Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 14 October 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Disability Matters
From Accessibility to Universal Design: Discussion
The purpose of today's meeting is to discuss accessibility to universal design. I would like to extend on behalf of the committee a very warm welcome to Ms Karen Smith, advocate, Ms Jean Richardson, manager, and Ms Michelle Merrigan, communications manager, from Changing Places Ireland. I also welcome Mr. Tony Cunningham, director of volunteers and housing, Ms Joan Carthy, advocate manager, Ms Rosaleen Lally, national access programme manager, from the Irish Wheelchair Association. I further welcome Mr. Eoin O'Herlihy from O'Herlihy Access Consultancy, OHAC, and Ms Bernadette Egan, architect, and member of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland universal design task force.
I must remind members that they are only allowed to participate in this meeting from within the precincts of Leinster House. If members are joining us remotely, I ask them to confirm they are on the grounds of the Leinster House campus prior to making any contribution to the meeting. For anybody watching us during these times, the witnesses are accessing the meeting remotely and we may experience technical difficulties, in which case I ask everyone to bear with us.
Before we commence formal proceedings, I will speak about parliamentary privilege. Witnesses are directed to give evidence only on the subject matter of these proceedings. If they are asked to desist from giving evidence by direction of the committee, they should do so. I ask them not to criticise, comment on or make any charges against any person outside the Houses in such a way as to make him, her or them identifiable.
Parliamentary privilege is available to witnesses located in the precincts of Leinster House. Privilege may not extend to witnesses outside Leinster House. No clear guidance can be given. Persons giving evidence from other jurisdictions should also be mindful of the domestic statutory regime.
I call on Ms Smith to make her opening statement.
Ms Karen Smith:
I am a representative from Changing Places Ireland, and I am a woman with a physical disability. I am deeply committed to advocating for myself and others who have disabilities. Today, I hope to raise awareness of the importance of changing places facilities and how it meets a basic need, and right, for persons with disabilities to be included in every aspect of society.
I would like to give the committee a brief background. Almost ten years ago, in 2012, a young disability advocate, Ailis Healy, supported by her mother, Ann Healy, set up a Facebook page to highlight the lack of appropriate changing facilities in Ireland after becoming aware of the Changing Places lobbying movement that was taking place in the UK, and realising this could provide a solution to allow her equal access to everyday activities. Ann Healy is one of the founders of the Changing Places Ireland working group. From the first meeting in November 2014, this group focused on introducing changing places toilet facilities to public places such as shopping centres, libraries, and sporting arenas across the country.
Changing Places Ireland now consists of people with disabilities, parents, and organisations working in the disability space, including the Disability Federation of Ireland, the Central Remedial Clinic, the Irish Wheelchair Association, Enable Ireland, Spina Bifida Hydrocephalus Ireland, InterAcT at Trinity College Dublin and Inclusion Ireland. The groups has worked tirelessly and there are now 17 changing places toilet facilities in the country. Sadly, this reflects poorly on Ireland as England has over 1,600 changing places facilities and new legislation will make changing places toilets mandatory there in new public buildings from 2021.
Changing places toilet facilities are designed to provide access to localities and enhance the dignity, health, safety and comfort of someone who may need extra support and additional equipment during personal care tasks. Changing places toilet facilities also offer added safety and support features for assistants. When I became involved with the Changing Places Ireland committee, I had been an activist for this cause for some time. I had done many radio interviews raising awareness and I presented at a national sharing day for the HSE on the importance of these facilities. I have dreams and aspirations. Having a disability does not mean these aspirations are less important than those of anyone else listening today. I would like to meet a partner, go to the cinema or nightclub with my friends, meet up with my family members and their children in restaurants or plan a weekend away. I would like to do ordinary things in ordinary places. Without access to facilities like changing places, I am excluded from living a full and equal life as a valued citizen. As a woman in my own right, I want to maximise my independence and be included in my local community.
The world has experienced restrictions for the past two years due to Covid-19. People found it very difficult and their mental health suffered. I and others like me have lived with restrictions all our lives. I have not had the opportunity to access my local school for my education. I was excluded from further education and society in general due to lack of accessible facilities, of which the basic one is to use a toilet. The Government needs to recognise the importance of access for people with disabilities and give support to legislation and funding. It should now follow the example of England and change Irish building regulations to make such toilets mandatory in certain public buildings.
I am involved in a Government working group that involves the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and other stakeholders. This group was established in December 2020 to examine the provision of a changing places toilet in certain buildings.
It has been a wonderful experience so far. I have been included at every step of the process. Mr. Paul McDermott from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has been respectful and inclusive of people with disabilities and he values our opinions.
Following a lot of consultation and meetings which I participated in, the working group has now recommended the types and sizes of buildings where a changing places toilet should be required, along with the technical requirements, that is, equipment, room size and layout.
The proposals of the working group will require changes to the Building Regulations 1997 to 2021 and to Technical Guidance Document M – Access and Use. This process has been inclusive from the beginning and our voices have been heard.
Draft documents from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage have been finalised. A focus group of people with disabilities and I have been consulted about the easy read document before it goes to public consultation for which it is almost ready.
This progress is very welcome; we are delighted that the voice of people with disabilities is part of this process, and we continue to advocate for this essential change in the year ahead. The aim of our campaign is to promote the inclusion of people through providing changing places toilet facilities nationwide in places accessed by the public. Thousands of people need changing places toilet facilities to go about their daily lives undertaking the day-to-day activities that many people take for granted. Without changing places toilet facilities available throughout the country people with disabilities like myself are denied a basic human right and continue to be excluded from everyday life.
Mr. Tony Cunningham:
I thank the Chairman and the committee for the opportunity today to present to it.
The Irish Wheelchair Association is basically calling on the Government to conduct a review of Part M (section 3, Access and Use) of the Building Regulations 2010, insofar as it refers to dwellings, ensuring that the minimum accessibility standard for new houses in Ireland is much higher and provides for people who require wheelchair liveable housing. Believe it or not, and it is a surprise to many people, Part M of the building regulations only requires housing to be visitable for a wheelchair user but not liveable, that is, where you must provide access to a habitable room and a toilet at entry level, and all you have to do is consider a three-bedroom semi-detached house with a small toilet under the stairs and the bedrooms upstairs - visitable but not liveable. A consequence of Part M is the lack of availability of wheelchair liveable social housing and private housing in the community, resulting in wheelchair users being homeless, involuntarily living with family and friends, in nursing homes as the Ombudsman referred to, and not having control over their lives as well as not having choices equal to others in society.
This review of Part M that we are calling for should take the form of a public consultation process so that disabled people in the first instance, together with disability organisations and sectoral partners, and all people impacted by the lack of suitable wheelchair liveable housing, can have their voices heard.
The Irish Wheelchar Association is a community of people with physical disabilities across Ireland in every community founded on the belief that everyone should be able to live a life of choice and equality. The services we provide support people with physical disabilities to live independently, and our campaigns demand equal rights and opportunities for people with physical disabilities. The work of the association is underpinned by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which was ratified by Ireland in 2018. Article 19, in particular, recognises the right of disabled people to live in the community and to have the opportunity to choose their place of residence - not have it forced on them. Furthermore, Article 28 includes the right of disabled people to access public housing programmes.
People who have a mobility impairment and who are, or who may become, full-time wheelchair users require appropriately designed and future-proofed housing that is located within mixed tenure sustainable housing developments not set apart; housing that is perceived to be safe and in a location of people's choosing; and, housing situated in close proximity to services, transport, and family and friends. Unfortunately, new dwellings are merely designed to be visitable under Ireland's building regulations.
For example, earlier this year, following a campaign which we ran called Think Ahead, Think Housing, we were contacted by a developer inquiring about our interest in purchasing 16 new apartments proposed to be built in an existing development in Dublin because we are an approved housing body as well. The existing impressive development had six blocks of apartments with more than 100 apartments in total, all of which were compliant with the Part M of the building regulations and all of them one bedroom apartments. There was also a primary care centre on site and plans for a nursing home, which was about to start, and retail units. It was a lovely development. Planning permission was granted for a further 16 apartments, the ones in this case which the developer was offering the Irish Wheelchar Association, all of which also were one bedroom Part M apartments. Effectively, the whole development excluded wheelchair users, other than if they wanted to visit, of course. They brought us to another site, which also was a lovely site and strategically located, and the planning application was for the same - more than 100 one bedroom Part M apartments also. These also were totally exclusive.
According to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission report, "Discrimination and Inequality in Housing in Ireland, June 2018", people with disabilities are more than twice as likely to report discrimination relating to housing; over 1.6 times more likely to live in poor conditions such as damp housing, lacking central heating or in neighbourhoods where there are issues; and, more than one in four homeless people has a disability.
Technical guidance documents were first introduced in 1991 to provide guidance, in this case, with respect to Part M of the building regulations. Originally the guidance had an emphasis on disability but did not include dwellings. There was a review in 2000, and it was expanded to include dwellings making them visitable but did not provide information on designing homes for people using wheelchairs or lifetime adaptable housing.
Part M was further expanded in 2010 - which is the current one we have - to include some sensory impairments and catered for age, size, and disability with reference only to universal design, but there were many areas of accessibility, including universal design, which were not addressed in this review at the time.
Visitable dwellings are the mandatory baseline for developers. That is what they must adhere to when constructing housing units in Ireland under the building regulations - only visitable.
