Lorna Cameron: Disabled Scots deserve better in fight for housing equality
As the world marks 2021 International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Lorna Cameron, CEO of Horizon Housing Association, argues that Scotland must intensify efforts to tackle a critical accessible housing shortage that has left thousands of disabled people trapped in unsuitable homes.
Slow progress in tackling a chronic shortage of accessible housing is denying thousands of disabled people their right to housing equality and poses a significant threat to the sustainability of Scotland’s housing stock.
Housing is a fundamental human need which is why disabled people’s rights to independent living were enshrined in a United Nations Convention. Yet, despite years of research documenting the scale of housing inequality and numerous recommendations for change, more than 17,000 wheelchair users in Scotland still have unmet housing needs. In perspective, even Scotland’s largest entertainment venue, the OVO Hydro, could not accommodate that many people.
Disabled people pay a steep price for slow progress in tackling the crisis as living in unsuitable homes severely curtails their ability to work, socialise and live independently. The physical, emotional and financial cost is significant and ongoing.
It also impacts the public purse as there is an inextricable link between a shortage of suitable housing for disabled people and difficulties and delays in obtaining housing adaptations and higher social care and health costs. Better housing for disabled people would reduce demands on the thinly-stretched resources of the National Health Service and social care services.
Disabled people in unsuitable homes are more likely to have poorer health, to have accidents or face delays in being discharged from hospital. Public Health Scotland data show that more than 4.6 million days have been lost due to delayed discharge since 2013/14.
The pandemic highlighted how central our homes are to our wellbeing as well as our ability to work from home in a post-Covid world. Disabled people are statistically more likely to be living in poverty, or to be unemployed and socially isolated. For them, an unsuitable home can be a prison rather than a sanctuary.
Barriers include uneven floors, doorways unable to accommodate wheelchairs or walking aids, no lift access and struggles to access home adaptations. Location matters too as poor links to local amenities add to the multiple obstacles that limit a person’s ability to move safely within their home or travel beyond their front door.
We asked disabled people the worst barriers they face, and many said uninformed and unhelpful attitudes and assumptions, hold them back more than physical barriers in their homes or their own health issues. Disabled people must be at the centre of policy discussions on accessible housing.
Having an accessible home has a life-changing impact on disabled people and their families. For example, Horizon enabled a mother and her disabled daughter to move into a fully wheelchair accessible home and garden. After years of frustration, stress and isolation they can enjoy simple things we all take for granted, like cooking together and meeting friends. For too many disabled people however, good housing outcomes happen by chance and after years of constraints that amount to a denial of their human rights.
The supply of accessible housing, both owned and rented, is severely limited and the shortage is particularly acute in social housing. We are simply not building enough accessible homes of any kind - just 1.07% of new homes built are accessible, a tiny proportion of the housing stock.
In 2019 a total 22,368 new homes were built in Scotland. If just 1.07% were accessible, that only added 237 homes to the accessible housing stock. At that rate it would take more than 70 years to build enough homes just to house today’s wheelchair users, never mind meeting future needs.
The Scottish Government’s Housing to 2040 strategy has much to commend it, including a review of adaptations and new building standards as well as plans for a new Scottish Accessible Homes Standards - but we must move faster to legislate for change.
The government plans to publish draft standards in 2023 and phase in legislation from 2025 to 2030. We need a more ambitious timetable and a bolder plan and to avoid loopholes that might weaken legislation.
New laws to make it easier to get house adaptations and the introduction of a new mandatory single design and space standard across all housing tenures would make a meaningful difference.
We are engaged in three new accessible housing research projects that will complete in early 2022 and will help inform accessible housing strategy. We are involving housebuilders, local authorities, designers, architects, academics, disabled rights groups and most crucially, disabled people in our work.
Scotland faces a ticking timebomb unless we move accessible housing standards and provision higher up the agenda. By 2039 Scotland will see an 85% increase in people aged 75 and over which will pose major health and housing challenges. As the population ages, people will have multiple health issues, not just mobility problems, with dementia cases forecast to increase by 50% over the next two decades.
The crisis is deepening fast. Already one-in-five of Scotland’s adult population have a disability or long-term health condition that limits their day-to-day activity and our research forecast an 80% increase in the number of wheelchair users by 2024.
In a nation committed to equality and sustainability, we must do more to ensure our future accessible housing stock is appropriate for the needs of all citizens.