How the social model of disability can help us add life to years
Accessible housing has the ability to reduce isolation and improve quality of life by supporting health, independence and wellbeing, particularly as we get older. And yet our homes fail to meet growing demand.
In this guest blog, Nic Bungay, Director of Strategy and External Affairs at Habinteg, explains how our needs can change as we age and that instead of just accepting these disabling barriers in our homes, we should make adjustments.
The most recent data from the Family Resources survey reveals 44% of pension age people in the UK report that they are disabled, with mobility impairment the most common experience – so what’s new about that?
Some of us are familiar with the day-to-day practical challenges of life as an older person. Before the pandemic we may have agonised about whether an older relative could easily attend a family get together; could they get up the steps to our front door, use the toilet easily or stay the night? Habinteg asked about this in a YouGov poll in 2019 and found that some 69% of respondents wouldn’t be able to welcome a wheelchair user into their home.
For far too many older people, their home, and those of family and friends, present design features which at best limit their activity and at worst are a danger. Trip and fall hazards are the second most frequently identified issue in surveys using the Housing Health and Safety Ratings System and since COVID-19 hit many have been forced to spend even more time at home, exposed to these hazards 24/7. It’s all too easy to accept these challenges and limitations as an inevitable side effect of growing older. Many older people with age-related impairments don’t consider themselves ‘disabled’. And although we should respect their self-definition, this can be a barrier to policy makers understanding what needs to change.
The English Household Survey, for example, systematically underrepresents older people’s housing needs. It first asks people if they are disabled and only then asks about their need for access features in the home. Consequently we under-record the housing needs of many older people who see themselves as simply ‘getting older’ rather than being disabled. Taking a leaf out of the book of the disability movement can help – the social model of disability determines that people are disabled by their environment. It’s not a status conferred by a physical or sensory impairment, but by the way that society builds and does things – creating barriers and exclusions. Applying the social model to older people as they age allows us to confront common assumptions and see that some of the challenging aspects of ageing are environmental. Disabled older people can live full lives as long as the homes they live in (along with those of friends, neighbours, families) are accessible.
We under-record the housing needs of many older people who see themselves as simply getting older
The State of Ageing 2020 report mentions that just 9% of homes in England provide even the most basic combination of access features, such as a level threshold and an entrance level WC. Yet we know that most people wish to grow older where they currently live – be that in the same home or the same neighbourhood. Why should people have to ‘make do’ with unsuitable housing as our physical capacity changes, purely because of the established norms of home design?
The ambitious targets for house building in the UK provide a great opportunity to create new homes that present fewer disabling barriers from the outset and can also adapt as people’s needs change at any stage of life. Building regulations already offer a standard that fits the bill – the ‘accessible, adaptable’ standard, or M4 (2) as it’s technically known. The government recognises the issue and last December they concluded a consultation on how best to get more accessible homes built. Habinteg, along with Centre for Ageing Better, other members of the HoME coalition and countless others called for M4(2) to be set as the new baseline for all new homes.
For older people in particular the access features provided in an M4(2) home and its inherent adaptability can reduce isolation and improve quality of life supporting health, independence and wellbeing. We are eagerly awaiting the outcome of the consultation on the M4(2) proposals. With more and more of us living to advanced years it’ hard to imagine why we’d want to build anything else.