Housing and accommodation

12.1 Housing provides much more than shelter in modern society: it is the base from which people participate in society and can reflect as well as dictate their level of participation. Yet there is no formal or constitutional right to housing. The primary responsibility for providing housing rests with the individual: those who can afford to do so are expected to house themselves, if necessary with the aid of grants and other incentives. State provision of housing is confined to the social housing arena. In practice, however, virtually all housing receives a significant degree of state assistance in one form or another.

12.2 Treating people with disabilities the same as other citizens in relation to housing creates major barriers for them: in reality, it means they have less freedom of choice than other people, are often heavily dependent on family members, and are sometimes left in situations of acute social isolation. It has also led to the removal of people with disabilities from their local communities and their inappropriate placement in expensive institutions.

12.3 The links between disability and low incomes and the added costs of suitable accommodation mean that people with disabilities are at a disadvantage when it comes to housing and, in particular, to home ownership. As in other areas, equal status for people with disabilities requires that they have the means to exercise their right to equality in housing. The rights to personal autonomy, to a similar range of choices as everyone else, and to participate in the life of the local and national community clearly require the removal of existing barriers, positive provisions and a redistribution of resources in housing.

12.4 If housing is to provide the base from which people with disabilities participate in society, then policies must address not only the question of the physical fabric of buildings and the serviceability of the wider environment but also the services, supports and income required to facilitate independent living.

12.5 The concept of Independent Living (already referred to in Chapter 10: Health) is fundamental to this approach and, in the Commission's view, should underpin policy on housing. Independent Living is the ability to decide and to choose what a person wants, where to live and how, what to do and how to set about doing it. It also involves establishing and taking control of the total management of a person's everyday life and affairs. The philosophy behind it is generally defined as living like everyone else, having the right to self-determination, to exert control over one's life, to have opportunities to make decisions, to take responsibility, and to pursue activities of one's own choosing, regardless of disability.

12.6 It is also important to clarify, in relation to accommodation, the distinction between residential care and residential accommodation. The Commission uses the term residential care to apply to accommodation and services for people who require constant supervision and care in order to live with any degree of independence. Residential accommodation is used in relation to accommodation for people who can live independently and who choose to live in residential centres or who live in residential centres because of a lack of other housing and personal assistance options and who may, at some point in the future, move to some other community housing/living option.

12.7 In setting about removing the barriers facing people with disabilities in relation to housing and accommodation, a number of factors have to be taken into account:

  • The complexity of housing: there are a variety of different housing sector with 90 different housing authorities in Ireland. There is also the interdependence of accommodation, the wider physical environment, social and health services and income support systems to be considered.
  • Inequities in the housing system: virtually every household in Ireland is subsidised but the subsidies are heavily biased towards owner occupation and many are regressive. This effectively discriminates against those outside the system or on its margins and is particularly pernicious in the case of people with disabilities because of the link between disability and low income.
  • Absence of formal policy: this results in people with disabilities being treated differently in different local housing authority areas and across disability groupings.
  • Supply and demand sides of market: the housing requirements of many people with disabilities are different to the 'norm' for which housing is designed. This has received little formal recognition in housing policy and where it is addressed it tends to be at the level of individual demand rather than supply. There are no guidelines, for instance, about the construction of a quota of houses specifically designed to wheelchair-accessible standard in the private or social housing sectors.
  • Designated housing: there is no tradition of housing authorities providing 'special housing' for people with disabilities as part of their building programmes. Where there is a specific housing provision for people with disabilities it tends to be provided by the voluntary/non profit and cooperative housing sector.

12.8 There are also specific housing problems faced by individuals or groups of people with disabilities. For instance, people previously in receipt of the Disabled Persons Maintenance Allowance are not entitled to any income maintenance payment once they go into long term residential accommodation. This leads to huge anomalies with other people in the same place entitled to insurance related benefits such as invalidity pension or blind pension. Those not entitled to insurance related benefits receive no statutory allowance, make no contribution to their maintenance, and are dependent on a small "pocket money" allowance given at the discretion of the local Health Boards.

