‘We moved 300 miles just to find a wheelchair friendly home’: Disabled Britons are being forced to move to the opposite end of the country due to shortage of accessible properties
- People are having to move away from families and support networks for homes
- One couple had to leave Somerset for a house 300 miles away in County Durham
- There is a national shortage of accessible homes, with waiting lists lasting years
Disabled Britons are being forced to move to the opposite end of the country from their family and support networks due to a national shortage of accessible homes.
Among the cases uncovered by The Mail on Sunday is a 52-year-old paraplegic man who had to close down his business when he had no choice but to move to a bungalow more than 100 miles from his home in Essex.
And a 28-year-old woman with learning disabilities and a history of self-harm who needed round-the-clock care was moved from Birmingham, where she lived with her family, to Hertfordshire.
Now her residential care home has been threatened with closure and she faces being shunted to Scotland. The disruption has left her increasingly anxious and her carers fear she is a danger to herself.
Meanwhile, one profoundly disabled boy has been left traumatised after his parents were faced with a move from London to Birmingham – taking him away from his special needs primary school.
‘The school offered everything for this child – one-on-one personal care and education,’ says Jo Underwood, a solicitor at the charity Shelter who is involved with the case.
UPHEAVAL: Mary and Mike Nevin had to move to an accessible home at the other end of England
Mr and Mrs Nevin had move more than 300 miles from their home in Taunton, Somerset, to a new property in Hartlepool, County Durham
‘There wasn’t anything like that near the new house. Not to mention the trauma of being prised apart from the family who helped look after him.’
After lengthy legal proceedings, Shelter helped the family put a halt to the move.
About 1.9 million Britons with disabilities need their home to be accessible – fitted with ramps, handrails, wide door frames and downstairs shower rooms – so they can move around safely. Some 1.2 million of these are wheelchair users, according to NHS figures.
If a disabled person is in a property that is no longer safe to live in due to their needs, they are placed on a waiting list for an accessible council house or residential care facility. A small number may choose to hunt for their own property, to rent or buy. In all cases, the supply is scant.
Outside London, just 1.5 per cent of residential properties due to be built over the next decade will be suitable for a wheelchair user to live in, according to housing association Habinteg.
The Government does not hold data on the current proportion of houses that can be lived in by wheelchair users, but housing experts believe it to be roughly two per cent.
Ms Underwood says: ‘Disabled people are sitting on waiting lists for years, in houses where their wheelchair can’t fit through the door, or there’s no toilet or bathroom they can get into so they have to use their kitchen.’
She describes people struggling in Dickensian conditions, forced to get by in a single room because the rest of their house is inaccessible.
She adds: ‘When something does come up, it might be hundreds of miles away, so they have no option but to move. It means children have to change schools and the family lose their support from local nurses and carers, as well as family.
‘In some cases, nearby family and friends are the carers – and without them, they are stranded.’
As for the private rental market, she adds: ‘The few that are suitable aren’t affordable for most disabled people.’
Last week the Government announced plans to beef up minimum accessibility standards for new housing developments.
Under the proposed legislation, they will be required to have step-free access to all ground-floor rooms, and bathrooms and staircases must have walls that are robust enough to withstand having handrails or stairlifts fitted.
But according to analysis by Habinteg, more than half of homes due to be built over the next ten years will not meet these standards.
A regional breakdown seen by The Mail on Sunday highlights striking disparities. In some areas of the UK, such as the West Midlands, less than one per cent of new homes planned to be built between 2020 and 2030 will be suitable for a wheelchair user. In London, the figure is 7.5 per cent.
A third of new housing stock in the South East will be adaptable for wheelchair users, with space for bathrooms to be fitted downstairs and wide floorspace, but in Yorkshire this is not the case for more than nine in ten homes.
Disabled adults more lonely than non-disabled adults
One in seven disabled adults report feeling lonely ‘often or always’ – four times the number of non-disabled people.
‘It’s a very patchy picture,’ says Christina McGill, director of social impact at Habinteg.
‘Many local authorities fail to keep disabled people in mind when planning new homes.’
Daniel Slade, 52, fell victim to the problem in June 2018 when he suffered a burst blood vessel in his spine that left him paralysed from the waist down.
At the time, the keen sailor was living in Southend-on-Sea, running a successful design business.
After three months in hospital, doctors said he was ready to be discharged, but as he had been living on a houseboat which his wheelchair couldn’t fit into, he had to stay on the ward. The local authority declared him homeless and put him on a waiting list for a wheelchair-friendly property.
