Bringing Disability to the Forefront: Highlighting the Work of the ENHR Disability and Housing Working Group by Dianne-Dominique Theakstone (University of Stirling)

Foreword by Jenny Hoolachan (University of St Andrews)

Despite decades of sociological work highlighting that ‘society’ and all that it encompasses is intersected by gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and a myriad of other facets, the relationships that these social structures have with housing are sometimes downplayed in favour of understanding the markets, policies and implications for suppliers and consumers.  Take disability, which is the focus of this post.  Recently, the UK Court of Appeal ruled that the ‘bedroom tax’ is discriminatory against families with disabled children[1].  This decision followed a legal challenge by Paul and Susan Rutherford who require an additional bedroom in their home for overnight carers and the storage of specialist equipment needed for their severely disabled son.  Indeed, many challenges to the legality of the ‘bedroom tax’ policy have been based on the subject of disability, and quite rightly so.

However, disability only tends to enter public discussions of housing when it relates to financial matters or changes in legislation.  While specific cases, such as that of the Rutherfords, certainly help to bring disability to the forefront of policy debates, the full extent of the disability-housing relationship remains largely hidden.  What follows is an overview of the work of the ENHR Disability and Housing Working Group which is still in the relatively early stages of development.  The post provides a small flavour of the scale and depths of the challenges that disabled people face when navigating a world that has been built for non-disabled people.  It is the hope of the Working Group that promotion of their work will attract the attention of fellow researchers, funding bodies, policymakers and the general public in order to advance the housing rights and improve the experiences of people with disabilities.


The Disability and Housing Working Group by Dianne-Dominique Theakstone (University of Stirling)

In 2014 the European Network for Housing Research (ENHR), Disability and Housing Working Group began. This post shares the activities of the Working Group over the past 18 months and upcoming plans. Comments and suggestions are welcome around events, knowledge exchange or research collaborations.

The ENHR 2014 conference enabled the Chairs to hold a kick-start meeting for the proposed Disability and Housing Working Group. We recognise that a lot of effort is required to raise the profile of disability within international housing research strategies and debates. The following central themes were identified at the meeting:

  • Disabled people and their housing conditions, housing preferences, housing design, access to housing services, legal rights (housing and anti-discrimination), housing options and accessible environments.
  • Housing research on disability that adopts a holistic approach towards impairment (loco-motional, sensory and cognitive).
  • Promote application of interdisciplinary perspectives to housing research and practice which is related to disabled people.
  • Examination of central concepts to disability and housing such as ‘empowerment’, ‘user-led’, ‘vulnerability’ or ‘special needs’.

The working group held its first workshop at the ENHR 2015 conference in Lisbon, Portugal. Diverse papers were submitted from representatives from Russia, the Netherlands, Spain, Thailand, Germany, Scotland and Norway. These can be viewed at:

The aim of the Working group is to stimulate debate around the policy and practice implications of disability and housing research. An evidence base will enable a holistic perspective across countries. For example, at the 2015 ENHR conference the papers submitted to this working group exhibited diverse insights into the living conditions of disabled people across Europe.

Solvar Wago & Karin Hoyland’s paper highlighted that the Norwegian Disability Discrimination and Accessibility Act (2009) requires adjustment to take into account the needs of different groups of disabled people within society.

María Aránzazu Calzadilla Medina delivered a law perspective in relation to disabled peoples’ housing in Spain. The paper critically assessed the various amendments that the Spanish Horizontal Property Act 49/1960 (21st July) has gone through which revealed that progress is going in the right direction. However, barriers still exist where it is not a right to have freedom to access a person’s home or work environment.  Furthermore, payment schemes for adaptations are subject to variable supplementary fees and there has been opposition from communities for potentially expensive costs.

Andreas Plum’s paper illustrated the lived experiences of disablement. This paper presented results from a survey of disabled people in Dresden. It concluded that there is a need for more barrier-free housing and living spaces, especially with current ageing populations with associated increasing impairment levels.

In the Netherlands, Clarine van Oel outlined the ways practice can be improved through the user perspective. Her research demonstrated a methodology involving 3D virtual reality preferences whereby participants with dementia chose colour schemes, surface finish and space dimensions of a care-home hallway. Results indicated areas of conflict between the preferences of users and caregivers. For example, the former preferred a white or warm colour scheme, while caregivers’ assumed a warm colour scheme would feel more welcoming.

Aleksandra Burdyak discussed the emotional implications for disabled people living in inaccessible homes in Russia. Attention was particularly drawn to the challenges of estimating the numbers of disabled people through national statistics, different definitions of disability and potential areas where disabled people can be missed from data sets. Results from a telephone survey showed that disabled people in Russia experience social isolation, low incomes and high medical costs. Aleksandra Burdyak concluded that policy is required for future barrier free homes/environments and to address the emotional wellbeing of disabled citizens.

In Thailand, Sasicha Sukkay’s paper outlined the benefits of joint working. She explained that collaboration between physiotherapists, architects and disabled people, has helped to identify the need for improved accessibility standards within bedrooms and bathrooms. This work will be presented to the Thai Government to shape future policy.

Finally, Dianne-Dominique Theakstone presented a proposition of a Citizenship of Humanity. This emerged from a comparative study of disabled peoples’ access to independent living in Scotland and Norway. The Citizenship of Humanity model addressed the need for disabled peoples’ access to independent living, in policy and practice, to be facilitated at micro, meto and macro levels of societies.

