worsen their health.
Lack of availability
Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states that everyone is entitled to a standard of living that is adequate for their health – this includes housing. The UN’s special rapporteur on housing goes further and says that “housing is not adequate if the specific needs of disadvantaged and marginalised groups are not taken into account”.
This should mean that everyone who is disabled should be able to have adequately accessible or adapted housing that suits their needs.
In 2009, there were 22,693,802 dwellings in England. In 2018, that number had increased by nearly 1.5mn to 24,172,253. However, in the period the number of adapted homes only went from 9% to 10% and accessible homes only went from 5% to 9%. According to census information, the number of disabled people increased from 9.4m in 2011 to 9.8m in 2021.
So, a large increase in the number of houses, but only a small increase in the number of adapted and accessible homes. In 2020, it was found that approximately 400,000 wheelchair users aren’t in adapted or accessible housing.
The 2018/2019 English Housing Survey notes that out of the homes in England:
- 7% have an adapted bathroom
- 3% have an adapted kitchen
- 0.4% (approximately 108,000 homes) have hoists
- only 19% have level access (no steps leading into the property).
Accessibility in the past
In 1963, the architect and disability advocate Selwyn Goldsmith wrote the book Designing for the Disabled. There was nothing else like it at the time. It was a manual for architects to make properties more accessible. Later on, the principles of universal design were developed. They were:
- Equitable use
- Flexibility in use
- Simple and intuitive use
- Perceptible information
- Tolerance in error
- Low physical effort
- Size and space for approach and use.
Properties following these principles should be accessible to anyone, regardless of mobility, size or anything else. Whilst universal design is used across the world, the statistics I gave earlier clearly show many who ignore it, or perhaps think that disabled people are not worthy of consideration.
There are obviously many, many houses in this country which predate Goldsmith’s work, but this doesn’t mean that more couldn’t be adapted by local authorities and housing associations. That would require substantial government funding though, which is unlikely to be seen any time soon.
The 2019 Conservative manifesto contained just 15 mentions of words like ‘disabled’ or ‘disability’. Only one of those mentions was related to housing:
“We will publish a National Strategy for Disabled People before the end of 2020. This will look at ways to improve the benefits system, opportunities and access for disabled people in terms of housing, education, transport and jobs.”
- boost the supply of housing for disabled people by raising accessibility standards for new homes, increasing the supply of affordable homes, including supported housing, and accelerating the adaptation of existing homes by improving the efficiency of local authority delivery of the Disabled Facilities Grant, worth £573mn in 2021 to 2022;
- extend disabled tenants’ rights on accessibility;
- ensure the safety of disabled people in buildings, for when there are emergencies.
So, they published a strategy and a major point is getting underfunded local authorities to do the work. They say they’ll raise accessibility standards, but don’t go into any detail.
The Disabled Facilities Grant can be a great option for people. There’s supposed to be a wait of no more than 18 months for the work to be done. However, many face a substantial wait for an occupational therapist to do an assessment – something essential before even applying.
For the system to work, there needs to be more occupational therapists. It’s local councils who send them, which means they need more money for staffing. It’s not a case of making efficiencies – as claimed in the government’s strategy.
Last year it was announced that all new homes would be built to the M4(2) standard, This forms part of Document M of the building regulations and M4(2) was previously optional. Building to this standard raises the accessibility standards mentioned in the National Disability Strategy. This standard calls for a step free access to areas of the ground floor and more accessible sockets and switches for those with reduced reach.
This doesn’t go far enough though. There is the M4(3) standard, but this remains optional. Building to this standard would mean space and accessibility for wheelchair users. There aren’t any clear figures showing the numbers of wheelchair users in the UK, but a report from Frontier Economics and Motability showed that England had approximately 800,000 wheelchair users in 2018/19. That means that the government’s changes to the regulations ignore hundreds of thousands of people. The Disabled Facilities Grant is an option, but as I’ve already stated there are significant delays that lead to worsening health.
A way forward?
Many people across the country treat disabled people as second-class citizens. They forget that getting a disability can happen to anyone. It’s important to think ‘how would you like it?’. We need more change than what’s being offered at the moment. This would include:
- more funding to local authorities so there can be a vast increase in occupational therapists;
- all new buildings to meet he M4(3) standard;
- increased funding to the Disabled Facilities Grant scheme;
- new, more comprehensive national statistics showing the numbers of wheelchair users, adapted/accessible housing and disabled people in unsuitable accommodation;
- targets set to ensure that eventually, no disabled person is in unsuitable accommodation.
Disabled people are people. They should be treated as equals. They deserve the basic human right of accommodation that works for them.
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