12.9 A number of submissions to the Commission also drew attention to the risks of homelessness faced by people with psychiatric disabilities who often face serious accommodation problems after being discharged from hospitals. Single people tend not to be given priority in housing allocations: a review by the Irish Wheelchair Association found that it was generally difficult for young single people with physical disabilities and on low incomes to be housed by local authorities.

12.10 As a first step towards creating housing equity for people with disabilities, the Department of the Environment should formulate and publicise in accessible form a policy on housing for people with disabilities. This would provide information for planners, consumers and housing suppliers about the situation and requirements of people with disabilities and the options available.

12.11 As part of its policy formulation, the Department of the Environment should collate information about the demand for, and the take up of, housing for people with disabilities. It should commission the ESRI to undertake further analysis of the 1996 assessment of housing needs to establish the requirements of people with disabilities and the reasons for the low level of assessed need to date. All future national assessments of housing needs by local authorities should explicitly address the housing requirements of those living long term in residential centres.

12.12 In addition, ongoing information on access features and the suitability of housing for people with disabilities should be made available by those involved in supplying housing whether in the commercial or non-profit sectors. People with disabilities should be invited to contribute to the reviews underway in the Department of the Environment on the various measures introduced under A Plan for Social Housing.

12.13 Data should also be collected on the role of the increasingly important non-profit and voluntary housing sector in meeting the requirements of people with disabilities and on the relative merits of the various models of support housing which are now operational.

12.14 To enable this sector to make a greater contribution, the Commission recommends that adjustments be made in the capital assistance available and that a properly defined scheme of funding for support housing services be put in place. Funding from the Voluntary Capital Assistance Scheme should only be granted to housing agencies which are building to the standards of Lifetime Adaptable Housing.

12.15 The Commission strongly recommends the adoption of a policy of building Lifetime Adaptable Housing as the norm in all housing sectors. Such a policy is of crucial importance in facilitating independence and choice for people with disabilities.

12.16 Lifetime Adaptable Housing is about convenience and safety and has two major characteristics - accessibility and adaptability. The concept is based on the principle that homes should be accessible to all (children, elderly people and people with disabilities) and easily adapted to satisfy changing requirements, such as a temporary or permanent disability, throughout a lifetime. A number of features are included at the construction stage so that homes can be adapted easily later on, if necessary. The main features are:

  • No steps at entrances
  • Wider doors and corridors
  • Low level light switches
  • Downstairs toilet
  • Easy opening doors and windows
  • Good living space throughout
  • Accessible bathrooms
  • Easy to operate taps and fittings.

This new policy should be implemented through the assimilation of Part M of the Building Regulations into all other parts of the Regulations. An education and awareness programme should be put in place to promote understanding of the concept among developers, designers and builders.

12.17 Standards for Lifetime Adaptable Housing should be phased in with the immediate adoption of those aspects of adaptability which are relatively easy to apply and are based on a greater awareness of design requirements. The next phase, the application of more adequate space standards for full Lifetime Adaptable Housing, should be provided for in legislation and operational within three years.

12.18 Section 23 type incentives should be adjusted to allow a higher rate of allowances (between 10% and 20%) for units which meet the Lifetime Adaptable Housing specifications. It is also recommended that the financial incentives to seaside resorts should require a specified proportion of all eligible dwellings to be built in accordance with the new standards.

12.19 In order to improve existing houses, the Commission recommends that the Disabled Person's Grant should be modified to cover up to 95% of approved costs. The grant should be extended to the occupants of new houses and to those renting in the voluntary/non-profit housing sector who have security of tenure.

12.20 There should also be greater uniformity in the implementation of the grant by housing authorities. Information about the grant and its appeals procedures needs to be made available more widely.

12.21 The Commission also believes that local housing authorities throughout the country should be proactive in building up a supply of suitable housing. Schemes now available under A Plan for Social Housing should be utilised in a strategic manner.

12.22 The problems of people with disabilities on low incomes in securing housing have been noted earlier. The Commission recommends that three new schemes be put in place to improve their prospects of home ownership and to help offset the additional costs of suitable housing. Each of the proposals builds on an existing scheme.

