What are the housing needs of people with mobility issues?

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
September 16, 2016
Categories: Ask the Hub

This question came from Jose S. via our latest website survey.

Mobility issues often fall under the umbrella of physical disability, so before I answer this question, I’ll define disability and explore how it relates to homelessness.

A disability is a physical or mental condition that affects physical ability, understanding, learning or day-to-day functioning. The Canadian Disability Survey defines disability in ten categories: seeing, hearing, mobility, flexibility, dexterity, pain, learning, developmental, mental/psychological, and memory. According to the survey, physical disabilities are the most prevalent—pain-related (7.9%), flexibility (7.6%), and mobility (7.2%)—but people can have more than one type. The 2001 Participation and Action Limitation Survey defined someone with a mobility disability as:

…someone who has difficulty with at least one of:

  • walking half a kilometre
  • walking up and down a flight of stairs (about 12 steps) without resting
  • moving from one room to another
  • carrying an object of 5 kg (10 lbs) for 10 m (30 ft.)
  • standing for long periods.

And an agility disability as:

...someone who has difficulty with at least one of:

  • bending
  • dressing or undressing her/himself
  • getting into and out of bed
  • cutting her/his toenails
  • using fingers to grasp/handle objects
  • reaching in any direction (for example, above her/his head)
  • cutting her/his food.

Of the participants surveyed in this category, 72% reported having both mobility and agility disabilities; and 31,000 reported living without the special housing features (like grab bars, ramps, elevators) that they require.

Employment rates in Canada, by disability status
Media Folder: 

While anyone can become homeless, people with disabilities are particularly vulnerable. A 2013 report found that people with disabilities in Canada are twice as likely to live in poverty. As I wrote in a previous Ask the Hub post, this is due to a combination of barriers to employment, difficulties accessing social benefits, and an overall lack of affordable, supportive, and accessible housing.

In terms of how many people with disabilities also experience homelessness, there’s no concrete number. According to the 2012 Canadian Survey on Disability, 13.7% of people surveyed reported being limited in daily activities due to a disability. Meanwhile, The Center for Justice and Social Compassion estimates that 45% of all people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. have a disability or have been diagnosed with mental illness—a significantly higher number that suggests people with disabilities are over-represented in the homeless population. Furthermore, people experiencing homelessness have a high prevalence of chronic health conditions that may require housing accommodations and additional supports.

Housing needs

There’s no straightforward list of housing needs because these needs vary widely depending on the severity of type of mobility issues; as well as the individual’s wishes. Some people want to live as independently as possible, while others want to live with 24-hour care from friends, family, or attendants. However, existing literature does provide us with some important things to consider.

Needs in the physical environment can include wheelchair accessibility, but other modifications are increasingly required. A report on services in Bruce County, Ontario, highlighted a continuing demand for modified units:

Trends in the social housing waiting list show that, while there is a need for some wheelchair accessible units with features such as turning spaces within rooms, lower counters with knee space underneath, there is a greater need for modified units which meet less intensive physical impediments (i.e. ground floor units or units in buildings with an elevator). In addition, there is a need for modified units that can accommodate families since most family units are multi-floor townhouses. A more coordinated tracking system may assist in matching the need for modified / wheelchair-accessible units with current vacancies.

The same report noted that in rural areas, location of modified units is a huge factor. Waiting lists for preferred locations can be long, and a lack of efficient public transportation for people with disabilities makes it hard for them to access services.

Supportive services are often crucial for many people with mobility issues, who frequently need assistance with running errands, completing housework, and other tasks. Then there are the emotional needs: as a U.S. study of non-institutionalized adults found, mobility issues are associated with higher rates of fear, anxiety, confusion—contributing to lower rates of emotional wellbeing.

The writers of the Bruce County report present clustering affordable housing and supportive services—putting them close together—in more populated areas to make services more time- and cost-efficient, as well as easier to access.

Another important factor is modifying communication and service so that they’re more easily understood and accessible. A factsheet from the city of Waterloo, Ontario recommends making a few changes to how people work with service users with disabilities:

... appropriate communication techniques like speaking at eye level to individuals in a wheelchair, using clear and specific language, paying attention to responses, providing documents in accessible formats and using interpreters, diagrams and demonstrations as required.

When working with individuals with mobility difficulties who need housing, or accommodations made to their existing housing, this guide on interviewing around reasonable accommodation requests may be helpful.

We need more accessible housing

There is a severe lack of affordable, accessible housing. Affordability is a key issue, as many people with disabilities are in core housing need and living in poverty. A 2001 Canadian survey found that 18% of people with mobility/agility disabilities lived in core housing need—that’s twice the rate of people without disabilities (9%). Those who are eligible for social benefits often have a hard time getting them. Even then, the rates are extremely low and leave people with little to live off of after paying rent.

In certain provinces and territories, there’s legislation requiring businesses to improve accessibility. Ontario was the first to pass such laws, and aims to be accessible by 2025. The laws apply to businesses with more then a few employees, educational institutions, and developers of “built spaces” like parks, government buildings and other public areas. While landlords have a duty to accommodate, not everyone follows through. Affected tenants would have to make claims via human rights code violations, which can be complicated and time consuming.

Getting accommodations isn’t always a straightforward process in social housing. One participant in the arts-based Women’s Stories: Aging, Disability, and Homelessness project described the difficulty of requesting changes to her unit:

I’m just saying in my building there’s no accountability to get things done ... They make it so that it’s a maze that you’re supposed to go up the chain of command, right? I need grab bars on so I can take a bath. So, you put your work order in and you wait around, a week goes by and you don’t hear anything and then you’re supposed to call and talk to a supportive housing worker. Now, most of these subsidized buildings have supportive housing workers. We still don’t know what that really means. So, you’re supposed to go to the worker and say, I put a work order in two weeks ago about this and I haven’t heard back. And she’s supposed to go to her manager, her supervisor and that supervisor is supposed to go to the supervisor of maintenance and it goes down. So, it goes up, up, up and down.

In order to meet the needs of people with mobility difficulties, a holistic and flexible approach must be taken. In order for that to work, we need more housing that is both affordable and modifiable according to individual or family needs.

While there is some government funding through CMHC programs to renovate or update existing housing, there are other services as well. For example, the Calgary-based organization Affordable Housing offers a variety of services for people with disabilities: homes in community, intensive housing (housing with support), and R.A.D. renovations, which helps people make accommodations to their existing homes.

More resources on accessibility in Canada:

 This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at thehub@edu.yorku.ca and we will provide a research-based answer.

Emma Woolley is a 2016 graduate of York University's Bachelor of Social Work program with a background in publishing, freelance writing and digital communications. Her interest in affordable housing, homelessness, 2LGBTQ rights, and social justice led her to work with The Homeless Hub. Emma is now pursuing her Master of Social Work at The University of Toronto, where she is focusing on anti-oppressive, strengths-based, recovery-oriented, and critical approaches to mental health care.

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