This house in Livermore, California was built with accessibility in mind Photo: Carlos Chavarría

When Peter Dutton grabbed headlines last week claiming his Labor opponent in Dickson, Ali France, was using her disability as an excuse for not moving house ahead of the election, it showed a clear lack of awareness about the situation facing people who need accessible housing.

A quick call by The Fifth Estate to a local agent in Dickson soon clarified that accessible housing is a rare commodity in this outer Brisbane locality.

Harcourts Pinnacle Aspley sales and marketing consultant Lolit Bumanlag says that it is “very seldom” the agency gets homes on the books that are wheelchair friendly.

Mostly, people moving into the area have to build homes themselves or customise an existing home if they need accessibility features.

Homes in the area are often high-set, or have stairs to the entries, or might have a feature like a sunken lounge.

It’s also all about the space inside, Bumanlag says, and whether it is possible to navigate it easily.

She says she has dealt with a number of purchasers who have been looking for accessibility features not due to a present need, but because they can see they will in the next few years have mobility issues and will need a mobility-friendly home.

As well as a level path to the entry, step-free entry and wide doorway, they look for features like a place under cover outside or inside near the front door to park and charge an electric mobility scooter. This is also not always easy to find in homes on the market.  

Sadly, the situation in Dickson is not abnormal

But Dickson is not unusual in having a dearth of dwellings suitable for those with accessibility requirements such as disability, age-related health issues, being on crutches following injury or grappling with infernal contraptions for conveying small children in and out of their property.

Dickson is typical – and that is a major problem.

There are some moves afoot to change the way new homes are built – and more on that shortly – because the bottom line is that more inclusive and user-friendly housing that incorporates basic universal design would ensure homes work for just about anyone.

For people with disability, the lack of dwellings that meet basic Livable Housing Design Guidelines can compromise full participation in both economic and social life.

Back in 2010, a target of 100 per cent of new dwellings meeting basic accessibility requirements was developed by the National Dialogue on Universal Housing Design, Samantha French, senior policy officer for People with Disability Australia says.

It was an “aspirational target which would, in turn, deliver on Australia’s commitments under the National Disability Strategy Goal 1 to create more inclusive and accessible communities”.

There are specific difficulties and barriers created by the lack of affordable and appropriate housing near employment.

“A lack of affordable, accessible housing directly affects employment opportunities including where a person can work, hours that they can work, access to training and promotion as well as all the social activities that come with being part of a workplace,” French says.

“People with disability, like everyone else, need to have easy access and proximity to their places of employment.

“This includes ensuring there are strong and well-planned links between accessible housing, accessible public transport and an accessible built environment such as footpaths, premises and availability of accessible facilities such as toilets.”

There are even barriers to engaging with the property market.

“Where employed or not, whether housing is being sought for purchase or in the private rental market, people with disability face numerous barriers to have our housing needs met,” French says. 

“It is extremely difficult to find rental properties that are both accessible and affordable.”

It is also difficult to access funding and/or approval to make the necessary modifications to rental properties.

French says Ali France’s experience – including the negative criticism she received – is not unusual.

“The appalling comments that Ali France has been exposed to is sadly a common experience for many people with disability. 

“Many of us face difficulties in finding accessible housing in close proximity to our work and we often face highly restricted choices in where we can live. The comments also highlight the poor attitudes and a lack of understanding that still exists within the community as we navigate and negotiate our way around a largely inaccessible environment.”

How far off is industry on delivering accessible housing for all?

Dr Jane Bringolf, a director of the Centre for Universal Design Australia, tells The Fifth Estate that in 2010, there was a consensus from government, property developers, and advocates for older people and people with disability for basic access features to be rolled out in all new homes by 2020.

It is unlikely we will get there.

The basic design features for minimum universal design features such as a level point of entry to the dwelling; step-free showers that allow for seated use and toilets in a ground floor bathroom with room to manoeuvre; wider doorways and corridor widths have been the focus of ongoing consultation by the Australian Building Codes Board.

Ironically, its report on the latest industry and stakeholder consultation was released just days before Dutton was blasting Ali France.

The report makes it clear the industry still has a long way to go before it is delivering accessible housing for all.

While wheelchair users as a specific group of people with disability are a small proportion of the population, Bringolf says the accessibility features are also important for people to age in place.

Social housing is not the answer for all people with disability, as there are those who have well-paid jobs. Ex-paralympians, for example, are often in full-time employment and earning incomes that allow them full independence. There are also many living with other family members in a family home.

In general, Bringolf says the house building industry has not “come to the party” of its own volition on delivering universal design features as a standard product.

Hence the need for changes to the construction code to make it happen.