In the UK, which Ms Smith referred to earlier, there are three standards, namely, visitable dwellings, accessible and adaptable dwellings, and wheelchair user dwellings. We fall well short of the UK. The aim of the new Government housing policy Housing for All is that, "Everyone in the State should have access to a home to purchase or rent at an affordable price, built to a high standard and in the right place, offering a high quality of life." If social and private houses continue to be built to the current building regulations standards of Part M, there will be no provision made for wheelchair-liveable homes and local government will have to continue to retrofit the existing stock, including new houses, and will also have to increase the budget for the disabled persons housing grant. I think we would all agree that this is a foolish and false economy. The Government must review Part M of the building regulations to ensure wheelchair-liveable homes are included in the 9,500 new homes that are planned annually for the next five years. What an opportunity that is. Money does not seem to be an issue but Part M is very clearly a barrier to wheelchair-liveable houses across Ireland. The cost of building homes to a higher accessibility standard is lower at design stage than having to retrofit at a later stage.
Ms Bernadette Egan:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to present today. My name is Bernadette Egan. I am a registered architect, a member of the universal design task force and an elected council member of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland. I hold a master of laws degree in international and comparative disability law and policy. I am here today on a personal basis as I am a disabled person with lived experience of the accessibility of the built environment. My submission includes a brief outline of my own experiences, the challenges of the built environment, and my recommendations for implementing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, regarding Article 9 on accessibility.
Some time ago, I, like many architects, designed for compliance with the building regulations Part M, access and use, from 2010, believing it would ensure "Adequate provision ... for people to access and use a building, its facilities and its environs." It all seemed to make sense and as a busy architect, I did not question it. Then one day, my circumstances changed and I gained a new perspective. I joined the 1 billion disabled people worldwide, including 640,000 in Ireland, which is currently the worse country in western Europe to be disabled. What had made sense suddenly became nonsense. I discovered the hard way that the built environment is not adequately accessible at all. Life became a daily obstacle course, and instead of going about my business like everyone else, I face difficulties with the activities of living that most people take for granted. I need to confront a whole range of issues to shop for food, visit a bank, attend a meeting, have lunch in a restaurant, use a toilet or socialise in a bar. I lost my human rights and became a second-class citizen. Will the entrance door be too heavy and awkward to open, or is the platform lift out of order? Will I need to search for a key for the "accessible" toilet? Will it be too small for my motorised wheelchair? Will I need to jostle the bins or will I get hit over the head by a loose drop-down rail? If there is a fire, will I wait for someone to try to find me and slide me on a deckchair down a steep staircase? These are just a small sample of the questions I need to answer before leaving home as I mentally map out my day. As an architect, I feel let down and betrayed by the built environment that surrounds me.
Disability is part of humanity. Despite the first accessibility standards being created in the USA in 1961, they were not introduced in Ireland until 1992. Today, despite extensive legislation and policy, the lack of accessibility of the built environment is widespread. The biggest challenge disabled people encounter arises from attitudinal barriers, not from their impairments, as there is a common misunderstanding that buildings are accessible. There is also an unspoken assumption that accessible buildings are difficult and expensive to build, but this is not necessarily the case. As far back as 1993, the Council of Europe said that "A complete change in attitude must be achieved in order that disabilities are property recognized and integrated into the discipline of building". In 1996, it was recommended that the Government appoint a national committee to monitor progress of access to the physical environment, ensuring enforcement of Part M and that universal design, UD, becomes the overarching principle to guide all relevant legislation, policy and practice. In a 2007 report, the Government committed to developing and enforcing higher accessibility standards. It emphasised that any revision to Part M would need to be comprehensive and address poor compliance, "current loopholes, minimum design criteria and inconsistencies" with houses being "habitable" rather than merely "visitable". However, none of these proposals happened. In 2014, the UNCRPD committee clarified that denial of access to the physical environment is a clearly defined prohibited act of discrimination. In 2018, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission reported discrimination against disabled people accessing housing. Disabled people in Ireland are prevented from enjoying some of their fundamental human rights, such as the right to live independently, seek employment, or enjoy culture and leisure, as they continue to be left out of society by exclusive building design that does not consider users' age, size and ability. An accessible built environment is simply better for everyone, whether disabled or not.
The UNCRPD sets out legal duties from a human rights perspective, with disabled people treated on an equal basis with others. I have completed a 16,000-word research paper that identified relevant legislation and policy, examined the four main challenges to accessibility and explored Norway as a case study and possible template for Ireland. I made several recommendations. First, human rights need to become part of the design process from the beginning. Universal design must form part of the project quality assurance, with essential reviews and inspections, ensuring that accessibility is fully addressed throughout buildings' life cycles. Second, the world's only statutory centre of excellence in universal design, CEUD, at the National Disability Authority should fulfil its full statutory role and be developed and expanded with disabled people to become a global leader promoting a positive international image of a progressive, inclusive country and ensuring an accessible built environment for all. Third, the NDA needs to fulfil its full statutory role and become an independent monitoring body of the accessibility of the built environment, together with the establishment of a new enforcement mechanism with dedicated funding, time-specific deadlines and appropriate sanctions. Fourth, Part M should be thoroughly revised and updated with the participation of disabled people. There needs to be just one clear set of legally enforceable accessibility standards with legislation, education and training to implement this effectively. Fifth, a specific national built environment accessibility advisory committee must be established to successfully progress accessibility with a high level of engagement with the disabled community. "Nothing about us without us" is the disabled community's slogan and its effective and meaningful participation and involvement is mandatory as there is no substitution for lived experience. Sixth, the centre of excellence in universal design must fulfil its statutory remit and universal design must be put on the curricula of vocational and third level institutions as a mandatory subject in the schools of built architecture, as well as being at the centre of courses and activities provided for the continuing professional development of all built environment practitioners. Seventh, the CEUD should fulfil its statutory remit with a national awareness campaign to promote and highlight universal design and the right of disabled people to access the built environment, and disabled people could effectively deliver disability awareness training. Eighth, the optional protocol must be ratified as soon as possible so that disabled people have an essential international redress mechanism.
Fulfilling the legitimate human right of disabled people to access and use the built environment will lead to essential improvements in the well-being of the entire population. Designing for diversity is simply designing for equality.
I thank everybody for their opening remarks. I will now go to members of the committee. In order to get everybody in we will apply the six-minute rule. I call on Deputy Emer Higgins for her questions and comments.
I thank all the witnesses for being here today and sharing their experiences and expertise in this area. This committee is all about taking on board the lived experience of people and making sure we are using that to shape legislation.
I refer to the contribution from the Irish Wheelchair Association, Technical Guidance Document M and the minimum accommodation standards. Mr. Cunningham feels that the standards should be higher. I note that the target seems to be 30% for all new dwellings to incorporate universal design. I wish to ask the witnesses representing the Irish Wheelchair Association two quick questions about that. Is that happening, and what percentage do they feel it should be at? Thirty per cent seems pretty low to me.
What Ms Egan said about the Norwegian experience sounds really interesting, and it sounds like she has done quite a lot of research and comparisons on it. Could she give the committee further information on that or perhaps send us on a copy of what she has pulled together on it? I was quite struck by two things she said. The main thrust of her contribution seemed to be that there is discrimination in respect of rights through building design. That is a really clear and powerful statement. One thing she said - I wrote it down - was that accessible built design is better for everyone, whether disabled or not. That is very powerful and sums up exactly what all the witnesses and all the members of the committee are trying to achieve.
As for Ms Smith's contribution, I am quite familiar with Changing Places Ireland. Councillor Vicki Casserly has done an awful lot of work on that in our local authority, South Dublin County Council, and we are delighted to have a recently installed changing places facility there. This policy needs to be implemented nationwide. I would like to hear how Ms Smith feels about the possibility of changing places toilet facilities being made mandatory nationwide in a similar way to England, which I think has already done that. Ms Smith alluded to places where the facilities have worked well.
Maybe I could get just those three questions answered. I know time is quite short.
Mr. Tony Cunningham:
I will come in if that is all right. There was a question about the 30% and whether it is being delivered. The one fact we have from experience is the shortage of delivery. There are some houses delivered. Going back to need, however, we actually do not know what the need is. Again, that is a result of the blind eye to disability over the decades. We know from the 2020 summary of housing assessment need, which is collated by all the local authorities, that 8% of the need is for people with disabilities, but how many of them require wheelchair-liveable housing is not known. The figures do not exist. They are divided into physical, sensory, intellectual, mental health and so on in terms of disability, but there could be people under the physical disability section who do not use wheelchairs and many people in the intellectual disability section who use wheelchairs and require liveable housing in that sense. That is a big problem.
