Housing Issues for Women With Disabilities in Australia – A Discussion Paper

Submission from Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) to the Habitat II Conference: Sustainable Human Settlement and Shelter For All; The Second United Nations Habitat Conference, Istanbul, June 1996. Copyright WWDA 1994.

Women With Disabilities Australia

Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) is a national women’s disability organisation which seeks to ensure equal opportunities in all walks of life for all women with disabilities. It is currently the only national multi-diagnostic organisation with individual membership. WWDA works in partnership with other disability organisations and disseminates information to women with disabilities, carers, service providers, government and the media. It links women with disabilities from around Australia enabling issues of common concern to be identified and discussed. Strategies for change are developed including lobbying Commonwealth and State governments, linking service providers, promoting understanding of issues in service provision, ensuring the relevance of legislation and programmes to women with disabilities and monitoring their effectiveness. It promotes the representation of women with disabilities by women with disabilities in regional, state, national and international arenas. WWDA is actively working in coalition with key women’s organisations to promote issues for women generally.


WWDA’s Stake in Habitat II

The Habitat II Conference will provide the opportunity to ensure that issues affecting women with disabilities are retained on the global agenda. Other NGOs and CBOs have already demonstrated their support by including such issues as part of their own lobby platform. WWDA expects the Australian Government to make firm commitments to acknowledge and address the inequities facing women with disabilities, and to develop both short- and long- term strategies to effect changes.

Housing is a matter of major concern to WWDA, and as an organisation representing the needs and wishes of women with disabilities, WWDA supports the two key themes of Habitat II – “Sustainable Human Settlement” and “Shelter for All”.

Of particular relevance is the General Assembly Resolution 47/180 which states, in part, that “…it is essential to pay special attention to the needs and contributions of women and vulnerable social groups whose quality of life and participation in development have been hampered by exclusion and inequality affecting the poor in general…” Women with disabilities are among the poorest Australians, and it is imperative that their voices are heard on issues such as the feminisation of poverty. They are fighting for the recognition that there is a unique range of factors contributing to their poverty which affects every aspect of their live.

By participating in the Habitat II Conference, WWDA draws attention to the under-representation of women with disabilities at all levels of decision-making. WWDA urges that women with disabilities, their needs and their contributions, are included in the debates about equality, equity and citizenship. WWDA also stresses the need to involve women with disabilities in policy development and implementation in order to offer them real opportunities for empowerment to improve their living conditions.


Housing Issues for Women With Disabilities

The housing poverty of Australian women with disabilities

Housing is not an isolated issue but is inextricably linked to all aspects of daily living. ‘Good’ housing is essential for the basic well-being of people and means safe, accessible, appropriate, affordable and secure housing. Absence of such ‘good’ housing affects all other areas of living and is the main contributing factor to the ‘poverty trap’, where the majority of those caught are women.

Considerable 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, and maintenance. 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 Report shows that single women pay more than any other group (35.8 per cent of their gross income) on private rent. As private home buyers they pay 37.7 per cent of their gross income, again the highest level, and single women pay the highest percentage of that gross income as public housing rent.

The Cost of Housing Report does not provide specific statistics regarding women with disabilities. However, the inference is that since 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 as paying the highest level of their gross income on housing as well as in the lowest income earning bracket of the community.

Women with disabilities carry the additional costs of their disability, which compound their lack of options in the housing market. 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. In addition, health care costs are an enormous drain on the resources of many women with disabilities.

Cooper (1993) maintains that, as a matter of equity, these additional direct or indirect costs related to disability must be taken into consideration. “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.”


  • That women with disabilities are offered a real choice of accommodation options.
  • That direct and indirect costs attributable to disability must be taken into account when determining the level of disposable income.
  • That adequate and appropriate assistance with maintenance of public and private dwellings must be provided.
  • That cultural needs and wishes of women with disabilities are taken into consideration in providing housing options.
  • That providers of accommodation and maintenance support are trained to be sensitive to the specific needs and wishes of women with disabilities.

Barriers to obtaining appropriate housing

Discrimination against women with disabilities
Some of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ data from the 1988 and 1993 surveys of disability, aging 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 men with disabilities;
  • are less likely than their male counterparts to receive senior secondary and tertiary eduction;
  • are more likely to be institutionalised than men with disabilities, and are often forced to live in situations which make them vulnerable to violence; and
  • have a higher level of unmet need than their male counterparts.

