Stephanie Walsh rolls forward and back twice in her purple wheelchair as she turns in her small hallway.
She points to the bedroom off through a doorway. A large hoist takes up much of the floor space. “It’s in my way,” she says. “It’s like living in a box.”
Also, the hoist isn’t attached to the ceiling, so Walsh needs two personal assistants to get up and go to bed, she says. If it were attached, she would only need one, she says.
Sometimes it is difficult to get two personal assistants at the same time. On several occasions recently she had to go to bed at 6pm, she says.
“I should be having dinner at that time,” she says. “I don’t want to be 30 years of age going to bed at six o’clock.”
In a way, Walsh is one of the lucky ones that she has a home, says Jean Coleman, the national housing programme manager with the Irish Wheelchair Association.
Her small flat is temporary housing but at least she is living independently, says Coleman. Many disabled people are stuck living with their parents well into adulthood and 1,300 people nationwide are inappropriately living in nursing homes, she says.
In part, that’s due to a massive shortage of social housing suitable for wheelchair users, she says.
Dublin City Council does have plans to build more wheelchair-accessible homes in the future, upping the number of homes in new complexes that have to take the needs of those who are disabled into account.
Under the next city development plan, when the council builds schemes of more than 100 homes, 10 percent of those new homes will be wheelchair accessible, in accordance with the Universal Design Guidelines for Homes in Ireland 2015, said a council spokesperson.
But disability advocates say more scrutiny is needed of what exactly that means, and what ticks the boxes under the universal design guidelines.
Those guidelines don’t result in homes that wheelchair users can really live in, says Coleman. “Universal design is not wheelchair livable.”
What Is the Problem?
Walsh, who has cerebral palsy, currently lives in transitional housing on the grounds of the Irish Wheelchair Association’s headquarters.
Transitional housing is supposed to be for two years. But Walsh has been here for two and a half. She cannot move on because she cannot get a permanent social home.
That is a major problem, says Coleman. “The idea with transitional housing is people try it out and see,” she says.
If they can live independently, they move on to permanent housing so that another young person with a disability can take that spot, she says.
“The problem is because there is nowhere for them to move on to, the transitional housing is now blocked,” says Coleman.
Walsh’s flat is wheelchair accessible, but it’s a tight space for a wheelchair user. The kitchen-living room is narrow. “I feel claustrophobic,” she says.
The kitchen table is also at the wrong height, she says.
Walsh recently got engaged to her fiance Anthony Byrne, and now really wants to move on to a permanent home, she says.
One with more space and that she can decorate herself. “I want to be able to give it my own style,” says Walsh.
But before the move to Clontarf, she lived in Tallaght and is on the South Dublin County Council housing list.
After she got her flat in Clontarf, she made a life here, she says. She has friends in the area, met her fiancé, goes to a local youth club and day centre, she says. “All my connections are here.”
Still, Dublin City Council has refused her application to transfer to its housing list, she says. Her social worker is working on an appeal.
“I get myself so upset because I’m the type of person who will fight for what I need, but I’m getting exhausted,” she says.
Coleman says the council’s reluctance to accept Walsh could be due to not having anything suitable to offer her. “There is no wheelchair-livable housing.”
There are currently 805 households including a person with a disability on the social-housing waiting list, says a Dublin City Council spokesperson, which is 6 percent of all the households on the list.
One percent of those on the Dublin City Council social housing list are disabled people with medical priority, says the spokesperson, which is is much higher in some other local authority areas.
Fleachta Phelan, a senior policy advocate with the Disability Federation of Ireland, says that disabled people wait longer on the housing list than those with general needs.
Renting privately with rent subsidies often isn’t an option for wheelchair users because there are very few fully accessible homes available, he says.
“Disabled people are also disproportionately represented in the homeless population, and there are over 1,300 inappropriately housed in nursing homes,” he says.
Those are national figures. But in Dublin city, it is commonplace for adults to remain living** **with their parents or to move into senior citizens’ accommodation to get housed, says Fianna Fáil Councillor Racheal Batten, who is campaigning for the council to deliver more accessible homes.
Batten says her sister, who was a wheelchair user, had to move into accommodation for older people when she was a young mother in her 20s.
Batten said that at a new council housing complex of 83 homes planned at the junction of Collins Avenue and Swords Road in Whitehall, 10 percent of the new homes will be mobility friendly.
“This is a start of Dublin being a home that values people of all needs and abilities equally,” she says.
Visitable, or Livable
Before councils start to roll out wheelchair-accessible housing at scale, they really need to ensure that the design they are using means the home is fully accessible, say Coleman and Phelan.
Part M of the current building regulations stipulates that homes should be designed so that a wheelchair user can visit them, says Coleman, but not so that a wheelchair user can live in them.
“Part M of the Building Regulations aims to foster an inclusive approach to the design and construction of the built environment,” says a spokesperson for the Department of Housing.
That means that the doors are all wide enough for a wheelchair, there is a downstairs accessible bathroom and light switches are low down so that a wheelchair user can reach them, he says.
That standard, known as “universal design”, means that a wheelchair user can get into a house, but it doesn’t mean that they can live there, says Coleman.
Some of the houses that are called wheelchair accessible have all the bedrooms upstairs, she says. “You can get in the front door, but certainly you couldn’t live in them.”
Lots of homes are advertised as wheelchair accessible, she says. But “when you look closer at them they are literally two-storey houses, houses with steps”, she says.
For a home to be “wheelchair livable”, the entire home needs to be fully accessible, she says.
“There is an absolutely huge shortage of wheelchair livable accommodation,” says Coleman.
Phelan, the senior policy advocate with the Disability Federation of Ireland, says the number of people with disabilities is increasing.
“We need to be building fully accessible wheelchair-liveable housing now, especially as we embark on an ambitious building programme under Housing for All,” he said.
“This would help to future-proof our housing stock, costing us less for expensive adaptations in the future and supporting ageing in place,” he said.
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said that between 2018 and 2021, it spent around €9.5m on 47 extensions and on 1,543 alterations for people with disabilities, including stair lifts, ramps and level-deck showers.
Walsh says she regularly finds that buildings or toilets that are supposed to be wheelchair accessible are not accessible for her.
She recently went to a hairdresser that the staff told her on the phone was wheelchair accessible.
She was able to get in the front door, she says. But the chairs in front of the sink were screwed down, so she couldn’t get her hair done.
Ask wheelchair users what works, says Walsh. “They should always think of people in a wheelchair and make sure that wheelchair users can contribute to the design.”