Another challenge for us all is the people who are not planning ahead. We see from the analysis from the Housing Agency that the length of time people are on waiting lists has increased for people with disabilities. You could be five years, ten years or more waiting for a house, so there is a long time waiting. We in the Irish Wheelchair Association have run a campaign this year called Think Ahead, Think Housing because of the under-representation of people with disabilities on the approved housing list and because people do not tend to plan ahead sufficiently in the knowledge that they could be waiting five years or ten years. Many people wait until they need a house. To give the committee one example, we have met with the HSE and are working with a local authority on a housing development very successfully and very positively. We will have a percentage of wheelchair-accessible houses within that development, although maybe only about six, to put it in context. We linked in with the HSE in that case to plan for the personal supports that are required. This was recently - about one or two months ago, maybe. Immediately, the HSE identified 22 people who required wheelchair-liveable housing that it was providing in its services. We asked whether they were approved for social housing and whether they had applied. Nobody knew. They went and checked. Twenty-one of the 22 people had not applied for social housing and they needed it. If you mirror that around the country, that 8% will jump substantially and-----
Mr. Tony Cunningham:
Yes, it is, absolutely. There is a total lack of information. The new housing application form launched in April has for the first time a field where you can say you require wheelchair-liveable housing, so with any new applicant local authorities and the Department will at first sight be able to tell, but there is a retrospective piece that needs to be done for the people who are already on the approved housing lists to see what the need is. The need is there; it is not being met. People are homeless, they are living with their parents and they do not have control over their lives. That is affecting employment, education, relationships - every aspect of people's lives. There is not the delivery there should be. There is bespoke housing being delivered. If my turn on the housing list comes, I have to get an occupational therapy report and the house is designed specific to my needs, which may be only an en suite bathroom, but the rest of the house would not necessarily be accessible to everybody. It is a matter of the responses at the spoke level. There are no houses there for turnaround if people decide to move from Galway to Dublin or look for employment or go to college or whatever other changes. There are no options there for people.
Ms Bernadette Egan:
Yes. I will discuss them briefly. As for the Norway case study I looked at, I looked at many countries and Norway actively promotes the universal design concept and practice and recognises universal design as an expression of a value put on equality in society. It has also been part of Norway's national policies and strategies, included in 63 laws and regulations and encompassed in practice in several sectors of society. It is both an enforceable legal standard and a minimum standard. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from Norway. I can send the committee on lots of information. There are good things and also difficulties Norway has in achieving what it wants to do, so it is an interesting case to look at.
Deputy Higgins commented on accessibility being for everyone. Today we are talking about disability but, clearly, a cross-sector of society needs an accessible built environment. Whether it is a woman with a child, a man pushing a buggy or older people with crutches, various people across the board have various impairments over their lifetimes, and it is important that everything is accessible to everyone on an equal basis.
Ms Jean Richardson:
Ms Smith and I, as her advocate, will both answer that question if that is okay. When Ms Smith and I went into the Government working group, it became extremely clear that the proposals of the working group would necessitate changes to the Building Control Regulations 1997 to 2021 and Technical Guidance Document M. The documents we have been working on and the draft documents which are available are the building regulations, part amended, Technical Guidance Document M - Access and Use, a preliminary regulatory impact analysis and an easy-read consultation document, which are currently being finalised by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. These reflect the recommendations of the working group to the public consultation on the matter. It is really about gleaning exactly what people with disabilities need. The easy-read document will go up live as well. When we talk about the changing places facilities, it is about people with complex needs and about not being excluded. It is that group that is being missed and excluded from life for so long.
Ms Karen Smith:
It is also giving us a voice and putting our personal point across on what we actually require and what is desperately needed for disabled people to live a valued life in society as a whole. Otherwise, we just feel excluded and, as Ms Richardson said, like second-class citizens. It is just not right. Something has to change and it has to change fast.
Ms Jean Richardson:
Being involved in the working group and this process - for Ms Smith and me - has brought to the fore that we are sitting at a table where the rights of people are discussed. Paul McDermott co-ordinates this working group. The number of people in it is amazing. The organisations include: Changing Places Ireland; National Disability Authority; the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland; Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland; the Office of Public Works; the Health Service Executive estates team; Construction Industry Federation; the Department of Education; and the building control authorities. There is a mix of everybody in that group making these mandatory regulations. There are people in this group who know their business area, such as Ms Smith, and others represented, such as Ms Egan, who have come up with the regulations. It would be amazing to see this progress forward.
I confirm I am in Leinster House. I welcome all the witnesses here today and thank them for sharing their experiences with us. I congratulate Ms Smith and Changing Places Ireland on the work done to raise awareness of this issue. During Covid, when many public toilets were closed, we all experienced a bit of what Ms Smith experiences daily. Anytime we went out, even to do the shopping, we had to plan to make sure we would not be caught short. We got a bit of an understanding of what Ms Smith goes through. I congratulate her on her work. From reading some of the information she provided to us, it is outrageous that people have to be changed on the floor of a toilet. No one would want to imagine lying on the floor, in even the cleanest public toilet, for any reason. It is essential that all public buildings, going forward, include changing places toilets as mandatory.
Following on from Deputy Higgins's question, Mr. Cunningham said he was unsure as to the need for wheelchair accessible homes. Coming at this matter from the other angle, what is the supply of wheelchair accessible homes in both the private market, to rent and buy, and the local authorities? Do we know how many people are in need of these? Considering the number of people under the age of 65 years in nursing homes and living in congregated settings, when it is proposed to move them into community housing - many of them will need wheelchair accessible homes. Will it be possible to meet that need?
Do developers and architects understand the ethos of universal design? Is there national consistency in the implementation of accessible housing? Alternatively, does the interpretation exist that only the minimum needs to be done? If this is the case, is that due to a lack of understanding, for financial reasons or otherwise? That question is directed to the IWA, or Ms Egan can answer it as well.
Ms Rosaleen Lally:
I will answer some of those questions. The Deputy asked about the availability of accessible liveable homes in local authorities and on the private market. The simple answer is that the supply is not there. We did a project during the week using daft.ieto see what wheelchair liveable houses are available. We are delighted to see a filter on Daft to search for wheelchair accessible houses and I will go through some examples, of which there were quite a few available. In Cork, there are nine properties available to rent, including six two-storey houses, two small apartments and one large apartment that costs €2,000 a month to rent. The six two-storey houses and the small apartments are not wheelchair liveable. There were 24 houses available to buy in Cork advertised as wheelchair liveable houses. They include 21 two-storey houses that are not wheelchair liveable, one bungalow at €300,000, and two small apartments that are not wheelchair liveable. When we looked at photographs of the houses, it was apparent they were not wheelchair liveable. The situation is similar in Cork city. Two apartments were listed as wheelchair accessible for rent at present for €2,485 and €3,485 per month. There are ten houses available to buy, including seven two-storey houses that are not wheelchair liveable. There is one ground floor apartment with steps up to the front door that is advertised as wheelchair accessible. The shower is over the bath which is not wheelchair liveable.
I could go through the whole list across the country. Members know this is happening in their own counties. It is not the fault of daft.ie,, the seller or the buyer. It is the fault of the building regulations because they do not provide guidance for wheelchair liveable houses. The basic necessity should be that they are wheelchair liveable, meaning a wheelchair can get in the front door. People might say a house is wheelchair accessible when in fact it is not. Every area must be accessible to wheelchair users. If a mother is in a wheelchair, she needs to be able to get into the house, go into her kitchen and cook her children's dinner, get into the utility to do the washing, and get into all the bedrooms just like any mother would. If people here - God forbid - had to use a wheelchair tomorrow morning, would they be able to live in the house they live in today? I would not be able to. I would probably have to put a bed into the living room, which happens in many cases. For permanent wheelchair users, houses are not designed to be wheelchair liveable and we need to change that. We need a review of the building regulations so that there is a stock of wheelchair liveable houses available in local authorities and the private sector to provide people with choices. I will hand over to Mr. O'Herlihy to answer some of the Deputy's other questions.
Mr. Eoin O'Herlihy:
I will answer the Deputy's question on whether designers and developers are implementing universal design houses. At present, as Mr. Cunningham and Ms Lally have said, designers, architects and builders are designing houses to meet the requirements of Part M of the second schedule of the building regulations. Most designers will use technical guidance document M, TGDM, and the guidance in TGDM 2010 only requires the dwelling to be visitable. This means that a person can approach the main entrance to a house, go into a habitable room, such as a living or dining room, and there is a requirement that a small WC is provided, generally on the ground floor, which a wheelchair user can use. In principal, houses are designed to allow someone come to a house to have a cup of tea or sit in the living room and socialise etc. Unfortunately, the designers and developers will only design to meet the requirements of the building regulations and use the minimum guidance, unless otherwise advised. There seems to be confusion between the local authorities and the approved housing bodies on what levels of universal design should be achieved when going beyond the minimum requirements of the building regulation.
I have seen situations in which a designer or developer seeks advice, and we ask what advice the local authority has given on what standards or what guidance should be used. Unfortunately, the local authorities themselves do not know and are unable to give substantial guidance. There is no consistency among local authorities on what guidance should be used for addressing universal design. To sum the situation up, designers and developers will only meet the requirements of Part M of the regulations, and they will use technical guidance document M, which only provides for visitable housing. It does not mean we will create wheelchair accessible houses or adaptable houses in the future.
Mr. Tony Cunningham:
A retired colleague rang me recently from Carlow to tell me that his daughter queued for and bought a house based on the plans, without having seen it.
That is what is happening for many people, and it is, as Mr. O'Herlihy said, at just the basic requirement. That is a private purchase. When it comes to social housing, very often developers have a big tract of land, they get planning permission for development, potentially they could build the houses as well, and then they sell them to an approved housing provider, as its part in housing, which just takes what is going, so there is no inclusion for wheelchair-accessible housing on that front. That has a big impact. It is different if an approved housing body is designing and building itself, but even when it is doing that and it has its own design team, it is the building regulations it refers to.
