I didn’t win the competition, but I thought as the issues I raise are important I would share the essay as it made it to the final.
In 50 years’ time the nature of impairments may change significantly, and the proportion of disabled people in the population is set to increase. Taking these factors into account and retaining the social model of disability as a central approach, how should the design and construction of homes and neighbourhoods develop over the next five decades in order to be inclusive regardless of impairment.
The Social model of disability says: “… that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference. Barriers can be physical, like buildings not having accessible toilets. Or they can be caused by people’s attitudes to difference, like assuming disabled people can’t do certain things” . Assuming this to be true we need to establish a working criterion for ‘disability’.
‘Disabilities’ are not all the same as this term is used to describe a multitude of impairments from complete inability of a person to function unaided by medical intervention (i.e. a ventilator) and 24/7 care; to those who appear externally to have no issues but suffer so called ‘invisible disabilities’. The needs of someone with an ‘invisible disability’ such as deafness, cannot be met in the same way as the someone who needs medical intervention and 24/7 care. Even a less dramatic comparison such as between someone who cannot walk and someone who is deaf, can be used to demonstrate the wide variety of needs and the vastly different ways that those needs must be met. Both are very limiting problems with a complex variety of issues uniquely their own, but each solved in very different ways.
For me physical impairment dominates. I cannot walk and need carers to wash and dress me. My food must be prepared for me and everything brought to me. I must have a home with ramps and wide doors. I need a ceiling track hoist and a wet room. These are a few examples of the adaptations that I need to cope with my impairment. Someone who is profoundly deaf may need a visual doorbell and text phone, perhaps a loop system if they have any hearing. These are just a few examples but obviously very different ones to my needs. Yet both would count as ‘disability’. This simple comparison shows that the term ‘disability’ cannot be used universally to describe all those of us with impairments without additional information.
Given the fact that ‘disability’ is such a wide ranging term providing one type of housing, care or provisions generally for ‘disabled’ people is like trying to provide a written pamphlet for a roomful of people from different countries all of whom speak different languages. It is an impossible task. You cannot succeed to provide all things for all ‘disabled’ people in one way. Yet as a nation we have set out plans to help ‘disabled’ people as if we were all the same. We cannot all be treated the same. There is only one common ground that I can see, we are all human beings with human needs. We need each other and the biggest lack in modern society is a lack of community. We have become isolated and boxed in. Many of the issues surrounding ‘disabled’ people are to be found in society at large and stem from that isolation.
Therefore, the first and greatest need which must be addressed in homes and neighbourhoods over the next five decades is a restoration of that sense of community. This is both a social and a physical change which will bring mental and physical health benefits to our society. It may seem to be unrelated to the question but in fact unless we deal with the issue of community, we cannot solve the problem of homes and neighbourhoods. The two are interrelated as I will endeavour to show.
We have come to believe that self-reliance and isolation are the ultimate goal for our lives. In pursuing this goal, we have, as a nation lost sight of the benefits of being alongside others. This has meant that as a society we have fallen in a black hole of care. Too many people needing care and too little money and too few people to provide it. Likewise, we have failed to provide suitable accommodation because we have tried to approach the problem in the wrong way. To solve this problem, we must first solve the underlying social issues that cause it then the issue we want to solve can be tackled.
If we look at society as it is now, we can see the outworking of the process of isolation at every level of society from families to neighbourhoods to work environments. Families have become smaller networks involving perhaps just one parent on a regular basis, wider family being either unavailable or at a distance. Neighbourhoods have been created where there is no natural interface between neighbours. This is sometimes an outworking of differing work patterns, but often exacerbated by the lack of common areas to meet or just come across others. Workplaces have become more controlled especially for lower paid workers. Either offering zero hours contracts which limit work contact with others to times when work is actually carried out and therefore removing social interaction with work colleagues or limiting numbers of staff to the point where workload precludes time for social interaction. Time outside work becomes a premium that must be split between competing needs. The results of all these factors is a lack of community at work or in our neighbourhoods and families which then feel stretched and often fractured. The result is a tendency to hide in our sanctuaries and pull up the drawbridge. Stress causing us to not want any further interference from outside. All sense or desire for community is lost and any natural care and concern that people feel for neighbours go. Research has shown that isolation has a negative effect on the elderly, even reducing life span. It seems self-evident that this will apply wider.
