FINDING a decent place to live can prove to be a difficult task for anyone – but for some people it can be seen as a human rights issue.
Having a disability can severely affect your life chances in all sorts of ways but it is now generally accepted that most disabled people now crave as much independence as the rest of society, including decisions on how and where they want to live.
The days when people were packed off to ‘homes’ have long gone but there is still a shortage of suitable accommodation.
Many houses and flats simply aren’t accessible and, although legal regulations say that all buildings built this century must have wheelchair access, that still leaves an awful lot of closed doors.
The problem is likely to get bigger as medical advances lead to people living longer but with all the associated difficulties that come with ageing.
Enter Sheffield couple Conrad Hodgkinson and Dr Christine Barton, whose website The Accessible Property Register (APR) aims to provide a place where those with physical difficulties can find property – both for sale and rent – to suit their needs.
They set up the site seven years ago and now it has between 30-40,000 views per month and a reputation that has spread to the rest of Britain and even abroad.
Their site has not gone unnoticed by the powers-that-be in the property market, especially in their home city, even though they have come up against cases where to have a home suitable for disabled people is seen as undesirable.
“Estate agents sometimes seem to think adaptation will put people off so they suggest, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly, removing them or ask people not to mention them,’’ says Conrad.
However, things are starting to change, partly because of the way shown by APR. “Increasingly we have estate agents coming to us saying there’s a wheelchair-accessible property available and we’d like to advertise it with you,’’ says Conrad.
“It’s the only website that is quite as comprehensive because the one criteria of anything that is advertised must have wheelchair access but apart from that we will accept adverts from any source – estate agents, social housing organisations, private individuals,’’ says Conrad.
“The vision is that you’ve got this one place that you need to go to see anything that is available in terms of accessible property. In Sheffield we’ve got a really good situation – we have links with social housing and also private housing.
“Sheffield Homes through the Property Shop advertise weekly and Eadon Lockwood and Riddle are partners with us in the private sector. That’s the sort of situation we’d love to see happening in other areas.”
Christine aged 65, who, like former deputy headteacher Conrad has a background in education, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the early 1980s and by 1998 was quadriplegic.
She is adamant that she ‘has’ the disorder but doesn’t ‘suffer’ from it. “I’m used to it,’’ she simply says. “It doesn’t make it any easier but it’s interesting that once my arms and legs stopped working that people stopped noticing that my brain still is.”
She is passionate about “the area of disability equality and getting people to understand what equality really means’’ and has been awarded an MBE for her work.
Although her condition sometimes restricts the amount of work she can do, she was a founder of what has now become Sheffield Centre for Independent Living and is a governor of Sheffield LINk, a group aimed at improving Sheffield’s social care and health services.
She is a member of the School for Social Care Research Advisory Groupand the National Institute for Health Research Regional Funding Committee and is a Lay Reviewer for research proposals.
Conrad, 66, acts as her primary carer at their bungalow in Fulwood (although she also employs personal assistants) and is a member of the National Service Framework Advisory Group for Long-Term Conditions and also Choices Not Barriers, a local consultation group set up by Sheffield City Council.
He does most of the day-to-day work on the site and others involved include co-director Lindsay Yarrow, who is Christine’s daughter, and Conrad’s daughter Jane Hodgkinson, who helps to place adverts.
The site rates homes using a list of factors such as parking facilities, level access and having a toilet on the same floor as the entrance to gain an Accessible Property rating and features such as special adaptions, intercom and widened doors to be credited as Accessible Property Plus.
In recent years there have also been seperate segments of the site dedicated to student accommodation and places that provide holidays. There are also plans in the future to ensure that other disabilities – sensory ones such as blindness or deafness and also psychiatric illnesses and learning difficulties are catered for on the site.
Conrad and Christine both admit to being on a learning curve when it comes to the wide world of different disabilities. “There’s all sorts of new technology areas we could go into,’’ says Conrad.
When it comes to the places advertised, “we don’t make judgements,’’ says Christine. “We only say what’s there. We don’t say whether it’s good or bad. What we do is provide factual information. What you see is what you get.’’
Conrad adds: “We don’t visit every place obviously, so we do rely on the information that others provide. The pro-forma that’s given is as explicit as possible with a full list of accessibility features so unless someone’s going to lie what you end up with is a fairly accurate picture. All of our featured properties – whether accommodation or holidays – starts off with this list.”
Although advertising is free to private individuals in the UK – with the option of a fully-serviced advert creation and posting for £25 – APR is not a charity, as many users assume, and relies on advertising. Luckily, according to Conrad: “we are well supported by most UK-based organisations of older and disabled people.” They are helping to spread the word.
“We have found increasingly housing advisors both in the private sector and local authorities will refer people to us. I get calls now from people saying so and so suggested that you might be able to help.
“The trouble is that people referrred to like that are usually looking for property to rent and there’s a real shortage of residential lets for disabled people. When you think of a lot of rented property, it’s just not accessible. If we can help change and improve things things it makes what we’re doing even more important.”
“You don’t make a fortune out of it but it is serving a useful function,’’ he contrinues. “The feedback we get from people can be really wonderful.”
lwww.accessible-property.org.uk. Sheffield LINk is at www.sheffieldlink.org.uk and Sheffield Centre For Independent Living is at www.sheffieldcil.org.uk