On the question around nursing homes, as members will be aware, the Ombudsman report Wasted Lives came out recently and it was so upsetting to watch and to listen to the videos and voices of the experiences of people who were interviewed in nursing homes at the time. It took the wind out of me. In that report the HSE confirmed it was supporting 1,300 people under the age of 65 in to live in private nursing homes. There is a piece of work being done on that at the moment. We are involved with the HSE in a working group to try to work out pathways going forward. However, you can have all the meetings in the world you want, but unless the building regulations are changed, the houses will not be there other than on a bespoke basis for meeting people. If every one of the 1,300 people wanted to get out of the nursing home, what would that say?
To make that more concrete, a recent example, and she has agreed to our sharing the story, is a 48-year-old lady who had a stroke when she was 40. She spent the past seven years or more in a nursing home with people who had dementia and with older people. She spent most of her time in her room. The reason she was there was because there were no alternatives for her and she had no family in the area either. By chance one of our houses became vacant. It was fully wheelchair-accessible. She has been a tenant there for the past number of months.
I had the privilege of meeting this lady last month. One of the questions I asked her was what difference this had made to her life? The response was, the silence - just the silence, with no bells ringing, no doors banging, no trolleys in the corridor, and no staff or other residents shouting in the corridors. Imagine that the silence was the biggest difference in having a home of your own.
Another question I asked was what was her favourite part of the house? She pointed to the kitchen, saying she can cook her favourite food, which is waffles, when she wants and how she wants. The third thing that was so obvious from her experience was that she had a dog. The love and friendship between the two of them, you would nearly bring it home with you. Ms Lally would have had discussions with her before the house came along and she was on about this dog, and Ms Lally said to forget about the dog until we got the house. That is how basic it is.
That lady spent seven years in a nursing home because there was no available wheelchair-accessible housing for her to have a life. I do not know who put these regulations in place, but it is very frustrating.
Ms Bernadette Egan:
To get back to Deputy Tully about the financial reasons behind the way buildings are designed and procured, basically many architects want to design universal design, but they are very much confined by the finances. The clients will only go for compliance with building regulations. That is the minimum standard and the benchmark people have to design to. It is mainly in the private sector but obviously in the public sector as well where the financial impact of design is huge. Without the change in building regulations, as Mr. Cunningham said, it is not going to happen, no matter how much wishful thinking we have or how many teachers in universal design we have. If it is not put down in the regulations, then it will not happen, unfortunately.
I wish to confirm what Ms Lally said about the huge misconception about accessibility and what is an accessible building and accessible housing. There is no advertising standard across the board. As you can see on Daft, they have a tick box. Anyone can tick a box. I have actually visited some of these properties and you can barely get in the front door. Some even have steps even though they are supposed to be accessible. People do not understand what accessible is. They do not have the lived experience of the space required to let wheelchair users such as me know how that impacts on moving around in a property or in a house. There is no yardstick we can measure things against, and it is very much up to individuals to decide if their property is accessible, which usually it is not, unfortunately.
Ms Joan Carthy:
I wish to go back on the statistics side of things. There is such a lack of statistics in regard to people with disabilities that we do not know how many wheelchair users there are in Ireland. It is not part of the census. If we can bring back from that to have an understanding of need, we do not have a general figure or statistic in regard to how many wheelchair users there are in Ireland.
To give a brief example, an individual we have come across has two children who have disabilities, one of whom is a wheelchair user. She is on a council list and was brought to one property which was not suitable. She was told there is another property for viewing and if she said "No" to it, she would be put at the bottom of the list. That second property is not actually wheelchair accessible. Even though the house does not meet her needs, she has been told she will be put at the bottom of the housing list. Obviously that has to go against the rights of a person with a disability, or anybody's rights, that they are shown something which does not suit their basic needs.
I thank the witnesses for their statements today. I had to step out for ten minutes. I hope I do not repeat a previous question. My first question is for Changing Places Ireland, and I thank Ms Richardson for highlighting the importance of fully accessible facilities and their impact on the quality of life for disabled people. It is too easily overlooked to realise how limiting it is to live with uncertainty of access to such basic facilities. The State has buildings in every community, from libraries to social welfare offices and health centres, and I have been pushing the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien, to provide fully accessible changing places toilets in all of these public buildings. The Minister has referred me to the working group to examine the provision for changing places toilets in certain buildings. What can we do as public representatives to make the biggest difference in drastically increasing changing places toilet facilities? Does Ms Richardson think is it legislation similar to England, or is it the Government making a priority that is the biggest barrier?
The second question is for the Irish Wheelchair Association. I thank the witnesses for highlighting the shortcomings in current regulations. The majority of people do not know and would be shocked to learn that regulations only require houses to be visitable for wheelchair users, and not liveable. It is unbelievable that such discriminatory regulations were put in place. As the witnesses highlighted, it is extremely pressing in terms of plans for new housing. Unfortunately, the Government's Housing for All plan is light on addressing the needs of disabled people. I am worried that talks of reviews will only result in absolutely necessary changes being pushed into the future. I presume the IWA and other advocacy groups already know how the building regulations could be updated to be fully inclusive. Are there suggested changes that we could bring to the Minister?
Ms Karen Smith:
To answer Deputy Cairns's question about what can be done, there must be an exploration of what buildings require changing places facilities. Libraries and similar buildings have been mentioned. Nearly every building that any wheelchair user goes into needs accessible toilet facilities. I am in a powered chair. Our local shopping centre has a toilet which is supposed to be a wheelchair toilet, but I cannot turn around in it. I have to move right in to try to get the door closed. Therein lies the problem with changing places facilities.
Ms Jean Richardson:
Ms Smith and I spoke earlier about the proposals of the Government working group we have been involved in and the collection of people and skills to put these regulations together. It is important that there be changes to the building regulations and the guidance document. An awareness campaign must be launched and supported by the Government as well. That would show that the Government is taking this issue seriously and that it is going to support people with disabilities. In addition, I am hoping that the public consultation will show just how strongly people with disabilities feel about this issue. We have worked on the easy-to-read document, and it will take a little bit of time. The public consultation might take slightly longer to enable people to be supported in participating. It will involve people with physical disabilities and intellectual disabilities, and everyone's voice must be heard on this issue. The Government needs to get behind this initiative. A fantastic proposal has been put forward and it is an amazing time to introduce it. We must also look at what has been implemented in England and in Europe and see what we can learn from what has been done there.
Ms Jean Richardson:
The impression I am getting from today’s discussion is that this problem can be found across the board in lived environments as well. As Ms Egan and Mr. Cunningham pointedly said, it is important to recognise that this is an issue across all parts of society and that it does not just affect public buildings. Ms Smith cannot go to hospital appointments because there is no changing places facility. She must have certain physio sessions in areas where she can access buildings, and she must wait months for that. Ms Smith's story is one of many thousands of people out there in similar situations. Ms Smith's opening statement was powerful, as was Ms Egan's, in speaking to the lived experience of people who are not able to access everyday facilities. The Government, therefore, must take the regulations seriously and get behind this movement.
Mr. Eoin O'Herlihy:
I thank the Chair and Deputy Cairns. Building on comments from Ms Egan and others concerning how we can look at updating the regulations and guidance, the first thing would be recognising the importance of consultation and identifying the barriers faced by people with disabilities. That would be based on the guidance document in place now. It would then be necessary, and important, to review the guidance in line with international good practice to address universal design, again building on what Ms Egan said previously.
In addition, when we are revising the guidelines, we must move away from just having visitable housing. We must think about adaptable housing and housing which is fully wheelchair accessible. In turn, that process would lead to a revision of the planning policy and frameworks governing how we are going to implement changes and ensure that we have sufficient adaptable or wheelchair-accessible housing in Cork, Galway, Limerick etc. This undertaking is not just about revising the technical guidance and updating the building regulations. We must also look at the entire surrounding planning policy and frameworks as well.
We must also examine aspects such as training and awareness. How are we going to roll out national training and awareness to ensure that this programme is rolled out effectively? Then, we must also look at things like monitoring and enforcement to ensure that we are getting housing which is fully accessible. This is a process, therefore, but it is also about updating the technical guidance documents and regulations in line with international good practice. Without the process being in place as well, however, we will just end up updating our guidance. This point is relevant to the changing places campaign, but also to the issue of accessible housing.
Mr. Tony Cunningham:
The question from the Deputy was about what all of us on this call can do. Language is so powerful that it moves mountains. In our conversations, we are hearing about topics such as extra space, additional costs, value for money and special needs. The houses we are talking about are not a luxury but a requirement. This is about designing space to meet people’s requirements. If anybody who does not have a disability went to buy or rent a house and then found that the house had no front door and it was necessary to go in the window, would we accept that? In that scenario, would we call a special house one that has a front door and where it would not be necessary to climb in the window? We could think of a situation where the gate was blocked up either in this comparative context. These are simple things, but I encourage everybody to look at the language used and to challenge such language when it comes up. This is not about special needs and it is not about luxuries. It is about designing to meet people’s requirements so they can live their lives.
I encourage everybody - including myself, because this is where my learning has come from during my 17 years with the Irish Wheelchair Association - to get to know people with disabilities. Doing that could include going, or trying to go, on a bus journey with people who have disabilities or visiting people in their homes to see what they can and cannot access, if people are willing to share their experience. That would enable people to get a sense of the lived experience and it should be done at all levels. I would start with ensuring that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and everybody else involved in housing had that experience. There is nothing like the human experience to touch someone and to impact change.
