Nothing Special

By Laurence Clark

The Times March ’07

There are many barriers to buying a new home when you’re a wheelchair user, says disabled comedian Laurence Clark…

It is still commonly assumed that disabled people only want specialist social housing, yet more and more of us are seeking the right to become homeowners.  Both my wife Adele and I have mobility impairments and we have a two year old son called Tom, but why has it has taken us eighteen months to find a home to buy that has the potential to be adapted to suit to our requirements?  Indeed since we moved in three months ago, I think some of our neighbours assumed our new bungalow had been turned into a care home… like that’s the collective noun for more than one disabled person living together!

A few years ago I paid a deposit on a new apartment in a city centre with an agreement that it be made accessible.  I ended up going to the small claims court after the developer told me I’d have to rip out the expensive kitchen and bathroom he’d installed (despite my saying I did not want them beforehand) in order to fit accessible ones!

Ever since then I’ve taken delight in visiting sales showrooms, just to see the sales agents’ reaction to me.  Typically this is a look of horror as they see me coming towards them in my wheelchair, their minds racing to work out the quickest way to get rid of me without causing a scene.  I get the most fun out of visiting inaccessible show flats, since then they have the added embarrassment of dealing with me on the doorstep, in full view of passers by.  Visits arranged by estate agents are also problematic, since you can almost visibly see the owner’s heart sink when they catch sight of the two of us and immediately write off any possibility of selling their home today!

Although arranging a mortgage was not a big problem, our bank’s life insurance booklet showed someone on crutches and asked what would happen to our mortgage repayments if this was to happen to us.  We explained to our mortgage adviser that it already has happened to us, since my wife actually does use crutches and I use a wheelchair all the time… he was lost for words!

I used to scour the Rightmove property website for newly-added bungalows in my neighbourhood, trying to guess from the estate agent’s descriptions whether we’d stand a chance of making them accessible to us.  I’ll never understand why estate agents are not regulated, since amongst other things their property details could then be standardized.  When considering a bungalow I’m interested in factors that are rarely described in their literature, such as whether there are steps to get in, internal layout, width of doorways, bathroom sized and layout, etc.  Instead I’m left to guess whether phrases like “individually designed” and “deceptively spacious” mean that I can actually get into the place!

Even though our new bungalow is fairly accessible, we still have to do quite a lot of work in order to make it liveable.  We’ve knocked together a storage cupboard and w/c to create an en-suite wet room, since the existing shower cubicle was completely useless for inaccessible to us.  We’ve had to replace two PVC front doors which had a 2-inch threshold with accessible doors.  Shortly we’ll be installing an electric door so we can use the garage to store our electric wheelchairs, and replacing the driveway in order to achieve level access into the property.  Eventually we’ll replace the bathroom, installing a larger, lower-level bath that we can easily get in and out of.

I estimate it will cost us about £25,000 to carry out all of this work.  There’s no point in us applying for a Disabled Facilities Grant from our local council as we would not be considered a priority and may wait for anything up to 8 years to have our application considered.  Even then we would still end up paying for most of the adaptations since the grant is means tested and both my wife and I work.  Furthermore, if we went down this route then we’d have to pay back whatever money we got from the grant if we moved home again within 5 years, thus we would be restricted if, say, one of us were to be  offered a job in a different part of the country.

With the Government receiving record amounts of income from stamp duty, it does seem a little unfair to be taxing disabled people in this way when it has done so little to encourage the building of adaptable, let alone accessible housing in the private sector.  Whilst waiving stamp duty on homes that needed adapting would by no means resolve this issue, it would at least help with the costs of adaptations.  A precedent has already been set by the waiving of stamp duty to encourage other socially disadvantaged communities to enter the property market.

Factors such as the ageing population and current social policy encouraging more and more disabled people to be in work and live in the community mean that the demand for accessible housing will increase over time.  So why is it that we do not seem to be moving toward a point where it becomes the norm to build accessible, or at least adaptable, homes that everybody can live in?

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