The need for clear rules on accessible housing
26 April 2021 at 6:17 pm
It is not enough that governments give someone a roof over their head and ignore their other needs. Housing must be adequate and appropriately designed for a person’s circumstances, writes Disability Discrimination Commissioner Dr Ben Gauntlett.
This is the ninth of a 12-part series from Housing All Australians exploring the role that housing can and should play within Australian society and why it is important to our economy that we house all Australians, rich or poor.
Good disability policy benefits all Australians. Sometimes it requires governments to mandate outcomes to overcome market failures.
It is important that we house all Australians, rich or poor, because it reduces pressure on Australia’s health, welfare, disability support and aged care systems.
4.4 million Australians presently have a disability and to future-proof the country from health and disability policy challenges it is necessary for all levels of government to act decisively (and cleverly) on housing policy.
It is not enough that governments give someone a roof over their head and ignore their other needs. The housing must be adequate and appropriately designed for a person’s circumstances so they can remain healthy and undertake social, community and economic participation.
For Australia to have enough accessible housing will take a combination of well-designed social housing, mandatory laws regarding the incorporation of accessibility features into new houses, and the temporary or permanent renovation of existing housing. The scale of the problem requires action from both government and non-government organisations.
Some people and organisations think social and economic policy concerning housing can be divided into “disability” and “non-disability” silos. This siloing ignores that approximately 80 per cent of disability is acquired in a person’s life, universal design principles benefit everyone and the majority of disability is invisible. For example, parents of young children can benefit from step free access to a house and a bathroom area just as much as a retiree living at home and dealing with mobility challenges.
In addition, accessible housing is not just of benefit to individuals who presently have mobility challenges. It may also benefit individuals of all ages with a significant intellectual and cognitive disability (eg early-stage dementia), sensory disabilities (such as people with low vision) and people who are neurodiverse. When care or support is provided in the home, it is cheaper, safer and easier if it is provided in an appropriately designed space. Furthermore, a well-designed home can mean care or support does not need to be provided.
In the United States of America, it has been estimated that there is a 60 per cent probability that any new house will be occupied by a person with a disability over its lifespan. In Australia, over 90 per cent of people with disability live in private housing. There is no reason to expect this US figure to be different in Australia. This highlights the need for private housing to exhibit accessibility features.
But it has been estimated that only 5 per cent of new private houses built in Australia are accessible. This is troubling given the human rights imperative to live in appropriate housing, the likelihood of people with disability living in poverty, the wish of many Australians to remain in their own home as long as possible and the dangers created by institutionalisation.
All Australians have a human right to an adequate standard of living, which includes appropriate housing. This right has been recognised in numerous human rights’ treaties that Australia has signed and ratified. For example, the right has been recognised in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1996). Later human rights treaties, including those relating to violence against women and the elimination of racism, have also acknowledged the importance of an adequate standard of living and appropriate housing.
For people with disability, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities acknowledges the right to an adequate standard of living (which includes housing) and social protection. This right has been recognised together with a need for accessibility in the community and a right to live independently as part of the community.
However, in 2019, when Australia’s compliance with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was reviewed by the supervising Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, it was found Australia needed mandatory rules regarding accessibility of new houses. Furthermore, it was concerning to the committee that only limited consideration of persons with disabilities, particularly Indigenous persons with disabilities, had occurred in strategies to reduce poverty and homelessness – including the National Affordable Housing Agreement and National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness. Any organisation advocating for compliance with human rights or sustainable development goals should be concerned by these findings of the committee.
People with disability are more likely to live in poverty, be jobless and require social or public housing than people without disability. The Australian Institute for Health and Welfare has reported in 2020 that 41 per cent of all households in social housing include a person with disability and 62 per cent are single adult households. Therefore, social housing policy must be informed by the ongoing and future needs of people with disability in Australia.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Australians want to remain in their communities near families and friends for as long as possible. When the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety commissioned a research paper in July 2020 concerning, “What Australians Think of Ageing and Aged Care” the following question was asked: “where do Australians want to live if they need support or care?” Older Australians indicated a strong preference to stay in their own house if they need support or care. Only 25 per cent stated they would prefer to live in a residential aged care to access required care.
Care institutions, which includes aged care facilities, can unfortunately be gateways to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. The World Health Organisation has found that people in aged care facilities are twice as likely to experience abuse. Institutions for people with disability are unlikely to be any different.
Reliance upon institutional care options has led to the need for royal commissions and compromises the efficacy of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
But what is the solution? The National Housing Dialogue on Universal Housing Design in 2010, which led a consensus agreement by industry, the community, government and human rights organisations to seek to have minimum liveable housing design standards by 2020 has failed.
It is obvious we need clear rules.
This article is part of a 12-part series from Housing All Australians, which intends to draw on a range of perspectives centred around housing and homelessness. We will hear a range of views from business, the not-for-profit sector and hopefully government, as to why they believe housing is an important social and economic building block for Australia’s future prosperity.