A movement is emerging here across the disability sector. We are building a campaign, an alliance across the disability sector, centred on calling for a review of Part M of the building regulations. It is being led by Ms Lally. She has already met with many of the disability organisations, including physical, sensory and intellectual groups, to explore us coming together before the end of this year and into the new year to try to drive this change. We encourage anyone interested in supporting that campaign to get involved when it begins. We must drive this change, because it is not going to happen otherwise. I have been told that we are involved in a cost-benefit analysis process now that is examining universal design with the National Disability Authority. I have also been told, however, that there has been talk of this having been going on for years but nothing is happening. Our initiative is concerned with driving that change.
Turning to what standards are required, many different standards already exist. Part M of the building regulations is one example. The Irish Wheelchair Association, however, has its own best practice access guidelines. Those are available on our website. Our guidelines probably exceed many of the existing standards, but they are based on the lived experience of people with disabilities. They cover all aspects of the built environment, from ATM machines, to section 10 on housing, to ramps and all that. Those guidelines are available on our website and represent the standards that we would be advocating for. We are seeking a review of the existing standards, and everybody here is saying the key aspect in this regard is the public consultation. That would allow us to hear from people with disabilities and other people impacted so the right decisions can be made.
Ms Michelle Merrigan:
To address Deputy Cairns's question about what we can do, we have not talked about the cost of changing places facilities. It is not prohibitive to undertake a changing places initiative from scratch, including all the equipment and sufficient space of 12 sq. m. We are talking about €15,000. Many of the buildings and bathroom facilities already exist. It is not therefore a mad amount of money that we are talking about in this regard. There must be a will to do this, however, and there definitely is, but it exists in pockets. The will is not there at the highest levels and it is not consistent. Certain supermarkets and chains are working on this issue, but they are not telling anyone openly what they are doing. Certain county councils are also better than others. We do not find consistency in this regard, however.
Changing Places Ireland is a voluntary group, and not a charity or a not-for-profit. We all have other jobs but we are working towards achieving this goal.
Ms Smith referred to how basic the desired facilities are; we are talking about a basic toilet. There are many women and men interested in this debate. It was pointed out to me at the beginning that we would not put a handbag on the floor of most public toilets in this country but that we expect a parent to change a child with a disability or a carer to change an adult with a disability on the floor. We are talking about basic equipment and a space of 12 sq. m. As Mr. Cunningham pointed out, it is about housing and accessibility but, for us, it is literally about a toilet. In 2021 in Ireland, it sometimes feels as if we are going backwards regarding disability and rights, especially human rights. Therefore, we all need to work a little harder at all levels just so people will have the basic right in question and be equal to their fellow citizens.
Ms Bernadette Egan:
I have a comment on changing places, building design and facilities in general. It is important that accessibility be thought about very much from the beginning and not added in throughout the process, which almost never works. I recently had the experience of dealing with a changing facility project that had already gone out to tender and in respect of which a supplier had been appointed, yet when the drawing was put in front of me, I saw it did not work, even on a basic Part M level. Certainly I, in a motorised chair, would not have been able to use that changing place. Therefore, it is important that the process be correct and that disabled people be consulted very much at the beginning to make sure it works. There is nothing worse than spending so much money on a facility that does not do what it is supposed to do. It is a question of being aware that there is a process that needs to be adhered to.
I thank the witnesses for their powerful presentations. I support the call for Part M to be reviewed and reconsidered. I am very glad to hear there is significant progress on changing places but, having worked in the construction industry, I believe there is an institutional lag or resistance to changing regulations for fear it will disrupt an already broken housing sector. This committee has to have a role in making the case for change. We have to position this as central to an equal and just society. We will all have to consider how we can stand with the witnesses on this because the argument will not necessarily be easy.
I have several specific questions, including building regulations. I will be happy to hear from whoever wants to respond to them. I want to start first with the building regulations aspect. Was it Mr. O'Herlihy who said we need a review of Part M but that we will also need to consider matters such as development plans and ministerial circulars? Everything considered during the planning permission process will have to be examined eventually. Does anyone have an opinion on whether Part M is enough? I am interested in the intersection of part M with other regulations, such as part B, which covers fire regulations. There has been some relaxing of some fire regulations, including in respect of the removal of sprinkler requirements and changes to landings and stairs, presumably to encourage developers by increasing profitability. That is the only impetus I can see behind the changes. Does anyone have a view on how Part B intersects with Part M?
I completely agree with Mr. Cunningham that moving towards a universal model of housing and building design would mean better generational access to housing in general. We all go through times in life when we need different types of housing. A basic level of universal design would make matters much easier for people. Do any of the witnesses wish to refer to generational living?
This brings us to the issue of nursing homes, which has been raised several times this morning, and also to the issue of people with disabilities living in them. I am under the impression that there currently is no statutory guidance given on the design of buildings that specifically cater for people with additional or different needs. I presume there is a role for statutory guidance on facilities such as schools and nursing homes, in connection with which we consider the issue of universal design.
I have had an argument about the cost of construction. Maybe Ms Egan or Mr. O'Herlihy could talk about this. We have had a lot of conversation on the building in of environmental aspects. The cost from the design stage usually tends to be between 1% and 2%, but the cost to retrofit is many multiples of that. I can only assume it is the same for universal design or adaptation. Importantly in respect of cost–benefit analyses, it would be cheaper for the State to build proper universal-design dwellings and public buildings rather than addressing the issue after the fact. That would represent better value for money for the taxpayer.
My final question is for Ms Egan because she is connected to the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland. The original legislation framework for building regulations included an independent oversight body to consider changes to and the development of building regulations. The body was made up of stakeholders and experts in the field. In the past decade, it has been removed and responsibility is now completely in-house within the Department. Does Ms Egan believe we need a stand-alone, independent oversight body for building regulations?
Mr. Eoin O'Herlihy:
There are many detailed questions. I will start with the one on universal design and the requirements under the building regulations. When the building regulations were updated in 2010, Part M1 removed the reference to people with disabilities. Therefore, the current M1 requirement states: "Adequate provision shall be made for people to access and use a building, its facilities and its environs." The reference to people means people of all ages, sizes and abilities. The technical guidance document for Part M states the requirements under the part aim to foster an inclusive approach to the design and construction of buildings, but also that the requirements are based on the principle of universal design. Unfortunately, the guidance that accompanies the regulation is still very much focused on some basic disability requirements, and it does not address universal design in its totality. That is a major gap. That is why everyone is here today saying that technical guidance needs to be updated and amended to address universal design principles in the design and construction of a building.
To add to the point Ms Egan made some minutes ago, to achieve universal design in the built environment we have to ensure that, at all stages of design and construction projects, universal design is being addressed. That goes from the tendering stage, when the client is writing a brief, to all stages of planning, design, detailed design, construction and handover. Unless we address that in the building industry, we will never fully achieve universally designed buildings. It is about the process but it is also about ensuring the guidance in place addresses universal design, not just basic disability requirements. Since 2000, the requirement under Part M has been based on the universal design approach but, unfortunately, the guidance needs to be updated to meet that.
On the second point, we have 12 building regulations in Ireland, ranging from Part A to Part M. Reference was made to Part B, on fire safety, but we could also be considering Part K, which deals with matters such as guarding, rails and safety.
Part G looks at hygiene. Other building regulations could be strengthened or incorporate more information around universal design. In some projects that we work on, the fire consultant looks after Part B and the accessibility consultant looks after Part M. There can be discrepancies in the design. If there was a review of all of the building regulations, part of that could examine how other regulations may need to be considered to determine whether there are gaps in universal design.
Mr. Tony Cunningham:
Mr. O'Herlihy might want to clarify what I am about to say. I have a health warning around universal design. We have representation on 29 of the 30 housing and disability steering groups in local authorities around the country. We have a good reach and a good bit of experience of listening to people. I have found that the language has moved from something being compliant with building regulations. A previous Minister whom we sat down with wondered what the problem was and said he did not get it because everything was built in accordance with building regulations. People did not understand the problem because things were compliant with building regulations. We have moved on to a belief that there should be universal design. Just because there is universal design does not mean that will meet the needs of a lot of wheelchair users. There are different levels within that. What does Mr. O'Herlihy think?
Mr. Eoin O'Herlihy:
To clarify Mr. Cunningham's point, universal design guidelines have been published by the National Disability Authority. There are different levels for how to achieve universal design within housing and different categories within the guidelines. A designer or developer may use the basic universal design standard and think he or she is getting a fully wheelchair accessible house, but unfortunately that will not be the case. There are different levels within the universal design home standards that need to be considered.
Using the universal design basic standard alone does not make a house fully wheelchair accessible in terms of meeting the needs of someone with a powered wheelchair and so on. It is important that is clarified for local authorities, housing bodies, designers and developers. There needs to be more awareness around the fact that not all levels of universal design standards and guidelines will achieve full accessibility.
Ms Bernadette Egan:
The overarching principle is one of human rights and equality for everyone in Ireland and to be treated on an equal basis with each other. To get back to Deputy Hourigan on a stand-alone body for building regulations, in many countries there is a department of the built environment that has a lot of remit over monitoring accessibility, building regulations and the intertwinedness of each of the building regulations, and how equality is achieved from that. We are concentrating a lot on building regulations in this meeting, but there is also other equality legislation such as the Equal Status Acts.