  • A new grant to incorporate the Disabled Person's Grant and the first time purchaser's grant should be introduced where a first home is being purchased by a person with a disability and where additional housing costs are likely to be incurred.
  • The Shared Ownership System should be widened to allow house purchasers with a disability on low incomes to receive the enhanced first time purchaser's grant.
  • A financing arrangement should be developed to allow approved voluntary and non-profit housing bodies to provide an equity sharing tenure based on a 50% ownership by people with disabilities on limited incomes.

People in Residential Centres

12.23 No statistics on the numbers of people with physical and sensory disabilities inappropriately placed in institutions have been compiled since the early 1980's. The Commission recommends that such statistics should be compiled immediately and published before December, 1997. A plan of action to ensure that those inappropriately placed be moved to a more appropriate setting should then be put in place and no person with a physical or sensory disability should be inappropriately placed in these institutions in the future.

12.24 There is a critical lack of proper planning to meet the residential needs of people with disabilities, some of whom can live independently, but many of whom cannot. A range of successful accommodation options already exists in very limited numbers, which encourage a full and active lifestyle. These and other new and innovative options should be encouraged. For many people with disabilities, now on long waiting lists, they could represent a further choice of accommodation for the future.

12.25 Many parents of people with disabilities, some very elderly, live in great stress because of the size of the waiting lists and the uncertainty of their child ever having an alternative option to living at home. Respite care places relieve some of the problems for parents but the future residential needs of their child are a constant source of preoccupation and worry. This is particularly the case in relation to children and young adults.

12.26 Several years ago several of the agencies providing services for people with disabilities bought single houses in residential estates. Some of these worked well but others had problems, including vandalism in some cases. Staff and residents in these houses frequently felt isolated and alone.

In order to overcome such problems, housing options for people with disabilities should include a mix of different arrangements. Single houses, houses capable of accommodating four or five people; bungalow units clustered together; a group of three or four town houses with a communal garden - all of these options must be included. They should be situated close to amenities and retail outlets in order to maximise independence and they must have the appropriate support staff.

12.27 Consideration has to be given, too, to the special accommodation needs of people with disabilities and their partners.

12.28 The Commission recommends that a review be undertaken of people with disabilities in residential centres to establish accurately their numbers, locations and living conditions. Similarly, there should be a review of the people on waiting lists for residential centres to see if these lists could be reduced substantially by the provision of other services. The information obtained from these reviews would also help the planning of housing and accommodation options for the future.

12.29 Action should be taken to ensure that the rights of people living in residential centres are protected. The following are particularly recommended:

  • All residential establishments should publish an operational policy.
  • A Bill or Charter of Rights (see below) should set parameters for the operational policy.
  • An Independent Ombudsman should oversee residential centres, resolve grievances and ensure that proper consideration is given to the views and concerns of residents.

12.30 Residents should be actively encouraged to participate in the running of residential centres and a target set of 50% representation by them or their advocates on management boards within five years. Residents should be trained in preparation for management roles and in the skills necessary to live independently. Disability equality training should be provided for residents, staff and management.

12.31 Income supports should be provided in a way, which promotes autonomy and choice with payments made directly to individuals rather than to institutions. Payments should be clearly defined as between accommodation, personal assistance, and care elements.

12.32 People living in residential centres should have access to an Independent Living Fund which should be established to allow the employment of personal assistants and to train people with disabilities in the management of personal assistants. The Disability Support Service should also assist residents to obtain the best value and the most appropriate mix of services.

12.33 A Charter Of Rights for residents of residential centres should contain the following essential elements:

  • Specific provisions setting out the detailed services provided by the institution.
  • Quality standards of services to which the person is entitled.
  • The right to information and the manner in which that will be provided.
  • The manner in which records will be maintained and the right of access to records.
  • The right of access to complaint procedures and the manner in which the complaint procedures will operate.
  • The right to an independent appeal.
  • The right to advocacy and representation.
  • The right to participate in management and monitoring, and
  • A system of review and amendment of the Charter taking into account the views of service users.

12.34 It is essential that a system of overseeing and monitoring of standards in residential accommodation should be set in place by the Departments of Health and Environment (to be reviewed by the National Disability Authority) if these recommendations are to be implemented in practice as well as in theory.