Volume builders are generally resistant

Bringolf says many volume builders are reluctant to include access features even when asked. 

“If you engage an architect for a custom build then yes, you can get level access to the alfresco,” she says.

Bringolf says obtaining finance to purchase an existing home can be challenging when easy access features are needed. A buyer may need to downsize the price of the home so they can obtain sufficient finance for any required modifications to make it liveable for them.

The reality is accessible housing ready to move into simply isn’t easy to find – and even when a home is accessible, there is no easy way for buyers to identify those properties.

Bringolf says one of the issues is that project homes and volume builders are creating products that are “aspirational”. The pitch is the “dream home” – and ageing and disability simply are not aspirational.

Many builders also see providing disability-friendly housing as a government responsibility, Bringolf notes.

There is also an attitude older people should be moving into specifically designed retirement villas, not expecting the mass market to cater for their changing needs.

 However, with the statistics showing that around 35 per cent of households include a person with a disability, this is a mass market need.

“That’s a big chunk of the population.”

The lack of accessible housing also impacts who can visit a dwelling. Bringolf says many people “just put up with it” when they realise a family member or friend cannot visit their home due to an un-navigable entry or internal features.

The lack of interest in delivering accessible housing also means there are few putting thought into design for accessibility.

Good design doesn’t mean there will be “ugly” grab bars everywhere as many people think, Bringolf says.

“It doesn’t need to look like a person with a disability lives there.”

The reluctance to make accessible design a basic and universal part of dwellings is not an outrageous demand on the industry.

“We already have so many universal features such as walls, roof and windows,” Bringolf observes.

It is not a stretch from these types of universal features to making accessibility standard so that more homes are useable by more people across their lifespan, she says.

“It’s not rocket science. [These features] are already included in over 55’s developments – the technical problems have already been overcome.”

As to the argument the accessibility features will cost more – which was a feature of the ABCB Options Paper and industry submissions – Bringolf disputes it is due to increased materials or labour costs.

Any added cost is due to the need for subtrades to change the standard practices, and in going back and undertaking re-work where they have done things in the usual “cookie cutter” fashion and failed to deliver specified universal design features.

She calls it the “hump cost” – the initial adjustment required to get the industry onboard with doing things slightly differently.

Ultimately, accessibility in housing is just about “thoughtful design and useability for the maximum number of people.”

Feedback on the ABCB accessible housing paper

The Outcomes Report released by the ABCB summarises the feedback it received on the Options Paper on changing the National Construction Code in 2022 to make basic accessible design elements mandatory in all new dwellings, including detached housing and medium density.

The next stage of the process will be the release of a Regulatory Impact Statement for public comment in the coming months.

Submissions cited in the Outcomes Report flagged some major issues beyond the design and construction practices that are currently business as usual.

They include the way landlords and tenancy rules themselves can disadvantage people with disability or others needing Livable Design features.

Under current rules, a potential tenant faces a struggle both securing and departing from a rental. If they obtain permission to make necessary modifications, they are then generally obliged to undo those modifications and restore the property to its original condition when vacating. This doubles the cost impost on the tenant.

Other submissions highlighted the lack of any effective search mechanisms on real estate websites, as there is still a perception that accessibility is a “special feature”.

But with more Australians expected to be lifetime renters, more than 35 per cent of households including a person with a disability and more than 50 per cent of people aged 65 or over having a disability, ensuring rental rules support making housing accessible for all appears a fundamental requirement of a just and equitable housing market.

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  1. Well said Nick. I’d like to add that conferences on housing and urban issues also “forget” this topic. With the NDIS and millions of dollars going to Specialist Disability Accommodation (SDA), many will think “job done”. No. It’s only for a tiny percentage of people and money will mostly go to group homes. It won’t be about family homes where the bulk of people with disability live. Besides universal design is great for the stroller, small children and let’s not forget visitors with a disability. And let’s remember it’s not all about wheelchairs and grab bars! It’s much more. It’s about the people we love.

  2. Fantastic article Willow, highlighting in many ways the ‘danger of disability’ – this fear of the differently abled and the inability of most of us to see our future selves as needing these features.

    Also, Consciously or unconsciously, like Mr Dutton, the ‘market’ and the ‘aspirational’ purchaser is expressing a cultural attitude of diminishment and marginalisation, that devalues and excludes people, rather than includes them.

    In terms of building standards, often ‘new standards’ (like the Premises Standards for public buildings) are introduced to make the different/difficult ‘conform’ to a ‘new normal’ and hence does away with, in the main, issues of reappraisal of who gets to participate and socio-spatial equity. The fact that this is such a glaring problem in the production of housing (still) suggests clearly that the needs of real people, in all their diversity, is not front and centre of a market-based society