Women with disabilities make up some ten per cent of Australia’s population. They face the same discrimination that women without disabilities have to contend with in terms of their gender, marital status, sexual orientation, and so forth. In addition, women with disabilities experience substantial discrimination because of their disability. This dual disadvantage is multiplied for women with disabilities who do not fit other aspects of the mainstream mould: indigenous women, women from a non-English speaking background, women with children, and lesbian women. Women with psychiatric disabilities, and those with intellectual disabilities, experience particular stigma and discrimination with regard to housing.

It is a disconcerting 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.

Lack of accurate data
Women with disabilities are an immensely diverse group who consequently have diverse housing needs and wishes. While conducting research, WWDA found that one of the greatest difficulties in determining the needs and wishes of women with disabilities is the acute lack of available data. While considerable amount of raw data has been collected during the primary sample collection process, very little if 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. The Housing Needs of People With Disabilities (1991), a report for The National Housing Strategy, states that “…recent US 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.”

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has recently 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. It is essential that data collection is gender- and disability-specific in order to produce greater clarity regarding the range and severity of the issues facing women with disabilities. 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.


  • That national data collection is gender- and disability-specific.
  • That access to relevant data is simple and costfree.

Organisations such as WWDA have members with a great deal of expertise in a wide range of areas who are able to play a vital role in the consultative process. In fact, many WWDA members are already providing much needed information and assistance to a number of government reviews where the perspective and insight of women with disabilities are essential. WWDA is currently involved in the reviews of the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement (CSHA), the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP), the Crisis Accommodation Program (CAP).

Current housing options for women with disabilities and associated problems
The types of accommodation currently available to women with disabilities include public and private housing, institutions such as supported group homes, hostels and nursing homes, and emergency housing.

Public and private housing
Women with disabilities have the same housing needs and wishes as others who require accommodation assistance. In addition, any form of accommodation must be physically accessible, modifiable, and should permit women with disabilities to use the dwelling the same way that women without disabilities would do.

People without disabilities take for granted that they are able to access other people’s homes, but these are often inaccessible to people with disabilities.


  • That building codes include regulations to make new dwellings as accessible as possible.
  • That a significant proportion (10%) of dwellings earmarked for public housing be rendered accessible.
  • That women with disabilities are represented in the development of standards.

Women with disabilities have often identified selection procedures for public housing as a source of frustration and discrimination an perceive themselves to be considerably disadvantaged in their attempts to find appropriate accommodation. The Global Strategy for Shelter points out that “… gender inequalities are either ignored, or worse, reinforced, therefore policies should seek to remedy conflicts, exploitation and omissions, that limit the participation of women in the housing development and management process and bar them from their rightful access to adequate housing”.

Research in the UK and Northern Ireland suggests that banks and building societies and so forth are reluctant to grant mortgages to single women (add to this women with disabilities), and that public housing allocation procedures favour two-parent families, thus pushing single women with children, elderly women and disabled women into substandard housing (Women in Human Settlements, pp.13-14).

Security of tenure is a matter for concern, particularly in private rental accommodation. Women with disabilities have reported substantial levels of discrimination against them by private landlords, especially against women who are single, have children, have a psychiatric or intellectual disability, and if they are indigenous or women from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Discrimination is rarely overt, but many women with disabilities who have been rejected as tenants feel that they are perceived to be incapable of caring for a rental property, and that landlords are unwilling to ‘risk’ their property.

Safety is another concern for women with disabilities. Many dwellings have inadequate safe guards, such as security screens and doors, and lack smoke detectors. Access streets to homes 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 close to transport and all other amenities. In housing and urban development planning it is of major importance that purpose-built dwellings are integrated with other types of dwellings in order to avoid ‘ghettos’.


  • That anti-discrimination laws are enforced to eradicate discrimination against women with disabilities in the housing market.
  • That safety of tenure is increased.
  • That adequate security equipment is installed in homes to render residents less vulnerable.
  • That accommodation offered to women with disabilities are appropriately located.

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, by the Office of the Status of Women, and by the NSW Department for Women, have highlighted both the lack of data and the lack of access to emergency accommodation for women with disabilities.