The discussions that followed these papers highlighted the following issues:

  • The need for policies or guidelines to incorporate the needs of sensory and cognitive impairment groups, as well as those who have loco-motional impairments.
  • Accessible housing contributes towards prevention of health conditions which may have arisen, for example, through falls.
  • More work is required to promote a holistic perspective where accessible housing is located in accessible environments with accessible services and accessible public transport.
  • Accessible housing should not solely be perceived as wheelchair user specificity, as suitability for the needs of other disabled people or families should be recognised.
  • Projects should ensure that research methods are evaluated for accessibility (not just wheelchair accessibility – see previous point).
  • Research plays an important role to enable users’ voices to be heard by caregivers, frontline organisations and policy-makers.

Future plans

The Co-Chairs would like to thank David Thomson for his participation as an intern with the Disability and Housing Working Group. David will be providing invaluable IT and administrative support. To find out more about his work visit:

For the ENHR conference 2016 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, we will welcome papers that fit the central theme(s) of the working group and that are based on qualitative, quantitative or mixed-methods research. Theoretical papers are strongly encouraged that might potentially shape the future research in this field. The working group would support ongoing collaborations with the goal of fostering future joint publications and project proposals. Hopefully this will raise the profile of disability as a distinct significant area within housing studies.

Connections shall be made with other conferences such as the Disability Studies 2016 conference held at Lancaster University, UK; as well as the Nordic Network on Disability Research (NNDR). The NNDR will be held on 3rd-5th May 2017 in Orebro Sweden and we will be keen to submit a paper, poster or symposium on behalf of the Working Group. Further information can be found at this link:

Finally, I have now set up a Facebook page where people can keep up-to-date with the ongoing work of the group.  This can be found at


By Dianne-Dominique Theakstone (University of Stirling)

[1] The ruling was also based on the bedroom tax being deemed discriminatory against victims of domestic violence.


Setting Sail: the Voyage of Disability and Housing By Dianne Theakston (University of Stirling)

Warm greetings from the Critical Urbanist’s housing and disability theme. This thematic group will concentrate upon the key feature of applied theory and practice. This has played a crucial role within the enhancement of disabled peoples’ access to independent living. For instance, in 1990 Michael Oliver’s book “The Politics of Disablement” signalled the gradual emergence of disability studies as a recognised academic discipline in the UK. Oliver highlighted that disabled peoples’ full participation within society was hindered by environmental, financial, political, communicational and attitudinal barriers.

It also set out the social model of disability which was first enshrined by the Union of Physically Impaired against Segregation’s (UPIAS) corner stone (1976) document “Founding principles of the social model of disability”. Thus, disablement was shifted away from an individual’s impairment to the impact of inaccessible/discriminatory external factors. This continual academic and user-lead practice pressure has achieved UK policy change. Examples include the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) and the Community Care (Direct Payments) Act (1996).

As disabled people are one of the most vulnerable groups within societies (WHO, 2011), the role of housing within welfare provides many contentious debates since it can be viewed as a commodity or a public resource. Societal values around disability can be tangibly reflected by what type of housing is built, for whom, where, under what type of finance, and with accessible services or amenities. As disability studies scholars Swaine et al (2004) noted, disabled peoples’ access to independent living requires a holistic perspective across all areas of life. Similarly, this blog will encourage a holistic approach towards housing and disability with attention to knowledge transfer, learning and critical analysis that can be gained from interdisciplinary working.

Imrie (2003), for instance, brought attention to the lack of existing accessible properties as well as the lack of user-involvement throughout the planning process; whilst Pullin’s (2009) “Design meets disability” evoked questions surrounding inclusive design, can we meet the needs of all? Public spaces have also been designed without consideration of access for all (Bull 1998) and today, accessible housing or adaptations are often portrayed as special needs beyond mainstream practices (MacFarlane and Laurie, 1996).

Roulstone and Bish-Mason (2012) point out that there exists a hierarchy of minority group needs. Disability tends to occupy as the lowest priority group. Therefore, this blog aims to develop the endeavours to raise the profile of disability. This has been one of the reasons for setting up the new Working Group for Disability and Housing within the European Network for Housing Research. Seminars, joint publications and research projects are some elements future blog contributors are encouraged to participate in, share and inspire. A call will open on the 1st of January for submissions for papers to our first Working Group event at the 2015 ENHR conference to be held in Lisbon, Portugal.

Looking forward, the disability stream of this Critical Urbanist’s blog aims to provide a platform for individuals from academia, as well as policy and practice to submit contributions which critically assess any aspect of disability and housing. As well as addressing some or all of the themes mentioned above, this blog encourages out-of-the-box contemplation and peer inspiration to provide a critical yet supportive environment for debate. Together, let’s raise the profile of disability within housing studies at local, national and international levels.

Dianne Theakston, PhD researcher, University of Stirling

Citations and links:

Imrie, R., (2003), Housing Quality and the Provision of Accessible Homes, Housing Studies, Vol. 18, (3), 387-408.

MacFarlane, A. and Laurie, L. (1996) Demolishing special needs: principles of non-discriminatory housing. Derby: The British Council of Disabled People.

Oliver M. (1990) The Politics of Disablement. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

Pullin G. (2009) Design meets disability, (Cambridge: The M, I, T Press).

Roulstone, A and Bish-Mason, H (eds) (2012) Disability Hate Crime and Violence11, Routledge).

Swaine J., French S., Barnes C. and Thomas C. (2004) Disabling barriers enabling environments. London: Sage Publications.

UPIAS (1976). Founding principles of the social model of disability. London: Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation.

World Health Organisation (2011) World Health Report 2011. Available: [Retrieved 13 June 2012].