The accessible housing challenge
The increasing global interest in accessible housing has largely been driven by three factors. Firstly, all regions in the world are experiencing population ageing, with varying severity. In countries with life expectancies above 70 years, the average person will spend 8 years of their life living with a disability. Secondly, the prevalence of disabilities has increased, partly due to improved survival rates among those affected by disabling conditions, and partly due to increased population ageing. Around 25% of adults in the OECD and EU report a disability of some kind, or 15% globally – and this is set to grow. Lastly, societies are increasingly taking note of concerns raised by the disability sector and these are being enshrined into law and policy, increasing the profile of accessibility issues.
Traditionally, disability has been framed mostly in an individual, needs-based approach: a person is considered to be disabled due to a particular functional impairment they have. The response is aimed at providing assistive technologies or optimising environments used by the individual to optimise their interaction with that environment.
More recently, taking a human rights-based approach or ‘social model’ to view disability frames disability as socially constructed and dependent on the physical, organisational or attitudinal barriers found externally in society. In this approach, solutions extend beyond individual needs and toward the overall accessibility and liveability of settlements using universal design principles. Universal design principles are ‘an approach to the design, construction and adaptation of standard housing to meet the needs of all homeowners regardless of their age, ability, or social situation’.
These two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Instead, acknowledging and addressing individuals’ needs while planning for society to be more inclusive for everyone long-term is a sensible approach – especially given that disabled people are already a large (and growing) minority in society.
Current shortages of good-quality, affordable housing are problematic for vast regions of the world (less than half of the OECD population is satisfied with its availability). Yet for disabled people, the challenge is even greater. Regardless of whether the disability is physical, mental, or sensory, finding housing to match a person’s exact needs is even more difficult given the shortage of accessible housing in most areas of the world – much less at a reasonable price (disabled people are more likely to have lower incomes and face higher costs of living).
As a result, many people with disabilities live in accommodation which is unsuitable for their needs. Data is patchy, but the OECD reports that just 1-10% of the housing stock in most countries has more than one accessibility feature (such as a step-free entryway or ground floor bathroom). An Equality and Human Rights Commission report for the UK titled highlighted that just 7% of the current housing stock was accessible. Meanwhile, a recent survey from Australia found that three-quarters of households including disabled people lived in housing that did not fulfil their needs. While no one should be living in unsuitable accommodation for extended time periods, the adverse impacts on disabled people in particular can be severe, further limiting mobility and making everyday tasks tiring. A UK study found that people with an unmet need for accessible housing were four times more likely to be unemployed.
Closing the gap: the role of local authorities
While national policies, global market pressures and conflicting pressures for local government all have an impact on local authorities’ ability to support accessible housing provision, local government still represents the governance level closest to the everyday lives of disabled people and has a powerful role to play at the intersection of housing, planning, social care and support for communities.
Matching individuals to suitable accessible housing
Often, we don’t have enough data on the accessibility features or quality of housing stock, especially in the private sector. Surveying the living situation of disabled communities and surveying housing stock in an area can help to build up a base of information on where supply or quality issues are. Public registers of housing accessibility, where accessible features are logged and housing is categorised, have been developed in Japan, the US and the UK to help reduce informational barriers and promote better choice. The London Accessible Housing Register, something of a flagship methodology for a registry, has useful guides, training and best practice examples on its website.
Increasing the stock of accessible housing
Minimum accessibility requirements currently apply to a small proportion of housing stock in most countries, far below the projected needs of the population. Local authorities have opportunities to utilise the planning process to bridge the gap between the need and availability of accessible and adaptable homes. The case for improving accessible housing stock is strong. It is a cost-effective way to meet local housing and care needs when compared to more expensive adaptation of existing homes where extensive changes are needed – even more so compared to the social care burden of having to provide care or assisted living accommodation places earlier than would be required.
For social housing stock (where held) and public buildings, local authorities will have a much easier time in reaching a higher level of accessibility standards. However, new housing provision is dominated by profit-focused developers in most countries, with local governments having varying powers in setting standards. Improving information about disables people’s housing needs and projections for future needs should lend weight to requirements of the provision of accessible housing for the purposes of a local plan, allowing local authorities to better make the case to developers to go above the minimum requirements.
Of course, not everyone with a disability will need a fully wheelchair accessible home with every feature. Having national or regional standards with different categories for accessible housing will help developers adjust percentages, while universal design principles that do not cost significantly more can be promoted for all developments. Having a proper register logging accessibility features also becomes essential here to ensure these housing types can be prioritised for those with matching need.
Adapting existing housing
Building on the above, disabilities come in all kinds of forms, so while aiming for universal or inclusive design for new housing stock is great, a level of personal customisation to people’s differing needs will always be desirable. Modification programmes that are responsive and allow people’s homes to change as their needs do can be a cost effective way to avoid health deterioration or recourse to higher dependency housing. Providing grants or low-cost loans for building work such as door widening, grab rails or alarms can be an effective form of assistance, but often people won’t be sure what support is available to them or what the smartest choice for modification might be.
A good best practice example of modification support addressing these challenges is the Healthy Age Friendly Homes programme in Ireland, which crosses typical departmental boundaries to provide all-round service and advice. The partnership between local governments and Sláintecare in the Department of Health enables older people to age in place even as their needs become more pronounced, avoiding premature admission to long-term residential care. Initially taking the form of a holistic needs assessment, the service can go on to provide support in a range of areas including home improvements to support mobility and health, ‘rightsizing’ if the home is unsuitable, care provision, technology assistance, financial support such as walking people through grant eligibility for home improvements, and even loneliness and wellbeing services. Here is a great video explaining the service.
As the level of governance closest to people, local authorities have an essential role in removing barriers to participation, ensuring that the needs of people with disabilities are taken into account in all decisions at the local level. By planning the environments around us with disability in mind, municipalities can put inclusive design at the centre of built environment renovations in the public realm. And, as highlighted in this artcile, local authorities are also uniquely positioned to improve the supply and quality of accessible housing in the private realm to promote independent living.
This article was part of our Global Local service, for a special edition on accessible infrastructure and housing. Click here to read the full newsletter containing relevant briefings, best practice, news and resources. For more information about Global Local and how to sign up, click here.