Wheelchair-accessible Housing: It’s a Lottery!

Joan Rutherford 112x112
Joan Rutherford
Chair, National Network of Older People’s Housing Champions

You may have read(1) about the couple who won over £50,000 on the Postcode Lottery recently. They intend to use their winnings to build a wheelchair-accessible home, suitable for their severely disabled teenage daughter. Most wheelchair-users are not so fortunate.

For most of us our home is the most important thing in our lives after family and friends. Adequate housing is also a Human Right, recognized in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (opens new window)

Among other things the Declaration of Human Rights says that there should be equal and non-discriminatory access to adequate housing.  It states that a key element of housing is accessibility… that housing is not adequate if the specific needs of disadvantaged and marginalized groups are not taken into account.

However, many disabled and older people in this country – particularly those who use wheelchairs – can’t find a home that suits them.

We’re not talking about a small number here. The latest estimates are that there are just under 10 million disabled people in the UK(2). That’s around 20% of the total population. And wheelchairs are used by an estimated 1.3 million people(3).

In 2022, the Greater Manchester Disabled People’s Panel carried out the ‘Big Disability Survey’(4). The Panel is convened in partnership with GM Mayor Andy Burnham and GMCA. Around 1,500 disabled people responded to the survey, among them many wheelchair users. 

57% of respondents felt that their housing met their needs. This means that 43% of disabled people that responded to the survey are living in housing that either partially meets their need, or does not at all. This is what some wheelchair-users in Greater Manchester had to say about their housing…

  • I have a commode in the kitchen because I’m unable to get upstairs to the toilet
  • I’ve had to buy a stinky chemical toilet for an understairs cupboard
  • I have to live with my parents because no alternative is available (male, 49)
  • I can’t get to the bathroom upstairs anymore so have to wash in the small cloakroom downstairs and can’t get my wheelchair in, so I struggle
  • I am an electric wheelchair user with no access to my kitchen because of narrow doorways
  • my front door hits the radiator so it doesn’t open completely
  • the front door to the building is very heavy and can be a struggle for me to open in my chair
  • I can't use or charge a mobility scooter due to the design of my house
  • My back garden is inaccessible
  • Had I designed the property it would have a better layout
  • No homes are available for a disabled adult wheelchair user with a family
  • It’s cramped - six people in a 3-bedroom house with small rooms, a tiny kitchen and small bathroom
  • they don't seem to build large ones for families
  • I don’t meet the age criteria for bungalow
  • I can't go anywhere without steep hills and obstructions.

Wheelchair users are very creative. They have to be to get themselves the home that most of us take for granted.  I have a number of friends who are wheelchair-users. These are some of the strategies they’ve had to employ…

Tim and Linda married and wanted to buy a flat together. Linda is a wheelchair user. They chose a ground floor flat off-plan and managed to persuade the volume housebuilder to adapt it to suit Linda’s needs. If they were told that something ‘couldn’t’ be done they sourced and provided photographs to show how it had already been done. The extra cost of adapting off-plan was zero… other than ragged nerves while arguing with sales staff. 

Aiden is a qualified surveyor in his early 40s who is quadriplegic following a diving accident. He runs motivational courses and earns enough money - and has the skills - to design and build his own home. As well as having the usual hoists and accessible wet-room, Aiden uses tech to give him the independence to switch on lights and the music of his choice.

Katy and Jeff are both wheelchair users. They met, fell in love and married. However, they could not find a home to buy that suited them in Manchester so had to move to Stockport – away from their support network.

Barrie uses a large electric wheelchair and lives in a house that suits his needs. However, the other houses on his estate are not accessible, so visiting his neighbours is impossible, and all social events must be held in his house.

All these stories point to a need to build more wheelchair-accessible homes - of different tenures and sizes - for younger disabled people as well as for older folk.

I’ve heard planners suggest that the need for wheelchair-accessible homes will be met as part of social housing provision.  In my view this is a very outdated stance. It might have been the case a decade or so ago - when disabled people were unable to access well-paid jobs - and incomes. 

However, I’m sure we all know of wheelchair-users who earn a decent income and would probably not choose to live in social housing. The stories of my friends show that there is an unmet need for wheelchair-users to have the same opportunities as the rest of us to buy their own home.

To encourage housing developers to build wheelchair-accessible homes we need to get the right planning policies at both national and local level.

Government advice is that local authorities should set up systems to establish the ‘need’ for wheelchair-accessible housing in their area. 

In my view this puts an unnecessary onus on already-stretched local planning authorities. And the estimated ‘need’ can change overnight. What about a someone who suddenly needs to use a wheelchair because of an accident or illness?  How many Long Covid sufferers have become wheelchair-users? Perhaps government should take another look at this guidance? Perhaps a policy on wheelchair-accessible homes should be the default, with local authorities being required to demonstrate that there is no ‘need’ in their area?

And we need to get the right policies in Local Plans. We should legislate for a minimum baseline of 10% of all new homes across the country – both social and owner-occupied - to be built to wheelchair-accessible standards. This would create a level playing field for developers and avoid confusion. 

The Greater Manchester Disabled People’s Panel has asked the ten Local Planning Authorities to ensure that all new homes are built to the ‘accessible' standard, with 10% built to the ‘wheelchair-accessible’ standard, in order to help to address the current shortage of accessible homes in GM. 

The Panel has also asked the ten Greater Manchester boroughs to consult early with disabled people to ensure that any new outdoor spaces, and access routes, are fully accessible.

I would also like to see a range of house-types and sizes so that wheelchair-users have the same opportunities as the rest of us to set up home independently – and to raise a family if they wish. And wouldn’t it be great if disabled people could be involved in designing the prototypes?

This is possible. The London Plan and the Liverpool Plan both include a policy for all new homes to be built to the accessible / adaptable standard, and for 10% to be wheelchair accessible. 

Implementing such a policy nationally would help to satisfy the current unmet need for disabled people - and also to plan for our ageing population.


  1. Metro News (26 June 2023)
  2. Family Resources Unit (Gov.UK 2023)
  3. UK Census (ONS 2021)
  4. The Big Disability Survey, Greater Manchester Disabled People’s Panel (2022)

This blog for the Housing LIN is based on a talk to the Housing 2023 Conference in Manchester, 27 June 2023.

If you found this of interest, read Joan’s previous blog for the Housing LIN on inclusive living.

For more on wheelchair-accessible housing, the Housing LIN is delighted to be a founding member of the Homes Made for Everyone (HoME) Coalition, chaired by the Centre for Ageing Better. Check out their website and charter. (opens new window)

And for more on Inclusive Living, visit the 5-year ESRC funded research project on the intersectionality of age and disability in relation to housing and place, led by the University of Stirling.


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