There is also an onus on people to have accessible buildings. It is not just about an end product with the building regulations. One of the points I have made is that it is very important that we have one set of guidelines. At the moment there are a lot of guidelines, including the IWA and various others. There is Part M and various other things. As designers and architects, it is difficult to find one's way in that mist. There are a lot of good documents, but none of that is legally enforceable except Part M which is the benchmark that, unfortunately, a lot of people have to design to.
In revising anything it is important that everything is looked at in a holistic manner and that there is one clear set of guidelines. Otherwise, everything gets lost in translation and things will not happen. As Mr. Cunningham said, there are different levels of universal design. It is quite complicated in some ways, but in another way it is not. It is about achieving human rights.
I thank everyone who has contributed. Yet again, it has been a powerful engagement. As part of this theme, there is nothing like the lived experience to bring home the gaps in equality across all aspects of our society.
Last week a witness used the term "ableist privilege". I cannot help but sit and think that this is another example of ableist privilege. It would appear, at a very basic level, that some sort of checklist was created and the view was that if we ticked all of the boxes we will have done enough, rather than making a seismic and paradigm shift as a society to ensure all of our society should be inclusive.
I am very struck by the words of Ms Smith about being able or unable to do ordinary things in ordinary places. For me, that is the strongest message across this meeting. There must be an ability to do ordinary things in ordinary places at all times.
There is no doubt that this committee will take a mandate from all of the witnesses to start hammering the drum very loudly regarding the regulations. That is not enough. It is only one aspect of this. We have talked about the census and lack of metrics. I would be a little bit concerned that if we were to put a question into the census we would end up with an answer that means a percentage of our population would be catered for in a percentage way, rather than moving to a position whereby all of society must always be inclusive and accessible. We should not think that the only disability issue or lack of planning for everyone involves inclusion. I would value some guidance on that.
Witnesses spoke about minimum standards. Mr. O'Herlihy and Mr. Cunningham spoke about the publication of the guidelines and said there is a minimum and maximum or a stepped level of provision. From that point of view, would it be useful to have one level of provision that should be inclusive? Knowing that there will be bespoke additions for individuals moving into accommodation, should we put in place a mechanism that meets those particular bespoke needs while ensuring there are no cost implications for the person who needs to access such accommodation? How do we ensure that the position is the most inclusive possible?
Ms Smith touched on the Equal Status Acts. I am an employment services lawyer by trade and have brought cases under the Equal Status Acts on a number of occasions. The nature of the Acts is access to a service and whether someone, by implication, is discriminated against or there is secondary discrimination. Have there been any successful prosecutions with regard to the lack of toilet facilities or facilities in the likes of supermarkets and public spaces that are privately owned and controlled?
My main question relates to Norway. Was there a time when it was where we are now? What was the transition to where it is now? Was it always inclusive at an incremental level and has simply now achieved a very high benchmark? I am curious to know what sort of transition period we are talking about. There is an historical background and structures within our society that would take quite some time to move across. Can anything be learned from the Norway experience that could accelerate that and which we as a committee can advocate for?
Ms Joan Carthy:
I will go back to the question on statistics and how we view them. The census is one way of giving us some information on the percentage of people who are wheelchair users. That would not only be about housing. It could be brought to all areas of the census so we have more information on employment, transport and everything else that is covered within the census, though it is only one piece of it.
The other piece goes back to the point made previously, which is that we do not, even within the local authorities, have an understanding of how many wheelchair users are in need of housing, unless a retrospective piece of work is done. We also need local authorities to take into account future needs and a rolling stock. Once we know that a housing authority has 50 people in its area right now who need wheelchair accessible accommodation, we should also know what that figure will look like in five or ten years' time so those people are not waiting ten years for their houses. There has to be a level of rolling stock added to whatever the percentage of need is, but we need a starting point. We do not have that as yet in order to have a real understanding of the need.
Somebody else might want to add to the issue of 100% universal design, which the NDA has also spoken about it. Within that 100%, there would be a percentage of houses that are at the plus-plus stage. That goes back to what the need is and the rolling stock. All houses would have the ability to be adaptable, but a certain percentage would be ready for wheelchair liveable housing.
Ms Bernadette Egan:
Okay. It is difficult to take cases in Ireland since litigation is expensive and puts many people off. There is also the stress factor, which makes it very difficult to take cases. Cases are sometimes negotiated and are not published, which means accessing who took those cases is another issue. If they do not have success in domestic law, the optional protocol is not yet ratified and that is also an issue in seeking international redress.
Norway has been at the forefront of accessibility issues since the 1960s. As I mentioned, we only really got our accessibility standards going in the mid-1990s, so we are quite a few decades behind in some ways. There were issues in the 1980s. A Norwegian architect, Kare Adler, claimed that the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights also applied to disabled people and their right to access the built environment, but this was laughed at by an audience during a lecture. The Norwegians have also had issues with trying to get accessibility standards accepted and built. They also brought in the first lifespan dwelling in the 1960s and were looking at universally designed housing back then. They have been very much at the forefront and policies and systems are now built into their legislation. I will send the Senator some information about that.
Deputy Hourigan's question was about the cost of construction and the price differential between putting universal design at the forefront of development or retrofitting it later. The cost at the beginning seems a lot at the time, but it will always be better than retrofitting adaptations later. It is also important to say that it is not part of the planning process at the moment. We need to bring accessibility into the planning process at a very early stage so it is not just tacked on later when things go to tender or construction drawings are made. It should be there at the beginning of a project at planning stage, and accessibility or equality statements submitted as part of that, so it is actually thought of at that level. There will not then be issues with retrofitting and such things later, which will only have a cost-benefit analysis. The NDA is doing work on that cost-benefit analysis so there might be information published about that in due course.
Mr. Tony Cunningham:
Everyone agrees there has to be a basic level of accessibility across society. One of the live opportunities at the moment, moving away from housing and Part 10, is the outdoor recreation strategy. That is being worked on currently and I encourage everyone to have their say there. I am sure Changing Places, no more than ourselves, has inputted into that process. The issues are the same for the built environment, whether it is footpaths, bank machines or in general.
I will go back to Ms Carthy's point on housing. Information is power and knowledge; it helps us to plan. The fact that at a basic level the local authorities do not know the number of wheelchair accessible houses required needs to be fixed. We are talking about it for a long time. That retrospective piece on the current approvals needs to be fixed, especially in the context of the new housing application form. There is no reason, at the beginning of 2022, we should not have a very clear picture of how many wheelchair accessible houses are required throughout the county in every local authority. That information should then inform the decisions around planning applications and developments from approved housing bodies and private developers.
One point that is always good to bear in mind is that wheelchair accessible housing is not wheelchair exclusive housing. Anybody can live in those houses. They have not gone to waste. We are hearing, "Oh we have no one on the list at this point in time that requires wheelchair accessible housing", but it is not wasted or exclusive housing.
That is a very important point. Any home that is wheelchair accessible is also future-proofed for intergenerational living. I have that in my home. It is not wasted. It just means we are future-proofing because at any point in our life cycle we may have accessibility challenges. I totally take the point about needing statistics. We need metrics and they should be there at a very basic housing level, but it makes me wary about what is almost a law in economics and jurisprudence, which states that if we have a certain percentage then we will only cater for that percentage. I want to make sure we do not do that.
Mr. Tony Cunningham:
I gave examples earlier of one of the dangers that is happening at the moment, which is the requirement for one-bedroom units. I cannot understand why we build entire developments of one bedroom units out of more than 100 in a housing development. It is certainly not thinking forward or thinking about mixed tenure, families with grandchildren, health and well-being and all of that. It is focusing on one little piece. Having said that, at the same time, knowing the need is a great starting point because some people require a house for one, or for a family of ten or whatever the case is. That information should be there as a starting point. Clarification and planning are needed around that. I agree with the Senator's points. Aside from that, if units could all be wheelchair accessible it would be a win-win but that is not going happen.
A good question is whether that information is in the new housing needs and demands analysis process that was introduced in local authorities just prior to Housing for All. Maybe I can begin by ascertaining how much of that ensures we have assessment of needs regarding disabilities and accessibility.
Mr. Eoin O'Herlihy:
I will address some of the Senator's queries. For example, in London in 2004, a target was set that 10% of all houses would be wheelchair accessible and that figure has reached approximately 8%. They have gone some way down the line to allowing people choice and offering flexibility for people in the housing market. From 2018 in the UK, as part of its national planning policy framework, there was a requirement on all local authorities to plan a mix of housing based on current and future demographics, market trends, meeting the needs of different groups within the community and including people with disabilities. It now gives all local authorities an onus to identify what targets they would need to put in place for wheelchair-accessible housing, whether it is through voluntary bodies or private developers. This also allows local authorities to put conditions on planning applications and specify what percentage of accessible housing is needed. We can talk about visible, adaptable and fully wheelchair-accessible standards.
The Senator made another point about making public buildings accessible. We mentioned the Equal Status Acts and although we are trying to make buildings accessible, we are also trying to ensure the services provided within those buildings are accessible. That relates to reasonable accommodation and avoiding discrimination towards people with disabilities. We have had a Disability Act since 2005 and it contains a number of key clauses relating only to the public sector, although they are important.
