‘Housing Issues for Women With Disabilities’

Written by Diana Currie. This article appeared in the now defunct Journal entitled Shelter NHA, Volume 11, Number 3, June 1996. At the time of its publication, Diana Currie was employed as the Research and Policy Officer for Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA). Copyright 1996.


Housing is, of course, not an isolated issue but is inextricably linked to other aspects of daily living, including a general sense of security and well being, a feeling of independence and control over one’s life. There is almost universal agreement that housing is a basic human right, but the reality is that an overwhelming number of people – many of whom are women with disabilities – are still in search of the elusive ‘appropriate, affordable, secure housing’, and their numbers are increasing. The Federal Government’s Women’s Budget Statement 1995-96 (p26) concedes that ‘…women are major consumers of public housing’ … and that there should be ‘…more opportunities for individuals … to choose accommodation that best suits their needs.’ The Statement also refers to the review of the Commonwealth/State Housing Agreement and asserts that ‘… it is designed to promote well-located housing with good access to public transport, community services, work and educational facilities.’

This all sounds very positive, even reassuring, but how does it work in practice? While there is some agreement about what should be, we need to look at what the situation actually is.

To begin with, we know that there is a chronic lack of public housing stock, in good condition, and in appropriate locations. Problems are compounded for women with disabilities because few dwellings are accessible and modified (or modifiable), and the lack of accurate data on the availability of such dwellings exacerbates the hunt for appropriate housing even further.

Secondly, there is great anxiety about the trend towards private rental (with increased government subsidies) rather than building or renovating more public dwellings. Issues for contention include a perceived increased lack of tenants’ autonomy, discriminatory attitudes by private landlords (which are already a matter for alarm), and spiralling rental costs despite assurances that this will not happen.

Thirdly, though by no means lastly, there is considerable cause for concern that the two major political parties in their recent election policies for women failed to acknowledge women’s housing needs. It goes without saying that neither came to grips with the unique housing needs of women with disabilities. There are women with disabilities for whom appropriate housing is not a problem, but there are many more for whom it is a complex and anxiety-arousing issue.

The current status of Australian women with disabilities

Nearly 10 per cent of Australia’s population are women with disabilities. Pane highlights the fact that women with disabilities face the same discrimination that women without disabilities have to contend with, on the basis of their gender, marital status, sexual orientation, etc. Therefore, some 1.6 million women experience the dual disadvantage of discrimination, firstly on the basis of their gender and secondly as a direct result of their disability. This dual disadvantage is multiplied for women with disabilities who do not fit other aspects of the mainstream mould, like those from non-English speaking backgrounds, indigenous women, and lesbian women. Furthermore, women with psychiatric disabilities, and those with intellectual disabilities, experience particular stigma and discrimination with regard to housing.

It is a lamentable fact that women with disabilities experience discriminatory attitudes not only from men (with and without disabilities) but also from women without disabilities. Furthermore, there can be no assumption that women-specific policies automatically include women with disabilities. Rather, women with disabilities are always mentioned as a ‘vulnerable’ or ‘marginalised’ group: if they are referred to specifically, it is under a different heading in policy documents, thus emphasising the philosophical isolation and non-inclusion of women with disabilities..This is evident, for example, in the structure of the National Agenda for Women as well as in most other policy statements.

Some of The Australian Bureau of Statistics data from the 1988 and 1993 surveys of disability, ageing and carers show that women with disabilities in Australia:

  • Are less likely to be in paid work than other women, men with disabilities, and the population as a whole.
  • Earn less than their male counterparts.
  • Are less likely than their male counterparts to receive a senior secondary and tertiary education.
  • Are more likely to be institutionalised than their male counterparts, and are often forced to live in situations which make them vulnerable to violence.
  • Have a greater unmet need for help than their male counterparts.

In addition, recent research shows that women, and women-headed households, are the ones most affected by poverty, that they are less likely to own homes, and spend more of their gross income on housing-related costs, such as rent, mortgage repayments, etc. In April 1995, National Shelter published The Cost of Housing Report, which addresses the connection between poverty and housing, and the often unrealistic ratio of housing cost to gross income to determine what constitutes affordability.

The Cost of Housing Report does not provide specific statistics regarding women with disabilities. However, one can conclude that that as they are less likely to be married or be in a dual income household, women with disabilities are among the group identified by National Shelter (single women and women-headed households) as paying the highest level of their gross income on housing as well as in the lowest income earning bracket of the community. In fact, anecdotal evidence shows that some women with disabilities pay almost 50 per cent of their gross income on housing and housing related costs.

It is essential to acknowledge that women with disabilities carry the additional costs of their disability, which compound their lack of options in the housing market, and which disadvantage them further in terms of participating in social activities, thus reducing their quality of life. Watson (1995), in her report ‘we do without… ‘, details a range of such costs, including those of modifying dwellings internally and externally to provide access, as well as costs incurred by the need to purchase personal care and accommodation support services without which quality of life and level of independence would be severely restricted.

