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Housing: choice is key

"We estimate that 2.85% of wheelchair users are parents who have children dependent upon them for housing … this gives a figure of at least 34,200 wheelchair users who are parents."

Bob Sapey, Jennifer Harris and John Stewart

Based on a survey of wheelchair users, one of the largest carried out in the UK, they suggest that disabled parents want to be in a position to choose when, where and whether to move home.

Sample profile

Between 2001 and 2003, Sapey and Stewart carried out a study called The social implications of the increase in wheelchair use (Sapey et al 2004). Altogether they analysed 1,226 completed questionnaires, probably one of the largest surveys of wheelchair users in the UK.

These responses were very representative of the total population of wheelchair users in terms of age, sex and type of use (part-time or full-time wheelchair users). Although unfortunately they did not include any questions specifically about the parenting responsibilities of wheelchair users, we feel that there are certain conclusions that can reasonably be drawn on the basis of our data.

The first item of interest about the characteristics of the section of the sample who we can assume, on the basis of age and household composition, are likely to be parents
of dependent children is that a higher proportion of them appear to be women than in the population of wheelchair users as a whole.

Access issues

They are also much more likely to be living in houses, rather than bungalows or flats. While there is clearly a need for caution – in that the proportion of the sample that would be parents of dependent children is relatively small – it would appear that this group were not as well provided for as other wheelchair users in terms of access to their homes. They were less likely to have a purpose-built or adapted home, their homes were less likely to have ramped access and while they were more likely to need to go upstairs they were less likely to have a stairlift. As a result, they were more likely to be dissatisfied with access within their home. (This is consistent with observations made by Michele Wates on the basis of interviews she carried out for Disabled parents: dispelling the myths. Neither of these studies provide statistical data on this particular matter but both point to the need for further investigation.)

The level of satisfaction with access is below that for all respondents living in houses, which tends to indicate that some additional factors are coming into play with this group. We believe it is fair to assume that this will be associated with being a parent, such as the need to access all areas that may be used by others in the household. Wates (2003) and Disabled Parents Network (2005) indicate that one of the issues to be considered is that while disabled parents may have a greater need than other disabled people to access all areas of their homes, some find that local authorities are not prepared to consider their needs in relation to meeting the needs of children.

If parents are to supervise their children's activities they will need this access, whereas it may be more acceptable to other disabled people that some areas are inaccessible. There is a similarity here to the additional housing requirements identified by Beresford and Oldman (2002) in relation to disabled children. They highlight issues such as play space and the local environment as factors which impact on the experiences of families with disabled children, although these are not factors that might traditionally be considered by planners and architects.

"Play space and the local environment … are not factors that might traditionally be considered by planners and architects."

The data do not include all disabled parents and they are only making claims about the circumstances of those who are wheelchair users. However, this is a substantial group. According to Improving services (Department of Health 2005), there are 1.2 million wheelchair users in England. In their study they estimate that 2.85% of wheelchair users are parents who have children dependent upon them for housing. If that percentage is applied to the total number of wheelchair users in England this gives a figure of at least 34,200 wheelchair users who are parents. The scale of this issue is therefore not inconsiderable.

More inclusive route

Following pressure from disabled people's organisations and relevant housing associations, informed by research predominantly from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the present Labour government in the UK has followed a more inclusive route than previous governments. Instead of trying to refine estimates of the need for exclusively wheelchair accessible homes, the government amended the Building Regulations Act making it a requirement that new homes have to be adaptable to wheelchair accessible standards.

There is a long-standing tradition and debate within disability studies that universal, rather than a special needs approach to disability policy should be pursued: this recognises that the entire population is at risk from the effects of chronic illness and disability (Zola 1989). The idea of accessible `lifetime homes' in the UK (Bonnett 1996; Cobbold 1997; see www.lifetimehomes.org.uk) draws on this universalised approach and assumes that it is reasonable for all people to stay in their own homes regardless of changes in their physical ability. The amendment to the Building Regulations is a first step in making this approach a reality – this should, in the long term, result in inclusive solutions. This is good news for all families that include or may at some point include disabled members. In other words, it is good news for all families!

"The idea of accessible `lifetime homes' in the UK … assumes that it is reasonable for all people to stay in their own homes regardless of changes in their physical ability."

Choice is the key

Our evidence from several housing studies (Sapey 1995; Harris et al 1997; Stewart et al 1999; Sapey et al 2004) indicates that disabled people want to choose whether or not to move home, and if they do wish to move they want choice. This situation is no different for disabled parents. Indeed there is evidence to suggest that disabled parents have additional factors to consider when deciding whether to stay put and where to live (Wates 1997; Olsen and Clarke 2003). It is only through the universalised approach that choice will be achieved, not through the development of more databases which simply are part of a centralised planning ethos – an ethos that paternalistically assumes that politicians and administrators are better placed to make decisions on behalf of disabled people.

First published in Disability, Pregnancy & Parenthood international, Issue 51, Summer 2005.

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