The Senator mentioned complaints and there is a mechanism in the Disability Act whereby every public body, Department and local authority in Ireland must appoint an inquiry officer to deal with complaints from people with disabilities who feel there has been a breach in the Disability Act. When the Disability Act was introduced in 2005, it required that six Departments would create a sectoral plan, with one of those from what is now the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications. One of the main elements of that sectoral plan - a ten-year action plan on how accessibility could be improved in Ireland - was the provision to encourage and facilitate access to the appropriate housing and accommodation needs of people with disabilities. We are 16 years on from that but there does not seem to be many complaints being made by people with disabilities that they do not have access to housing. One of the reasons for this is that people are unaware they can make that type of complaint through the provisions of the Disability Act to an inquiry officer in the local authority. It is important we have training and awareness campaigns around accessibility. There was mention of the timeframe for Norway but we have had this provision in place for 16 years so why are we so far behind the curve?
Ms Rosaleen Lally:
I have a comment, although Mr. O'Herlihy probably covered the point. We are building the "Think Ahead, Think Housing" campaign and calling for 7% of all houses to be wheelchair accessible and the rest of all houses, public and private, to be lifetime adaptable houses. Perhaps in Dublin there may be a need for a higher percentage but as a baseline we are calling for 7%. In Belmullet someone might not have the same need as in Dublin. There would be a balance across the board but this goes to the rolling stock and providing people with a choice as to where they want to live.
I have a quick example. A lady we work with in Belmullet is lucky enough to live in one of our wheelchair-accessible houses. She loves going to Dublin a couple of times a year to visit her sister, nieces and nephews. She leaves here at 6 a.m. and a personal assistant brings her to the train in Castlebar. When she arrives in Dublin she meets the wheelchair-accessible taxi that she has booked because she is really organised. That brings her to her sister's house. As a result of the Part M regulations introduced some years ago, she can come into the house, visit her sister, have a cup of tea and play with the kids. She then has to book into a hotel or stay at the IWA Carmel Fallon Centre, which she often does. She cannot stay with her sister or have that holiday experience of having her nieces and nephews coming into her bedroom when she wakes up. That is a human right and it is not good enough that she cannot experience it.
I thank everybody for their contributions. I was present for the opening remarks but I had to go to the Dáil Chamber and have just been back for ten minutes. It is interesting for me, with my background in construction and quantity surveying, to hear the contributions. I was taken by Mr. Cunningham's comment that it is easier to build it right first rather than having to retrofit or adapt a building. That is for sure as the cost of redoing something is probably three times that of doing it properly first time around.
The Part M regulations are not ensuring we can deliver wheelchair-accessible homes for people. When I was involved in building social housing over the years, a house on an estate might be done differently by lowering kitchen units and sockets would be put in a particular level. This is going back some time. That might happen in one house in 50 or 60 and all other houses we built in the standard way. The Part M provisions have moved but they have not moved fully. The witnesses referred to 7% of properties being wheelchair accessible and all houses being adaptable but will they elaborate on what they mean by "adaptable"? Perhaps they have done so but I just wanted to get a feel for that point.
Ms Bernadette Egan:
I can take that point. Impairment across disability is broad-ranging and this is not just about wheelchair users. It is about ensuring housing and buildings are accessible for people with all types of impairment. There is a 60% chance a new home will be occupied by a person with some form of disability at some stage. At the same time, 87% of people would like to remain in their home as they age. It is not just about wheelchair use and a holistic approach should be taken so that buildings can be accessible by everybody.
I have one other question relating to the housing adaptation grant scheme run by local authorities. There is a major demand for that now because as people age, mobility issues become part of normal life. We are good at doing a bathroom and getting it up to standard but apart from that, rooms must be adapted and doors must be widened. Should the amount available be increased to help, especially in the cases of older people with mobility issues? Should more money be put into the housing adaptation grants with a higher level of grant to ensure the process is meaningful rather than an example of tokenism?
Ms Bernadette Egan:
Absolutely. It is important that we encourage people to stay in their homes as they age. With Covid-19 in particular we have seen shortcomings in the nursing home model of care. There must be additional funding to ensure people who age and, unfortunately, develop impairments are encouraged to adapt and reuse their homes. Much can be done and as an architect I know there are possibilities in houses. We just have to rethink how to use the spaces in existing houses. That costs money so it is very important the funding is there and we encourage people to stay in their homes as much as possible.
Mr. Eoin O'Herlihy:
The Deputy asked about increasing the grant and there is definitely a need to increase it in the short term.
The long-term goal is to ensure we have sufficient supply of adaptable or fully accessible houses in Ireland. That is the main goal. It would eliminate the need for so many people to be applying for the grant.
One thing to be mindful of is that retrofitting a house may suit one person but, as Ms Egan said, people may have different requirements in the design of their houses. It would, for example, be different for someone who is ambulant compared to someone who is in a wheelchair. That is important.
The Deputy asked about the difference between an adaptable and a wheelchair-accessible house. Adaptable houses are sometimes called lifetime homes. They allow people to stay in their homes as they age and acquire a disability. The whole idea of a lifetime home is that it is easily adapted to meet the changing needs of someone as they go through life. When the house is being built, for example, it would be important to ensure that one of the downstairs rooms has plumbing so it could be easily changed from a living room to an accessible bedroom. Another approach might be to design a storage area within the house where a platform lift could be put in. That is important. Lifetime homes may not be easily adapted to become fully wheelchair accessible but they would offer people a choice to move into a house they could easily adapt to meet their needs as they age or acquire a disability and so on.
Mr. Tony Cunningham:
The housing adaptation grant is a valuable resource for keeping people in their homes but there are two problems with it. The first is that the limit of €30,000 is totally out of kilter with building costs at the moment. We were supporting a person who wanted to stay in their home because the alternative was to become homeless and go on the council's housing list. After going to tender for an en suite bedroom and a few smaller adaptations, the person was quoted €63,000, while the grant was a maximum of €30,000. The person concerned happened to be in the fortunate and exceptional position of being able to pay €30,000 and we paid the rest. She was able to go ahead with the work. The alternative, in the absence of the grant, was homelessness.
I raised this matter at a national committee recently and was a bit taken aback by the response, which was that if we raise the limit of the grants, we would be able to give out fewer grants, as if that was relevant. This is about meeting individual needs.
The second point relates to how means are assessed for the grant. It takes into account all the household income. Consider a family in which a child has a disability and is living with his parents. He may inherit the house or perhaps he is just living in it for the next ten years. If his brother happens to be 18 or 19, still lives in the house and has a job, the brother's salary is taken into account in the means test. That makes no sense. The adaptation is not for the brother, or the parents, it is for the person with a disability to live a more independent life. Those two things need to change. In a way, we are blue in the face calling for those changes but nothing is happening. The alternative is that people go on the approved housing list and look for a new house instead of facing a cost of €50,000 or €60,000.
Ms Joan Carthy:
Mr. Cunningham has covered the points. The Irish Wheelchair Association, IWA, believes strongly that the grant is not fit for purpose any longer from the point of view of the means testing involved. It is not about pumping more money into an existing system, it is about changing the criteria for both the means test and the amount of money that is available.
I thank our guests. I was interested in some of the questions put by Deputy Hourigan, which were key and went to the core of the issue. We must recognise that not only have we not progressed as we should have in terms of universal design and standards, but there is active pressure to roll back on standards. We need to be clear about that and I hope we, as a committee, can be strong in pressing against that. What we have heard about the cost is interesting. It is striking that the costs of retrofitting or adapting are much higher than the cost of getting it right in the first place. I am very passionate about public procurement and how we do that. It seems as if it does not make sense.
Mr. Cunningham referred to people for whom adaptation is being put out of reach and who then find themselves on the list for an approved housing body. We also know, as Mr. Cunningham said in his opening statement, that people end up in residential care, with all of the costs associated with it, because of poor design from the outset.
I appreciate the 7% figure and the idea of lifetime adaptable houses everywhere. I am concerned that lifetime adaptable homes need to be built to a high standard to ensure people do not face quotes of €63,000. How do we ensure a high standard of universal design and lifetime adaptable homes?
I am also conscious of other areas of building. Fire safety has been mentioned. Corridors are now longer. Studio apartments have shrunk by 27%. Corners are being cut in student accommodation. Our guests have concerns about the general housing stock, in all its different forms, and the fact that some requirements are being diluted, which will make houses much harder to adapt in the future. That is a concern I have. Our guests have given detailed input today and could follow up on those matters. Mr. O'Herlihy gave us some good specifics in writing. The committee needs to press for standards, not just under Part M but right across the sets of standards. That will be important.
Public procurement and capital expenditure are the biggest pieces involved and I would love to hear comments on those issues. We have been waiting a long time but we are now at a key point. Some €116 billion is about to be spent on capital infrastructure, much of it on buildings. Public procurement will be happening as part of that capital expenditure. How crucial is it that we do not conduct public procurement based solely on the standards we have now but instead build in the expectation that if we do revise Part M, as we must, and raise the building standards, any buildings that are being built will be required to meet those higher Part M standards? That is important because a lot of funding is going into the building of new and affordable housing in line with the housing strategy. We must ensure that the building that will happen in the next year or two will meet the higher standards, rather than us raising the standards in two years' time, having already committed to €50 billion worth of building under old, poor standards.
