Lancaster twin with cerebral palsy features in BBC show about her struggles renting a home

Finding an affordable place to rent can be a challenge for many young people.

Tuesday, 20th October 2020, 2:41 pm
Updated Tuesday, 20th October 2020, 2:46 pm
Emma Sutcliffe.

But for Emma Sutcliffe, who has cerebral palsy, her first battle isn’t paying the bills or finding fast enough broadband.

It’s trying to safely navigate her wheelchair from her bedroom to the inaccessible bathroom.

The room is so small and cramped she can't fit her chair inside and instead is forced to precariously rely on crutches to reach the sink and shower.

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Without grab rails for support, every morning feels a dangerous struggle.

Sometimes she falls while trying to get herself ready. It’s scary, she admits, as living by herself there’s no one to shout out to for help.

“I do manage to lift myself up,” she says, “but I’ve been late for work multiple times."

Explaining herself to bosses is "frustrating" because if the bathroom was accessible she'd never have a problem arriving as expected.

"I don't need to be fixed or altered; housing and society does,” said Emma, who first featured in the Lancaster Guardian alongside her twin sister Katie in 2012 when an appeal was launched to help fund life-changing surgery to enable them to walk.

"As a renter with a job, I don't want to be thinking 'do I have enough energy to get into bed' or move around my house safely just because I'm in a wheelchair.

“An accessible home makes me feel secure - I can focus on living my life."

If Emma’s morning routine sounds shocking, it’s far from unique. As a 22-year-old originally from Lancaster but now living in Liverpool, she’s one of 400,000 wheelchair users in England alone living in unsuitable accommodation, according to Habinteg housing association.

The UK’s lack of accessible housing has been described as a "hidden crisis" by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

This is especially true for private rentals. Despite the number of disabled people increasing to 14.1m in the last year, the EHRC’s 2018 report found 93% of 8.5 million rental properties in the UK to be inaccessible.

This means that for young professionals like Emma, who want to live with friends in a city, the struggle to find somewhere affordable and accessible to rent can feel almost as impossible as saving to buy a home.

It’s a tough task, but the perfect test for Big V and Tobias, the expert home-hunting duo on BBC Three’s new show Rent Like A Boss. Together, they help Emma and other young people with their renting struggles.

"What was surprising is that Emma’s accessibility requirements weren’t catered for,” said Tobias. “Her flat had a balcony that she literally had to come out of her wheelchair to use, and a galley kitchen she couldn’t properly manoeuvre.

“It really hit home how more genuine care needs to be taken to adequately house residents of all walks and wheels of life.”

There is no UK-wide commitment to building liveable wheelchair accessible properties as standard.

Instead, it’s up to local authorities to set and enforce accessibility targets - however, just five per cent are requiring developers to construct wheelchair-suitable housing according to the ECHR.

The exception is London where, since 2004, 10 per cent of new builds have needed to be wheelchair accessible or adaptable. Disability housing groups are calling for this to become the national standard.

But the lack of UK strategy means many wheelchair users have to make-do and muddle through a sea of confusion - from estate agents to landlords.

Habinteg are set to launch an online accessible property directory to help simplify the process.

“We have heard frequently how frustrating online research can be because there just isn’t sufficient information about accessibility on house hunting databases to help disabled people narrow down their search” said Nic Bungay, Habinteg’s director of public affairs.

“That’s why Habinteg is developing a pilot accessible housing database by working with disabled people, housing associations and Homefinder UK to improve online information on accessible homes”.

For Emma, this would be a huge help as she turned to Rent Like A Boss after struggling with the lack of clear advice.

“I searched on Google but it’s so unclear”, she said. “Type in ‘accessible renting’ and everything but nothing comes up”.

Rent Like A Boss is available on BBC iPlayer now.