Cooper (1993 ) maintains that, as a matter of equity,these additional direct or indirect costs related to disability must be taken into consideration when determining the real level of disposable income for women with disabilities. ‘If people have the same level of income, but its real value is reduced by costs which they require to do the ordinary activities which human beings do, then the group with the extra costs is disadvantaged.’ There is no doubt that as a result of their disadvantaged economic position many women with disabilities are severely limited in their access to appropriate housing.

It is essential that women with disabilities are offered a real choice of accommodation options rather than alternatives of ‘inappropriate’ housing or ‘more inappropriate’ housing. Direct and indirect costs attributable to disability must be taken into consideration when rental costs are established. Adequate and appropriate assistance with the maintenance of the dwelling must be provided. Cultural needs must be taken into consideration, and providers of accommodation and maintenance support should be trained to be sensitive to the specific needs of women with disabilities.

Determining the housing needs of women with disabilities

Women with disabilities are an immensely diverse group who consequently have diverse housing needs and wishes. Recent research conducted by Women With Disabilities Australia found that one of the greatest difficulties in determining these needs and wishes is the acute lack of available data. While a considerable amount of raw data has been collected by various government departments during the primary sample collection process, very little of that information is actually published. Access to it is almost impossible, not least of all as a result of the high cost involved in obtaining it.

This problem is not confined to Australia. Indeed, The Housing Needs of People With Disabilities (1991) a report for The National Housing Strategy states that ‘…recent United States research reports that the needs of women with disabilities have been largely unidentified and unexplored’. and that ‘… a report of the European Economic Community found little information [on women and disability] because [the] women have been largely forgotten and their lives and problems unrecorded.’

Recently, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has begun to implement a national data collection set to be used in conjunction with the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP). However, no specific disability indicator has been included at this stage. It is essential that data collection is gender and disability specific to produce greater clarity regarding the range and severity of the issues facing women with disabilities, and to ensure their inclusion in all aspects of urban and housing development.

Currently, the bulk of information available to organisations such as WWDA comes from anecdotal evidence which, although extremely useful, does not constitute an adequate tool for measuring demand and need. It is extremely difficult to develop strategies to address inadequacies and gaps in services without accurate data.

Problems with current housing options for women with disabilities

The types of accommodation currently available to women with disabilities include public and private housing, institutions including supported group homes, hostels and nursing homes, and emergency housing.

Public and private housing

As has already been already pointed out – though it bears repeating – there is an acute lack of public housing stock. Women with disabilities have the same needs and wishes as others who require public housing; in addition any form of accommodation must be physically accessible. There is, after all, little point in offering someone with mobility disabilities a flat on the third floor of a building without an elevator.

Women with disabilities should be able to use the dwelling as effectively as women without disabilities would do. This means they need to have access through external and internal doors and hallways to equipment in laundry, bathroom and kitchen areas. Consider, for example, the logistics of cooking on a conventional stove when you are in a wheelchair! Imagine the dilemma caused by not being able to reach a light switch or turn a doorknob, or getting your wheelchair bogged in thick pile carpet!

In addition, those of us without disabilities take for granted that we can visit friends and family members in their homes. Such visits can become impossible for people with disabilities because often they can’t even get to the front door.

Selection procedures for public housing are often identified as a source of frustration and discrimination by women with disabilities. Women in Human Settlements states that ‘…gender inequalities are either ignored, or worse, reinforced, therefore policies should seek to remedy conflicts, exploitation and omissions’.

Security of tenure is also of concern, particularly in private rental accommodation. Women with disabilities have reported considerable levels of discrimination against them by private landlords, particularly if the women are single, have children, have a psychiatric or intellectual disability, and if they are ethnically other than Anglo-Saxon. Discrimination is rarely overt, but many women with disabilities who have experienced it feel they are regarded as incapable of looking after a place ‘properly’, and that private landlords are reluctant to ‘risk’ their property.

Safety is another issue for concern for women with disabilities. Many dwellings have inadequate security measures, like screens and doors, and access streets are often poorly lit.

Women with disabilities need access to, and the purchasing power for, support services in order to maintain their independent living style. The location of their accommodation should be such that it is close to transport and all other amenities. In housing and urban development planning it is essential to ensure that purpose – built dwellings are integrated with others in order to avoid ‘ghettos’ and to encourage the successful integration of women with disabilities into the community.

Institutions and deinstitutionalisation

Institutional care has come to be regarded as inappropriate for people with disabilities, though there is still considerable argument that it is the best option for those with very high needs. The Burdekin Report highlighted not only the inadequacies of institutional care, but also the powerlessness of the residents and their enforced vulnerability to sexual, physical and psychological abuse.

