Today, International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Habinteg chief executive Paul Gamble shares why he believes accessible and inclusive housing is the first step towards a more independent life for disabled people worldwide
Inclusion matters. A simple message, isn’t it? But a strong one that still needs to be sent. We say it loudly today on 3 December – United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities. It’s the theme for 2015 – ‘Inclusion matters: access and empowerment for people of all abilities’. Access to homes and neighbourhoods are the foundation of independent living, a basic human right, yet the work goes on to make it a reality for everyone.
It is 25 years since the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was passed in Parliament and the long struggle by campaigners to bring change and justice for disabled people was finally translated into legislation. Access specialists, like our colleagues at the Centre for Accessible Environments, provide consultancy and training to make places more inclusive for all. Things have undoubtedly got better. But it’s fair to say in some ways housing policy has lagged behind.
Of course, the establishment of the Lifetime Homes Standard and Wheelchair Housing Design Guide have given accessible, adaptable housing a strong standard from which to build. And London, as well as some other regions of the UK, have chosen these standards as their default. This is a global example of best practice, highlighted by the Olympic Park development which is testament to influential support for inclusive design. And it’s not just disabled people and older people that value the higher spec of accessible homes. Inclusion matters. It matters to the young family pushing a buggy and to the couple desperately trying to move furniture into their first place. It just makes sense.
But what about the national picture. If a new shopping centre, airport, museum or railway station was inaccessibly built, there would be public outcry. Rightly so. This is widely prevented by legislation and building regulations. These instances are, thankfully, rare. The same cannot be said of the homes and neighbourhoods that we all live in, where obstacles are often placed in front of people’s ability to use, enjoy and visit homes before a brick has been laid.
So we were delighted to see the Government enshrine new accessible housing standards in Building Regulations for the first time earlier this year. It should have been a step in the right direction to a national inclusive standard. Part M Category 2 is based on the Lifetime Homes Standard while Category 3 uses the wheelchair accessible housing standards for inspiration. Disappointingly though, these standards are merely optional with a default (Category 1) that is nowhere near accessible enough. Overstretched and underfunded local councils will have to assess local need first and decide on the economic viability for developers of housing schemes.
Given that 95% of the homes in England are not accessible enough for disabled visitors, the current unmet housing need of many disabled people and the challenges of an ageing population, you would think it would make absolute sense to deliver all new homes to accessible standards. But as our national policy makers don’t agree, we’re concerned that these new optional arrangements could actually herald a decline in accessible homes, so we are seeking to help planners get such homes through the process.
We’ll also need other people concerned to make the case for accessible housing and share the impact it can make to everyday life and independent living. We’ve launched our final ‘My Accessible Home’ video today to mark the UN day. The films show clearly the personal stories of those who have experienced difficulty and frustration before living independently in an accessible and easily adaptable home. You can find the videos on our YouTube channel. We hope these first-hand accounts will help to influence decision makers.
So, it really does come back to the phrase of the day from the United Nations. Inclusion matters. Achieving a widespread public consensus and raising the issue as a priority is vital if we are not to allow an accessible housing crisis to develop from the well-meaning measures drawn up to address the national housing shortage.
We need to know that local authorities will be determined enough to prioritise access in their local plans for housing and communities. We need to know that architects and developers will design and deliver the homes that the country needs, rather than those that maximise profits. We must make building accessibly the standard way of building rather than just a good practice example.
There is increasing demand for accessible housing but we need to raise our voices and send out a strong message. Inclusion matters.