One thing that is quite apparent in this current Corona Virus Crisis is the way that community is growing. Ironic considering the instructions to isolate. But community is not only about being face to face, but also caring and understanding. Groups are spontaneously forming in towns, villages and cities to help and support neighbours and the vulnerable. One example is in Gloucester. Neighbours are talking to each other, albeit at two metre distance. The reason for this change? Time and being at home will play a part, but also a sense of a common goal. People naturally want to act as a community, they miss it and enjoy the sense of working towards a common goal.
I have laid out a wider social issue than ‘disability’ because it fits into the whole. Being impaired does not exclude us from society, we are still part of the whole picture and very much aware of the problems. To deal with the issue of homes and neighbourhoods into the next five decades we must deal with the whole of society. The reason we have so badly failed in the past is because ‘disability’ has been seen as a problem to be solved separately rather than part of the whole picture of society.
For change to happen it must be included in the whole social planning process then we can see real change. For that change to happen there must be the political will. Community is the key, together as a mix of different abilities and backgrounds we can form a diverse group who support and encourage each other. Taking encouragement from the fact that people do want to act together. We have spent years becoming more and more isolated. People no longer know or trust their neighbours, yet we have seen that can change, people want it to change. What is needed are new housing estates with localised shared facilities, almost like mini villages. Going back to an earlier idea. These would naturally form communities with a wide age range and social background. Schools and shops, community centres, medical centres and other facilities would serve each community. There need to be areas where people naturally come together. The variety of impairments represented would fit into the general mix. Housing would be varied and cover all needs. By bringing people together in community there is a tendency to increase the pool of care for each other. Not everyone needs professional carers. Sometimes we just need a neighbour who will take us shopping, a friend to chat to. Many professional care companies provide ‘sitting’ services. These are basically carers who are there just to be company. If we again lived in community rather than isolation, then we would be company to each other. I am not suggesting neighbours provide washing and dressing for those of us who need that. But there are many things that friends and neighbours used to do and would be happy to do, which are now covered by paid carers. In a society struggling to cover such costs and provision, this is an obvious advantage.
To provide housing that meets the needs of all impairments would be impossible in one type of house. Indeed, I see no reason to attempt such a thing. I understand that it may seem convenient to lump together all types of impairments. But it cannot work in practice. I am aware of housing associations who build houses which are suitable for wheelchair users as standard. What I don’t understand is why. How many wheelchair users are there? Surely it makes more sense to provide appropriate housing rather than build unnecessary features and waste money and space.
A property suitable for a wheelchair user needs wide doors and halls, extra turning space, a wet room, possibly ceiling hoists, raised kitchen units etc. To provide this for all ‘disabled’ housing would surely be unnecessarily costly and wasteful. A property for a non-wheelchair user needs to cater for the impairment they have. A blind person may need Braille signage and clear ways through the property. A deaf person may need visual clues to doorbells etc. Someone who struggles to walk needs a property on the ground floor. Housing for able bodied users have different requirements. A mix of all these properties in each development makes most sense to build community.
The neighbourhood is another important consideration. If every new building project had all suitable types of properties, then a community of different people could be formed. This would also have a secondary benefit of preventing ghettoization of ‘disabled’ or elderly people in special properties. By doing that you prevent the creation of viable communities.
In all these instances the key issue is suitability rather than uniformity. There is an adage used in the Estate Agency business, ‘Location, location, location.’ The location of a property will ultimately make the suitability of it work or not. It will not be suitable to place a person suffering from an impairment who has no transport at a distance from any amenities. Nor would it work to place a person suffering from an impairment with a vehicle in a property without nearby and suitable parking. This applies wider to families or elderly with or without cars. So, within a development positioning of properties is important but also the suitability of particular developments to some types of impairment would limit their suitability for some potential residents.
Cost is of course another limiting factor for most ‘disabled’ people. Some are still able to work or have independent income. But for most we are reliant on disability benefits for our income. For those able to buy a property it would need to be available at a subsidised price on a government scheme. Affordable housing is a wider issue than just for ‘disabled’ people.
We need to be planning a large-scale building project within all new builds in every area. Each project must include housing of different types. Housing that suits wheelchair users and non-wheelchair users with other impairments. All built in a community of housing that suits a variety of family types, ages and social backgrounds. There need to be common areas where people can naturally meet. Things only change when we choose to change them. We are too used to moaning about problems and creating reports about issues. If we really want to make a social change then we need to stir up the political will to make that change. Back in the Victorian times when the middle classes were shocked by child labour, they lobbied for change. Stories were written to stir up public feelings but, in the end, it took campaigners to create legislation ultimately things must happen, and political change occur if we are really dissatisfied with how things are now. It is up to us to make that change.
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