Referral agencies know that most refuges are physically inaccessible and will not accept women who require assistance in personal care; therefore, applicants with such needs are not even referred to a refuge. Thus, there is no clear picture at all as to the level of need, though there is no doubt that it is far greater than the current scant information would indicate (Queensland Women’s Housing Network 1995).

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 expanding services for women with psychiatric disabilities, continue to exacerbate the situation.

WWDA found that the term ‘purpose-built’ is a grandiose term and often gives a false impression. In reality, it means that there might be access via an often precarious ramp, through the rear entrance into the main part of the house, where a bathroom and toilet are (usually) accessible. 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 they are ineligible for access to crisis accommodation.

WWDA maintains that since all people are dependent on others to some degree, women with disabilities simply have a higher level of need than women without disabilities: with appropriate accommodation assistance support and personal care services they are, in fact, ‘self managing’.

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 cooperation, the process is very slow indeed, and lack of funding is cited as the major reason for the delays.

WWDA considers as fundamental the rights of women with disabilities to have access to the same accommodation as non-disabled women, and regards this lack of access to emergency housing as an equity and social justice issue. There are mechanisms in place to address discrimination such as the Disability Discrimination Act (1992) which makes it unlawful to discriminate.


  • That the implementation of anti-discrimination legislation be enforced to ensure equitable access to accommodation.

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 need. The Burdekin Report highlighted not only the inadequacies of institutional care, but also the powerelessness 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. Consequently, many live in inappropriate accommodation, where they are vulnerable to abuse. Alternatively, women live without adequate support in the community. Further more, these women 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 an institution. 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, finding accommodation elsewhere. The lack of supports available in the community is a major disincentive to women to leave institutions.

Selection procedures for public housing are often identified as a source of frustration and discrimination by women with disabilities.


Housing needs of women with disabilities

Cooper (1993), in responding to the National Housing Strategy, gives several indications of the needs of women with disabilities and issues involved in trying t access a range of housing options. In order to address these, Cooper suggests the following:

  • women with disabilities need affordable housing, which means that they need to have access to low-cost loans, with consideration being given to the additional and non-avoidable costs of disability;
  • the credit-worthiness of women with disabilities needs to be re-examined;
  • there needs to be access to low cost loans for housing modifications;
  • a reduction in the costs of legal and banking charges;
  • expansion of income security so that rental or mortgage payments and maintenance costs become a lesser proportion of the expenditure of gross income;
  • more flexibility in public housing in terms of relocation;
  • greater availability of support services;
  • accessibility of crisis accommodation;
  • staged options for young women, and women leaving institutions;
  • availability of housing close to available employment, training centres, health services, rehabilitation services and accessible transport;
  • consideration should be given to the fact that many women’s disabilities have a biological reaction to their environment and therefore housing needs to be in a healthy environment.

Women with Disabilities Australia 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.

Inclusion of women with disabilities in planning
The Global Strategy for Shelter 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 that does NOT indicate a low level of intellectual ability) 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 (Women in Human Settlement 1995).

WWDA urges that women with disabilities are specifically included in all mainstream policy drafting and implementing, that is that they are referred to at every step. It becomes clear, then, that any national women’s housing and urban development planning must include real consultation with women with disabilities.

In addition, WWDA advocates that radical steps be taken at all levels of government to ensure that all women have equitable opportunities to gain control over how, where and with whom they live thus ensuring their active participation in all levels of urban and housing development. It is also necessary that readily available and accessible information be published, and widely distributed.

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. This has to be corrected.


Cooper, Margaret 1993, ‘Housing Issues for Women with Disabilities, A Response to the National Housing Strategy, Issues and Discussion Papers’, unpublished report.

National Shelter, ‘The Cost of Housing Report’.

Pane, Lina 1994, Emerging from the Shadows, Women with Disabilities Australia, Canberra.

The Habitat Agenda: Draft resulting from the Second Intersessional Meeting of the Informal Drafting Group of the Preparatory Committee for the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), Unedited Draft, 13 October 1995.

Office for the Status of Women (Date?), Women – Shaping and Sharing the Future: The New National Agenda for Women 1993-2000, (Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Sack and Associates 1991, The Housing Needs of People with Disabilities, Discussion paper.

Watson, Judyth 1995, “… we do without … “, A Report about the Costs of Having a Disability’, Office of the Shadow Minister for Disability Services, Perth.

Women in Human Settlements, Housing Policy: Starting Right, pp.13-14, no place given.