It is also crucial that we apply the same to public standards. Schools and residential centres were mentioned but I am also concerned about community centres, public spaces, new shared public spaces, new amenities, theatres and all of the stuff of life. Anything that is getting funding under the national development plan and the new capital expenditure programme should meet universal standards. I am conscious that we have focused on wheelchair access and other things. Do our guests have any comments on universal design, Irish sign language and addressing the needs of those who are deaf or those with impaired sight? I know Ms Egan is working in the area of universal design. Does she feel those issues are being incorporated sufficiently into the universal design frameworks?
My next question is for Ms Richardson. It sounds like a considerable amount of thought has gone into the strategy around Changing Places Ireland. Ms Richardson rightly said that not hundreds but thousands of people need these places. There has been a long development process that is now going out to public consultation. How important is it that after public consultation, we do not start piloting new places but instead have a fast roll-out to scale across the country?
There is one thing that I sometimes worry about. We can consult on something and plan it but even though we know it will work and is needed, we start piloting. It is like we pilot back to an early stage. How important is it that this becomes a new standard rather than just being piloted?
Mr. Eoin O'Herlihy:
I will make four or five points on how to achieve universal design and the built environment and how to use all of the capital funding in the best way in order that we actually achieve universal design. Reference was made to procurement. Section 27 of the Disability Act requires that all public bodies would write accessibility into public procurement tendering exercises. We need to ensure that we do not just specify Part M of the building regulations as the requirement to be met as we strive towards universal design. We have, for example, the national guidelines, Building for Everyone: A Universal Design Approach. There are other international standards around creating universally designed buildings and we use these on some of the projects we work on. As part of the public procurement of all of these new capital infrastructure projects, we must ensure that universal design is written into the brief and assessed as part of the actual awarding of the contract.
We need to ensure that universal design is benchmarked at all stages over the project including: writing the project brief; the feasibility; the planning; the design; the construction; and the hand over. That is very important to see how we are benchmarking projects to ensure that we are achieving universal design at all stages.
We must also ensure that we are designing beyond minimum practice. We are talking about changing places today in the context of the importance of having these in public buildings, schools, healthcare facilities and so on, but what about meeting the needs of people who may have neurodiversity impairments? What about elements such as quiet rooms, quiet areas, sensory rooms and so on? What about signage and the way-finding systems we use for people with visual impairments or those with intellectual disabilities?
It is also about the public procurement. It is about ensuring that universal design is benchmarked at all stages of the project. It is also about designing best practice rather than meeting the minimum guidance in our building regulations. It is about designing beyond the minimum regulations.
I will add one line, as I know others are going to come in. Mr. O'Herlihy has touched on something there. Quality criteria are important in order that we are not just procuring in the context of the lowest cost and meeting the basics and that we are in a position to award tenders that raise standards and, maybe, even offer more in terms of quality and inclusion than might have been anticipated. It is important to award for quality. It is also important that a weighting is placed on the quality of inclusive design in the awarding of contracts.
Mr. Eoin O'Herlihy:
When design teams see accessibility or universal design award criteria in the brief, that is when they really step up and say that they need to make sure they have the right resources in place to address something and that they need to demonstrate, within the tender, how they are going to achieve universal design. If the gap is there from the very outset, universal design will never be achieved.
Mr. Tony Cunningham:
I might just give Ms Carthy a bit of warning that she might want to come in around procurement and what the IWA advocates for in terms of taxis and financial contracts and so on. There is a piece here in the regarding the urgency involved. The Senator referred to pilots. The urgency is now. As each of us sits here on our screens, there are people in nursing homes who do not have silence and space or who cannot get their own waffles and so on. There are people who are living on couches and who do not have control over their lives because they are living with elderly parents, and there are others who do not have their own homes. The urgency is now.
On procurement, we are an approved housing body and we specialise in wheelchair accessible housing. We try to have the housing in integrated environments and in communities, as opposed to being set aside. Recently, we bought a number of apartments out in the community - we find them on daft.ie- and we go as accessible as we can. We get a 100% funding from the capital assistance scheme, CAS, for the acquisition. Then, because the housing is not designed for each user, we also put in a separate application for adapting the units. One apartment comes to mind. The price to buy was €175,000. I believe that the adaptations came in at approximately €40,000. These were the minimum adaptations required in order that somebody could move into the apartment. The tenant who is in the apartment now must also apply for a further housing adaptation grant. The first adaptation grant was part of the CAS funding. Now the person involved has to apply to the local authority for the adaptation grant because there is a narrow corridor from the living area to the bedroom and because the door into the bathroom is on the right-hand side of this, the tenant cannot take the corner because his wheelchair is wider than other chairs. As well as issue with the doors and the frames, his fingers that are getting caught in this door. So, there was the acquisition price, the adaptation price, the professional fees for the architects and others, there is the cost for the tendering process because it must go through e-tenders, and then there is a follow-up where we must go for a further housing adaptation grant to make it liveable, and it is still not up to the standard one would require. There is a huge waste of money in this process, and yet we are talking about value for money and extra space. There is a contradiction. The urgency is now, and decisions can and should be made around this.
Ms Jean Richardson:
It is very interesting to talk about a pilot project and when should this happen. I echo completely what Mr. Cunningham has said about the here and now. I believe this should have happened two decades ago, but we are here now. Even the fact that we are having this conversation today and that we are here - this is the first time that myself and Ms Smith have been at this kind of forum - the important thing for Changing Places Ireland is that it is recognised that the Central Remedial Clinic, Disability Federation of Ireland, the IWA, Enable Ireland, Spina Bifida Hydrocephalus Ireland and Inclusion Ireland have all been coming together to try to bring this forward. We are looking for somebody to oversee this, to whom we can hand this and with whom we can work collaboratively. I refer, in particular, to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, which put together this kind of recommendation for Part M. I am struck by the fact that we have been so focused on changing places facilities in communities. We have always understood that housing is so important because it is on our agenda in the Central Remedial Clinic and in Changing Places Ireland. It is recognised across the board that we need to make this accessible. If we can work with the Government on this housing we will be able to push this forward. Let us not go for pilots; let us go for 200 changing places facilities in the first year and then build on that incrementally each year to try to bring it into line with the UK pro ratafor what we need in the State. The public consultation is massive to show us the way with that. I am hoping that what comes back from this consultation will be the guidance for us moving forward and that this is really needed now.
Ms Karen Smith:
We are talking about what would help in housing. The house that I am living in with my mum is not actually accessible at all. It is supposed to be, but they had not thought that a person with a wheelchair would be in the house. The doors are way too small. My mum has Parkinson's disease, and she has a walking frame now. With me being in a wheelchair, every so often both of us are crashing into doors and into the stairs. It is just not feasible. Even though I have a bedroom downstairs, my mum must keep going up and down the stairs, I am terrified that she will fall down the stairs. She tries to stay down with me sometimes, but even my bathroom is not accessible. It is supposed to be, but it is still too small for me and my wheelchair. I just wanted to put that point across.
Ms Joan Carthy:
I want to come back to the point made by Mr. Cunningham on public procurement and the extra weighting for quality against cost. With regard to transport and taxis, the IWA has been calling for quite a while for the Government to have heavy weighting for wheelchair accessibility in its contracts so there are more wheelchair accessible taxis. A higher percentage of wheelchair accessible taxis has to be part of the contract. If it does not happen at that stage, we will never have a fully accessible taxi service in Ireland. This feeds back into housing, which is about public procurement. It is about the quality, not the cost.
I thank Ms Carthy. I do not have any more time now but I want to indicate something we might be looking at later. I refer to finance and mortgages, and the obstacles relating to accessing mortgages. We will not have time to discuss it now, but I ask people to send on their thoughts on this matter in writing. This is an issue that has arisen for people in the context of adaptation grants and accessing homes. I thank the witnesses for their answers.
We have had an extraordinary discussion this morning. On a day-to-day basis, many public representatives deal with people and families in the context of trying to get grants and adaptations. This morning's evidence, in the way it has been put forward, is very powerful regarding the real challenges out there. We can talk about the Disability Act that was introduced almost a generation ago, the various changes that have been made and people's mindset and attitude. The attitude is the biggest issue facing us. We need to change the attitude across the spectrum. All of the witnesses have given extremely valuable insights into the challenges that exist and what we are trying to do to make the lived experience of those with disabilities better. This is what the committee is charged with doing. We are doing it in a very across-the-board way. The evidence of the witnesses will feed into it.
A few issues were raised in respect of which we will challenge the Department and the Government immediately. Something that may be able to be changed are the criteria on the adaptation grants and means testing. We might correlate the evidence we have been given by the witnesses and discuss it at our private meeting next week. The main body of what they have given us will feed into our main thoughts on the UNCRPD. We will also look at the evidence to see whether there is anything we can do immediately. As the witnesses have said, to the person involved it is not something abstract or down the line; it is something that needs to be done with a sense of urgency.
I thank the witnesses for their powerful contributions. As Senator Higgins stated, I ask them to forward to the committee any thoughts and information they have not given this morning. We will discuss it and we will go through it. We will be looking at the issue of the availability of finance for people with disabilities down the line. I thank the members for their passion on the subject and for their dedication. I know that committees meet at conflicting times. I thank members for their participation this morning. We look forward to next week. I ask all the witnesses who have come before us to keep in touch with us. We are here to try to make a difference. We hope we can do so. I ask the witnesses to keep in touch with us. I thank the secretariat team, who keep us on the straight and narrow. They do massive work behind the scenes and I thank them.