On Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Day, we have decided to focus on the absolutely fundamental issue of accessible housing. For someone paralysed by a Spinal Cord Injury, having a home that meets your physical needs is likely to make the difference between continued rehabilitation towards an independent, active life and one of declining physical and mental health and acute social isolation. 

For around 20 years, Aspire’s housing service has been supporting spinal cord injured people by providing fully accessible interim housing and the help they need to secure permanent suitable homes.  For all its housing team’s excellent work though, Aspire cannot meet demand and every year hundreds of spinally injured people are forced into inappropriate accommodation.

As patients’ rehabilitation in hospital comes to an end and a discharge date draws nearer, very real questions about housing loom ever larger for people with Spinal Cord Injury. 

“Would it be our family home again? Could I even get into it? What about the bathroom, the toilet? Where would I sleep? Which rooms could I get into? Would I be able to sit in the garden again? Would I be left alone in one room? Would I be a burden to my family?” 

All of these very pertinent questions were expressed by participants in independent research Aspire published in 2016, which looked at the physical and psychological impact that living in adapted and unadapted housing has on people with a spinal cord injury. Conducted by Loughborough University, ‘The health and wellbeing of spinal cord injured adults and the family: Examining lives in adapted and unadapted homes' draws directly upon the first-hand experience of people with Spinal Cord Injury and family members, to establish the impact the level of a home’s accessibility has upon their day-to-day lives. The study revealed how living in accessible housing enables people with Spinal Cord Injury to get on with their lives; encapsulated here by one research participant:

"It’s allowed me to perfect all the things I learnt in rehab, and because out here things are very different than in rehab, I had to hone what I’d learnt to take care of my body and health. Having an adapted place ensures you can do this.” 

Those not fortunate enough to be living in an accessible home describe a very different experience, in which quality of life, physical health and psychological wellbeing all go into decline, leading to feelings of worthlessness, isolation and even suicidal thoughts:

“Living here is no better than living in a prison, but I’ve done nothing wrong, but I’m punished anyway, I sit here during the day or night seriously thinking, why not just end it another participant revealed."

Given living in inaccessible housing has such catastrophic affects on the lives of people with Spinal Cord Injury and presumably others requiring wheelchair accessible accommodation, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that local authorities would be striving to keep to a minimum the length of time that people wait for an accessible home. However, results from our recent Freedom of Information inquiry of English local authorities, reveal that on average, it will take 12.5 years for all those awaiting a wheelchair-accessible home to be housed and over 15 years in 20% of authorities who responded.  For wheelchair users in a number of local authorities, it will take tens of years to be suitably housed and over a century in one case at least.

SCI Awareness Day infographic

We are, of course, in the midst of a housing crisis, and these alarming results could simply reflect the common experience of all in need of social housing, and we would expect to see waiting times comparable to those for wheelchair users.  However, when we made the comparison, we found that on average, it will take local authorities only seven years to house those not requiring a wheelchair accessible home. Appallingly, in eight authorities, it will take at least five times longer for wheelchair users to be suitably housed compared to their non-wheelchair-using counterparts. Of these eight authorities, the authority showing the shortest time to house all current wheelchair users will take 10 years to do so at current allocation rates, but only 1.8 years to rehouse non-wheelchair user households.  At the other end of this range, the authority with the longest time to house all wheelchairusers will take an unbelievable 106 years to clear the list, but only five years to house non wheelchair users. One can only imagine the affects upon the disabled people being forced to endure such intolerable living conditions for such extended periods.

You would also be forgiven for assuming that where such clear housing inequality exists, steps would be taken to address it, both locally and nationally, and authorities would be taking action to ensure that the most is made of all new accessible homes coming into the system. Shockingly, almost half of the authorities that responded to our Freedom of Information request weren’t able to provide any data at all on how many new social homes built in their areas were wheelchair accessible.

SCI Awareness Day infographic

The scandalous reality for many wheelchair users across England is that - unless action is taken now to address the massive disparity in provisions made to meet their housing needs compared to the non-wheelchair-user population - a home that enables them to live healthy fulfilling lives will be little more than a distant aspiration.

The housing market is clearly failing disabled people and government isn’t currently fulfilling its responsibility to intervene to address the extreme housing inequality that is being created.  Spinal Cord Injured people, and disabled people more widely who require accessible housing, have the right to expect the government to ensure that their housing needs are addressed and to take measures to drive this forward. We urgently need a national strategy that introduces planning policies and building regulations that require all new homes to comply with accessibility standards and for these to be recorded and monitored locally and nationally. That’s why we’re joining @theTCPA in calling for a series of design, safety and placemaking principles to regulate new housing. #HealthyHomesAct https://www.tcpa.org.uk/healthy-homes-act 

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