A husband and wife team from Sheffield are working to break down the barriers disabled people face when finding a property that meets their needs using a pioneering website. John Quinn found out more.
HOME is where the heart is, so the saying goes - but if you have a body that doesn’t conform to ‘normal’ standards, finding a suitable place to live can often be a tough challenge.
Things that most people do not even have to think about - such as stairs and door widths - can prove to be a burden if you have a disability or are simply dealing with the effects of old age.
But now a Sheffield-based website is working to make things easier for those who are often left at the bottom of the heap when it comes to buying or renting property, or are simply hoping to have a hassle-free holiday.
The Accessible Property Register is the brainchild of Conrad Hodgkinson and his partner Dr Christine Barton, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis during the early 1980s. By 1998 the neurological disorder had progressed to the point that she could no longer move her limbs.
As the couple’s home in Fulwood had only a few stairs, they were forced to make only minor adaptations - such as a installing a stairlift - but it set the pair thinking about how other disabled people and also the country’s growing elderly population were affected. From this seed the website - the only one of its type in the country - was born. Now it attracts up to 40,000 views per month and advertises properties not only nationally but abroad too.
Conrad said: “The core part is about finding residential property that is wheelchair accessible whether for sale or for rent.”
Their motto centres on “bringing accessible property into the mainstream” and although they both admit this is a tough task, things are moving in the right direction. This is especially the case in Sheffield, where they currently have a deal with Sheffield Homes to advertise social housing and with Eadon Lockwood and Riddle for private properties.
“That’s the sort of situation we’d love to see in other cities,’’ Conrad said.
Although the 66-year-old former teacher does much of the day-to-day work on the site Christine, aged 65, is far from a sleeping partner in the organisation. She even feels her condition has helped her to gain insights not usually available to non-disabled people.
“I don’t mind you saying I have MS as long as you don’t say I suffer from it,’’ she said, pointing out that while her body might not work well her brain is still fully active.
Conrad, who took early retirement from his job as deputy head at Newfield School as her condition deteriorated, added: “People find it difficult to believe that someone who can’t move can do all the stuff that Chris does. It takes a fair amount of support and technology but it can be done.”
Christine, who last worked as an education advisor in Leeds before her condition forced her to stop working full-time, now also puts her efforts into patient and public involvement in health research, as well as sitting as a governor at the Sheffield Local Involvement Network - an organisation set up to give local people the chance to influence health and social care services in our city.
She was also a founder of what is now the Sheffield Centre For Independent Living, a grassroots, not-for-profit organisation driven by disabled people.
There’s no doubt that their website is proving a success - and a help for both those with disabilities and also the housing associations involved.
Conrad explained: “One interesting thing about Sheffield Homes is that once they started advertising through us, and people could see what was available, the amount of time they had to spend giving individual advice to disabled people dropped significantly.”
In the last couple of years the site has also started advertising holidays, inspired by various nightmare situations she has found herself in when travelling the country and abroad.
“You can get a narrow boat that has better access than a hotel quite often!” she said. “We’ve also now added a database to the APR website of care agencies that can provide holiday support. I’m pretty sure that’s unique.”
Coverage includes destinations across Britain, as well as in Europe and America, while closer to home the site’s reputation is going from strength to strength.
Conrad said: “We’re supported by most UK-based organisations of older and disabled people. We have found increasingly that housing advisors both in the private sector and local authorities will refer people to us.”
Ultimately their ambition is to break down the barriers that often impede people with disabilities in their day to day life.
“I’m not disabled myself but through living with Chris I found out very quickly that the world is full of barriers, many of which are totally unnecessary and could be removed or avoided,” Conrad said.
What I hope we end up doing with the website is removing the barriers to choice for disabled people in both housing and holidays.”
Christine added: “I don’t particularly want to be seen as anything special. I don’t want handouts.
“I just want to be given the same opportunity as anyone else has to make my own choices. That means I need to be given information that caters for my needs as well. That’s all I’m asking for.”
Visit www.accessible-property.org.uk for more information and to access the list.