The story made the news because Weir is a household name. But the reality is that thousands of wheelchair users in the UK face similar difficulties in their own homes. We live in a country where so much of our housing stock is old and inaccessible; 300,000 wheelchair accessible properties would be needed just to meet the current shortfall, and the aging population is only going to make this problem worse in the future.
Making do in an inaccessible property can be extremely uncomfortable. Over the years we’ve heard from countless people who, like Weir, have done the best they can to get on with their lives in trying circumstances. There was Shelley who couldn’t shower or bath for two years because her bathroom was inaccessible, making do instead with a strip wash at the sink. And Mark who moved his bed into the family living room for 18 months as the upstairs was completely out of reach. John couldn’t even get into his own house, or back out again, without having two people to carry him up the steps to his own front door. Even so, in many ways, John, Mark and Shelley and all the others in similar circumstances were actually the lucky ones; 20% of every one who sustains a spinal cord injury will be discharged into a nursing home because there is simply nowhere else accessible, or even partly accessible, for them to go.
The effects of inadequate housing for wheelchair users are many and far reaching. The lack of independence can have a profound impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing, and it obviously puts a strain on family relationships too. Pulling yourself up stairs or over steps puts shoulder joints at risk of injury, a significant concern for wheelchair users. And there’s an inherent risk of infection when the lack of an accessible bathroom makes it difficult to maintain hygiene standards.
Yet despite this obvious need for many more accessible homes, we don’t actually do that much as a country to address the problem. Look at any new housing rhetoric and you are bound to see references to affordability and environmental sustainability; important issues, no doubt, but where’s the talk of making sure that disabled people can actual live in the finished properties?
London does have a policy in place that requires 10% of all new builds to be wheelchair accessible or easily adaptable. The latest figures suggest that we don’t quite manage that target, but at least it’s a start and we desperately need other regions to take note and bring in similar rules. And with those rules in place, the architects and builders need to think a bit more about what they are doing; we visited a wonderful accessible flat on the first floor of a new development recently, but found that the lift to reach it was too small for a powered wheelchair.
With accessible properties in place, Local Authorities and Housing Associations need to make sure that the right people have access to them. A Greater London Assembly policy paper revealed that in London, 70 per cent of wheelchair accessible homes in 2008/09 went to households with no wheelchair user. In addition, the Greater London Authority’s Housing Strategy paper revealed that in 2007/08, only 46 per cent of wheelchair users moving into a housing association home were allocated a wheelchair accessible property, while 68 per cent of lettings of wheelchair accessible homes were to households with no wheelchair user.
Aspire is currently working on a response to the Housing Standards Review consultation which focuses on issues such as space and access of housing. We will argue the case for stronger minimum requirements for space and access standards that meet the needs of wheelchair users.Better planning, more housing and better organisation; it’s really not rocket science. But it will mean that wheelchair users – be they Paralympians or mere mortals – have properties where they’re not risking their own health just by living there.