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.


Unpacking the Concept of Home By Jennifer Hoolachan (University of Stirling)

Home’ and ‘place’ have been the subjects of a wealth of research within the disciplines of sociology, psychology, geography and youth studies in the past twenty years (e.g. Mallett, 2004; Manzo, 2005; Blunt and Dowling, 2006; Hopkins, 2010). Despite this, in 2004, Easthope argued that researchers working within the area of housing studies have paid little attention to these subjects. Since then, place and home have slowly appeared in housing research (Neumark, 2013; Jacobs and Malpas, 2013; Buffel at al., 2014) and the current emphasis on wellbeing and its connection to home and housing, by both the UK and Scottish Governments, demonstrates that home is currently of political significance (Randall, 2012; Commission on Housing and Wellbeing, 2013).

Attempting to define ‘home’, however, is the subject of much debate. Many agree that home differs from a house in that the latter is a physical structure, or commodity, whereas the former is a subjectively experienced construct (Manzo, 2003). Yet some have argued that more work is needed to explore how physical features contribute to how a home or place is experienced (Smaldone, Harris and Sanyal, 2005) thoriginal_HomeSweetHomeDETAILus demonstrating that it is not straightforward to separate the physical from the social.

Despite the contested meanings of ‘home’, there is a feeling (certainly in Scotland) that policy has neglected to account for the more qualitative aspects of home, preferring instead to prioritise the quantity, availability and economic value of housing. I do not only mean quality in relation to the physical conditions of a house (although of course these are of paramount importance) but the quality of people’s lived experiences that takes place within the shell of a house and its surrounding geographical areas. As such experiences are subjective, the challenge for policymakers and researchers is to grapple with how policy can account for these subjectivities in order to use them to improve individual and collective wellbeing.

This issue was the focus of a series of seminars I recently attended titled ‘Home not Housing’ funded by the Scottish Universities Insight Institute. Based on the ideas of knowledge co-production, this seminar series brought together individuals from a variety of housing backgrounds to discuss what home and wellbeing meant to them. The aim was to identify common themes amongst the hugely diverse views and experiences offered by the group and to use these emergent themes to feed into the development of wellbeing indicators and wider policy. Whilst some felt uneasy about what they saw as an attempt to quantify subjective experiences, many found it difficult to envision an alternative means of informing policy and indeed felt that this was the most effective way to proceed.

Interestingly, only one week later I found myself engaged in a similar discussion at a WithScotland event about qualitative methods in child protection research. Although everyone at this event was a strong supporter of qualitative research, there appeared to be an uncertainty about how this type of data can be effectively and meaningfully incorporated into policy. This reflects a wider belief that Governments have historically regarded quantitative research as more robust and important for feeding into policy and implementing change. Therefore, debates concerning the inclusion of ‘home’ in policy constitute part of this wider discussion given qualitative methods are usually the most appropriate means of examining topics on a subjective level.

In addition to an agenda for wellbeing, there has been a shift in Scotland towards the prioritising of policy outcomes. This suggests a political willingness to examine the impact of policies in relation to people’s lived experiences, rather than simply on tangible, largely numeric outputs. In other words, there is scope to explore not only how a policy influences the supply, availability or economic value of housing, but also how it impacts on people’s subjective experiences of home. It remains to be seen how committed the Scottish Government will be to incorporate the concept of ‘home’ into policy without slipping into the more familiar territory of housing. The challenge is not only to maintain this more holistic focus but to figure out how to draw upon qualitative research in a way that does not transform the rich detail of people’s lived experiences into quantifiable categories that lose their overall meaning. Events such as the ‘Home not Housing’ seminars are leading the way in these types of discussions.

As long as the Scottish Government’s willingness, to include subjective experiences in policy, is aimed at improving wellbeing for everyone, and is not simply a tokenistic, political exercise, then these types of debate are welcome. Discussions around ‘home’ were also taken forward by a group of early-career researchers at a recent symposium organised by myself at the University of Stirling. The details of these discussions are available on the Housing Studies Association website.

Jennifer Hoolachan, PhD Researcher, University of Stirling (@Jen_2603)


Blunt, A. and Dowling, R., (2006) Home. Oxon: Routledge.

Buffel, T., De Donder, L., Phillipson, C., De Witte, N., Dury, S. and Verte, D., (2014) Place Attachment among Older Adults Living in Four Communities in Flanders, Belgium, Housing Studies. Vol. 29 (6), pp. 800 – 822.

Commission for Housing and Wellbeing, (2013) Scoping Paper [online]. Available at [Accessed 27 May 2014].

Easthope, H., (2004) A Place Called Home, Housing, Theory and Society. Vol. 21 (3), pp. 128 – 138.

Hopkins, P.E., (2010) Young People, Place and Identity. Oxon: Routledge.

Jacobs, K. and Malpas, J., (2013) Material Objects, Identity and the Home: Towards a Relational Housing Research Agenda, Housing, Theory and Society. Vol. 30(3), pp. 281 – 292.

Mallett, S., (2004) Understanding Home: A Critical Review of the Literature, Sociological Review. Vol. 52 (1), pp. 62 – 89.

Manzo, L.C., (2003) Beyond House and Haven: Toward a Revisioning of Emotional Relationships with Places, Journal of Environmental Psychology. Vol. 23, pp. 47 – 61.

Manzo, L.C., (2005) For Better or Worse: Exploring Multiple Dimensions of Place Meaning, Journal of Environmental Psychology. Vol. 25, pp. 67 – 86.

Neumark, D., (2013) Drawn to Beauty: The Practice of House-Beautification as Homemaking amongst the Forcible Displaced, Housing, Theory and Society. Vol. 30 (3), pp. 237 – 261.

Randall, C., (2012) Measuring National Well-being, Where We Live, 2012 [online]. Available at [Accessed 27 May 2014].

Smaldone, D., Harris, C. and Sanyal, N., (2005) An Exploration of Place as a Process: The Case of Jackson Hole, WY, Journal of Environmental Psychology. Vol. 25, pp. 397 – 414.