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Opinion: 'Housing has been a crisis for disabled people for decades'

We have to change the way we think about housing for disabled people, writes James Cawley.
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MY NAME IS James Cawley and I am a wheelchair user. I am one of the thousands of disabled people who live independently in Ireland. I’m married, I work and do the day-to-day things that everyone does, but getting a house that suits my needs has not always been easy.

I know full well that Ireland is currently in the midst of a housing crisis. And I know that some of you reading this might be thinking, sure housing in the current climate is not easy for many, many people.

But housing has been a crisis for disabled people for decades. In all the discussions on housing and homelessness over the years, and over the past few weeks even since the launch of Housing for All, there has been little or no reference or acknowledgement that disabled people have housing rights too.

Even when we had our last building boom in the noughties, when we couldn’t build enough houses, the needs of disabled people just didn’t feature.

We have been completely overlooked and continue to be ignored still, despite our right to “live in the community, with choices equal to other”, as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, which Ireland has ratified since 2018. It is about equality and fairness and choice, not dependence or charity.

Looking for a rented house that is accessible for a disabled person is like looking for a needle in a haystack. There is absolutely no onus or incentive for landlords to modify properties because Part M building regulations (to ensure accessibility) are weak and outdated.

For disabled people reliant on social housing, living independently is even more difficult.

Lack of supports

For a start, the process of even applying for housing is complex, confusing, different in every county and completely lacking in transparency. If disabled people want to apply for social housing, they have to apply separately to both the local authority for housing and then the HSE for a support package. But there is no clear pathway for supports and very little engagement between the local authority and the HSE.

People are left in an impossible Catch 22 situation whereby those who get the offer of a house and need support to live independently often can’t accept that offer of housing without the support package in place. Lives and futures are caught in the middle of two bureaucratic systems that don’t seem to communicate.

One of those vital independent living supports is a Personal Assistance Service. Unfortunately, there is no legal right to what you would hope and think would be a very basic service.

We know from the recent “Disability Capacity Review to 2032 – A Review of Social Care Demand and Capacity Requirements to 2032” from the Department of Health that just about 2,500 people get a PA service averaging around 12 hours a week.

For the most part, people who require a personal assistance service to live independently are not receiving a service which meets their needs to have choice and control over their lives.

The upshot of this is that high numbers of disabled people are often reliant on their family members or others for accommodation and support. High numbers are ageing in the family home with ageing parents. Many others just give up or don’t even begin to apply for housing in the first place giving a false sense of the real need for housing in our community.

Need for change

We have to change the way we think about housing for disabled people. Yes, we have a housing crisis, but we have a housing crisis that must include the needs of disabled people also.

As a priority, we need to have a fully accessible, central application process where a person can apply for a house and independent living supports together. We need to ensure that at least 7.5% of all new social housing are ring-fenced for disabled people. And then we need to expand how we think about accessibility more broadly.

We need to recognise and reinforce that accessibility is about more than just the ramps and doors and the physical building. It is also about the environment around homes and buildings, like accessible transport which allows disabled people to get to and from their homes, to engage in their communities, education and employment, for example.

In other words, we need to think about building genuinely inclusive communities so that disabled people are not some sub-set of society.

We have a right to live our lives with choice, dignity and respect. At the very heart of this is the right to expect and hope that we can live independently, in an affordable, accessible home that is fit for our purpose.

James Cawley is policy officer with Independent Living Movement Ireland, which is a Disabled Persons Organisation (DPO) and one of the organisations involved in a new national campaign ‘Our Housing Rights’.

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