Why we need more accessible housing

Rene Gollenberg-Ryder

Rene tells us about her experience of applying for a Disabled Facilities Grant and how things can be improved.

Rene Gollenberg-Ryder in her wet room

What is like to live in a home that wasn’t built with you in mind? When I became a wheelchair user, I found out the hard way.

I have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, which leads to frequent injuries and dislocations. I had a spinal injury in 2015 which compounded the existing mobility challenges I faced. After a series of falls, I started using a wheelchair. I could no longer get upstairs to the bathroom.

With the upstairs unusable, my front room doubled as my bedroom and bathroom. I had to use a commode and a bucket for washing. I spent three years without a shower in my home, washing my hair in that bucket. It was undignified and difficult.

It took three years to have my home adapted for my needs. These adaptations, made through a Disabled Facilities Grant, are meant to take 18 months to complete in total. I would have moved to an accessible bungalow, but they were extremely scarce and, in any case, too expensive.

Applying for a Disabled Facilities Grant

I applied in 2016 through Bristol City Council. Anyone in England, Wales and Northern Ireland can apply (rules differ by nation and there is a different scheme in Scotland). I wanted to adapt my bathroom and kitchen so that I could wash and cook safely.

Each completed application should typically get an approval or denial decision within six months, and works should generally be complete 12 months after approval.

There were several people – council employees, health and social care professionals – who had my best interests at heart. I had a fantastic Occupational Therapist working on my case. But there were huge delays in getting the works done.

The process for a Disabled Facilities Grant is confusing

To begin with, I think people got too caught up in the process. The bureaucracy was very confusing. I went through multiple reassessments, builders revised their plans, and budgets were altered. My application changed several times. All of this added up to a massive delay. 

The builders overcharged the council and did a really poor job. They put in discount-range fittings and charged the council for premium products. Things were not completed as agreed. A few months later, the adaptations are falling apart. There are ongoing issues with the builders’ work being of a very low standard. I don’t have a kitchen I can use. The repairs can’t happen yet due to coronavirus.

A Disabled Facilities Grant is an essential resource

My wheelchair accessible bathroom, or ‘wetroom’, was made the wrong size and cut into my garden. I am getting a new grant for the garden, which I hope will go more smoothly. But crucially, my wetroom is done, and I can use it. This makes a massive difference to my daily life.

I’m glad that the Disabled Facilities Grant is there. It is an essential resource, and I could not have afforded to adapt the property myself. But everything took too long. I find it frustrating that we don’t have more houses that are either accessible or at least much simpler to adapt, in the first place.

In my case, I’m more than three years into the Disabled Facilities Grant process now, and the adaptations still aren’t entirely sorted. And I’m not alone.

Councils need more resources

Many more disabled people face long waits for adaptations to their homes. Leonard Cheshire research shows that across 180 councils in England an average of 1,000 disabled people per year wait longer than the 12-month deadline for completion of works. This research also found 67% of councils have examples of people waiting beyond this deadline.

Local authorities need more resources to be able to support people like me. The modest increases in central government funding for Disabled Facilities Grants, which lasted for a few years until 2020, were welcome but just not enough. Underfunding has limited the ability of councils to get Disabled Facilities Grants processed in a timely way. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a legally required timeframe for getting these adaptations completed, and it is there for a very good reason. The government needs to enable councils to meet these deadlines for everyone who applies. Because no one should go for three years without a useable bathroom.

No one should go without an accessible home.