Housing and technology

It may not register as a tech hot topic, but your home is by default one of the biggest and most important bits of technology you can interact with, and no I'm not going to be talking about smart home tech, just the tech that goes into the buildings that we live in.

Just how important housing design is was brought home (hah!) to me when we started looking for a new place to live for when I would come out of hospital. At the time we were living in an early 2000s townhouse (bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs) just a few minutes from the centre of town and Dapto Station. It was perfect for the kids to get to school and we had been planning to stay for a long time (in fact we’d been there three years when I got sick).

However a town house was not going to be suitable for me anymore. While I had managed to struggle up and down the stairs before my surgeries, afterwards it quickly became obvious that our perfect little townhouse was now mount everest as far as I was concerned. So my wonderful, awesome wife began the task of finding us a new home. One that not only was a single level but one that allowed me to get in the front door (or in fact ANY of the doors) in my shiny new wheelchair.

84 houses later and she finally found a place that was the right combination of open enough AND with a landlord who was willing to allow modifications so that I could wheel into the house via a ramp in the garage.

Housing and housing technology has such a huge impact on People With Disabilities. As an example. When we moved into our new place we asked for and got permission from the landlord to have a ramp built in the garage and the bathroom modified to have hand holds installed in the shower stall. The ramp was built without an issue, and I can happily wheel into the house in either my powered or manual chair. 

I still don’t have any hand holds 2+ years later because the house - a newly built, metal framed construction - can’t support them. There is literally nowhere that we can anchor the hand holds that won’t bend or buckle under use (and no, while I am a chunky guy, it’s not a weight thing, the individual frames do not have the ability ).

Now luckily I haven’t needed them yet, and fingers crossed it’s going to be a while before I do. However for others who DO need handholds in the bathroom, the elderly, others with mobility issues, it presents a real and present problem. Because no hand holds means higher chances of falls. Higher chances of falls means more risk of injury, which could lead to permanent reduction in mobility.

Fixing the hand holds problem in a new metal framed house becomes more complex and expensive. It means that what used to be a simple task of find the frame and attach handhold to it now becomes, remove the bathroom wall, insert new bracing, reattach bathroom wall, wait for that to settle, THEN we can attach the actual hand holds.

Throw in other accessibility issues like corridors and doorways that are too narrow for a chair, toilets that are just plain inaccessible and even surprise stairs in otherwise single storey houses (that one knocked out otherwise great houses in our search) and you’ve got an uphill battle for people with any sort of mobility issue.

There is a project called Building Better Homes to try and get some real accessibility standards included in the National Building Code. It succeeded in getting the changes (at least the Silver level requirements) included in the National Construction Code. These requirements are:

  • At least one step free entry into the house
  • Internal doorways and hallways that “facilitate comfortable and unimpeded movement between spaces”
  • A toilet on the ground floor that provides easy access (ie not just tucked in behind the laundry)
  • A bathroom that contains a hobless shower (important as even small rises can be trip hazards)
  • Reinforced walls around the toilet and bathroom. This is so those hand holds I spoke about before can actually be installed if necessary
  • Stairways designed to reduce the likelihood of injury and provide for future adaptability

Huzzah!

Except not quite. Acceptance of these standards is up to the individual states. Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales have all refused to sign on to the new requirements, citing increased costs as the primary reason for doing so. Which means that new builds are still being thrown up that present challenges to people with mobility issues.

Sigh.

Let’s face it, finding a place to live in 2022, especially as a renter, is hard enough. Trying to find a place to rent as a person with a disability can be impossible.