Deinstitutionalisation, then, has been heralded as a breakthrough for women with disabilities to provide them with the opportunity to become part of the wider community, especially to those who are able, and who wish to, live by themselves or as autonomously as possible.

The reality is that while institutions have been closing, the essential support services for women attempting to integrate into the community have not kept pace with their needs (Burdekin Report). Consequently, many live in inappropriate types of accommodation, where they are vulnerable to abuse. Alternatively, women live without adequate support in the community and often experience hostility and discrimination from the rest of the community which lacks understanding of disability issues.

There are other difficulties for women with disabilities who want to leave institutional care. For example, they are charged a minimum of 87.5 per cent of their Social Security payments for board and lodging, which means very little money is left to the individual for saving for external accommodation (Cooper, 1993). Women with disabilities experience considerable difficulties in obtaining relevant information about leaving an institution and finding accommodation elsewhere. The knowledge there is an acute lack of support services available in the community is a another major disincentive to women to leave institutions.

Crisis accommodation

One of the difficulties of assessing the level of need for women with disabilities to access emergency accommodation is the lack of data which could identify the number of women with disabilities who have attempted to access emergency accommodation and who have been refused because of their disability.

Two recent government reports have highlighted the lack of access to emergency accommodation for women with disabilities. They point to the lack of data, and the need for interagency co-operation to enable women with disabilities to access personal care while using a refuge. Education and training for workers is recommended, and physical access is identified as a major barrier.

Referral agencies know that most refuges are physically inaccessible and will not accept women who require assistance in personal care; therefore, they will not even refer an applicant to a refuge. Thus, there is no clear picture at all as to the level of need, though it is clearly far greater than the current scant information would indicate (Queensland Disability Housing Coalition 1993).

WWDA’s recent research into the availability of crisis accommodation for women with disabilities found that there is a chronic shortage of places reserved for women with psychiatric disabilities; a consistent erosion of funding, and delays in expandin- services for women with psychiatric disabilities, exacerbated the situation.

WWDA also discovered that the term ‘purpose built’ is a grandiose term, but often gives false impression: it means there might be access via an often precarious ramp, through the laundry into the main part of the house, where there usually are accessible bathroom and toilet facilities. No other facilities, like kitchen and laundry equipment, are generally accessible. This means that women with disabilities are rendered unable to manage daily personal tasks, like cooking and washing, and are forced to seek assistance. They are then not’self-managing’ and are ineligible to access refuges.

Since all people are dependent on others to some degree, women with disabilities simply have a higher level of need than non-disabled women, and with appropriate accommodation assistance support and personal care services they are, in fact, ‘self-managing’.

It must be stressed that in recognition of the inequity of access for women with disabilities to crisis accommodation, members of the Women’s Emergency Services Network (WESNET) have stressed their commitment to improving access to and support in refuges for women with disabilities. However, WWDA’s research shows that linking in to emergency support services for women with disabilities has been made so complex that refuge workers rarely know how to access them, with the result that the care of women with disabilities in a refuge becomes the responsibility of refuge workers, at least in the first instance. Given that few refuge workers are provided with disability awareness training, it is understandable, though unacceptable, that women with disabilities are refused access to refuges.

Consequently, women with disabilities who require personal care assistance have the ‘choice’ to return to their previous home (which is often impossible, particularly if they have been evicted; or dangerous, if they have left an abusive environment), or to be hospitalised (which is usually unnecessary, inappropriate, and adds to the distress and frustration of an already difficult situation).

While there are plans to address these access issues, and refuge workers have pledged their assistance and co-operation, the process is very slow indeed, and lack of funding is cited as the major reason for the delays.

Inclusion of women with disabilities in planning

Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA) maintains that the claim of limited funding is not acceptable for denying women with disabilities appropriate and affordable housing to enable them to live as independently as they wish.

Women remain under-represented at the global, national, regional and community levels of decision making and therefore make only minimal contribution to the formulation of policy.

The Global Strategy for Shelter (1995) points out the need to address the special constraints faced by women in order to improve their participation, both as contributors and as beneficiaries, in the human settlement development process. Policy makers often fail to recognise or acknowledge the need to address women’s concerns specifically, and the concerns of women with disabilities in particular. These concerns include legal and customary discrimination, severe poverty, limited access to credit, a low level of education and training and the multiple burdens of earning an income, managing homes and managing communities, so that a national housing policy should address all these issues if it is to mobilise and benefiting all sections of society.

WWDA urges that women with disabilities are specifically included in all mainstream policy drafting and implementation. In the long-term the only way to address and deal with the issues outlined in this paper is to include in a meaningful way, women with disabilities from the beginning of policy and planning stages.


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