In November a place became available – over 100 miles from home in Northamptonshire, in a care home for elderly people.
‘I didn’t have a choice. I remember thinking, if I don’t take this I’ll be out on the street,’ says Daniel.
Two years later, Northamptonshire County Council found a suitable bungalow in nearby Kettering, featuring a downstairs shower room and wide corridors.
Daniel adds: ‘I’m very isolated up here, and if I get ill or have to go to hospital there isn’t anyone to help.’
Mike Nevin, 61, found himself in a similar situation. The former product manager from Taunton, Somerset, suffers from a rare genetic disease called syringomyelia, which causes progressive loss of function in the arms and legs.
In 2018, Mike and his wife Mary were living in their two-bedroom Victorian terrace when Mike’s health deteriorated and he became unable to walk.
‘We’d bought the house at a time when I was more mobile,’ says Mike.
‘I didn’t expect to be relying on a wheelchair full-time. I couldn’t get down the narrow corridor to use the toilet, nor would my chair fit through the front door.
‘I found myself spending most days in bed, in the living room, not because I felt unwell but because it wasn’t physically possible for me to get anywhere.’
While Mary was out most days caring for her 92-year-old father, Mike became reliant on friends from a local church group for support and delivering vital supplies.
There is a national shortage of homes that are accessible for people with disabilities, with waiting lists lasting years
He says: ‘We looked at buying something more suitable, but there was nothing we could afford nearby, or even in neighbouring towns, that was wide enough for my wheelchair or easily adaptable. The first house we found that was in our price range was in Hartlepool, more than 300 miles away. Never did we expect to move that far.’
Moving miles from his life felt like ‘losing an arm’, he says. ‘Our children live in the US so we’d built a big group of friends and extended family in Taunton, and it’s heartbreaking to leave that.’
The UK’s existing housing stock is ‘mostly inadequate’ for the majority of disabled people, says Ms McGill.
‘We have some of the oldest housing in Europe, most of which was built decades before anyone started thinking of the needs of disabled people. While some changes, like putting in handrails, might be possible with strong walls, other vital things – like widening corridors and changing bedrooms into shower rooms – aren’t always easy.’
Alexa Woodcock, a 48-year-old teacher from Chester, has waited a year for her local council to fund the installation of a downstairs bathroom for her disabled son.
Finlay, 16, who has cerebral palsy and relies on a wheelchair, uses a bed pan in the kitchen and sleeps in the living room.
‘The council found me properties that were miles from the local area, but that wasn’t an option because my mother and sister are nearby and they help care for Finlay,’ she says.
Alexa, who has two other children, applied for a Disability Facilities Grant – local council funding for home adaptations and equipment – to pay for the new bathroom and an extension, which would give Finlay a downstairs bedroom. But she has been refused the extension and told to wait at least 18 months for the bathroom.
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‘For the first five months I was carrying Finlay up and down the stairs, and injured my back,’ says Alexa. ‘We have a temporary stairlift now but he can’t always use it on his own. The council’s response was that I should ask my other son, who is 14, to help.’
Campaigners have also warned of learning-disabled people being placed in residential homes far from their loved ones.
According to the charity Mencap, some 22,000 learning-disabled people are living in accommodation outside their local authority area.
Analyses by the charity also found 82 per cent of local authorities say they have a shortage of homes for people with learning disabilities.
Last month, care home provider St Elizabeth’s in Hertfordshire announced it could be shutting its doors in November, leaving the 83 vulnerable adults who live there needing housing.
Last week, after residents’ families sent a legal letter to its bosses, they agreed to allow for a consultation period before the closure goes ahead.
‘We’re far from out of the woods – there’s every chance the home will close,’ one relative told The Mail on Sunday.
One resident is 28-year-old Renee Faragher, who suffers up to five epileptic seizures a day and requires round-the-clock care. She had been placed in a St Elizabeth’s bungalow – moving there from Birmingham, 120 miles away.
‘There was absolutely nothing nearby,’ says her mother, Linda, 60.
‘It was a complete upheaval for her. She’d never been away from us, not even for one night. She was angry and couldn’t understand why she had to be so far away.
‘She can self-harm when she’s feeling lonely and frustrated.’
If St Elizabeth’s closes, Linda could face an even longer round trip to see her daughter.
‘I’ve heard nothing from the local council about a new place,’ she says.
‘I’ve enquired with private providers and the only that has a place is in Scotland.
‘I don’t think either of us could cope with that.’