Our inclusive home story - Guest blog from Vaila Morrison | News

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Our inclusive home story - Guest blog from Vaila Morrison

In the week of our #ForAccessibleHome campaign, we’re delighted to have Vaila Morrison write a guest blog for us on her inclusive and accessible housing journey. 

Vaila is an architect with a particular passion for inclusive design and sustainability. Becoming mum and carer to her little girl who has complex needs has given Vaila a new perspective on the need for thoughtful accessible design. 

Vaila’s excellent blog – http://www.inclusivehome.co.uk and twitter presence @inclusivehome – are a great resource for anyone interested in accessible homes, inclusive design and a personal perspective on the challenges families across the country face. 

Thank you Vaila for your contribution this important debate.

Our inclusive home story

I’m an architect with a passion for sustainability and inclusive design. However 5 years ago I came out of architectural practice to concentrate on my new role, mum to my two children, gradually evolving into parent carer for my 5 year old daughter EJ. 

EJ has a developmental disorder & sensory processing issues, which mean currently she has limited communication, cognition and mobility. This change in circumstance has given me a different, and more personal perspective, on the need for thoughtful inclusive design, and made me more aware of gaps in the home design and housing adaptations processes. 

We’re an average family - mum, dad (both designers) girl & boy - lucky enough to own our home and to live in a nice area with lovely neighbours. Our house is also average. A pretty typical victorian semi, and not very accessible. The biggest impact for us, and for most people I imagine, due to the lack of accessibility is inclusion and independence.

EJ is a child first, part of a family. It has to be a priority for her to be included in everything she can be, and that she is allowed the independence to be able to make the choice to participate...or not!

To enable this in our house’s current state, we have moved our dining table out of our open plan kitchen/dining room and now use the space as a kitchen/ family room. We spend most of our time in here and EJ can shuffle around the floor where she wants, play alongside (or ignore!) her brother, watch & listen to all that’s going on & we all eat at the little toddler table in the corner!

The rest of the house is inaccessible to EJ without assistance. The front room (was living room) is now a dumping ground for equipment (wheelchair, walking frame, postural support chair...etc), supplies (eg. 3 months nappies) and piles of filing (there is a lot of filing when you are in the health & social care system!). And of course we need to use a lot of the stuff too, so things have to be moved around constantly (like a giant game of tetris!). 

Upstairs we have 3 bedrooms – The children share the largest room so they have the most floor area for playing, changing & EJ’s personal care and therapy, and this also means our small 3rd bedroom can be used as a guest room and somewhere for grandparents to come and stay. A bit of a break and an extra pair of hands is important for any family, but respite from caring is really really important. 

Lack of space also means we don’t do things as we should. For example we really should use a hoist at bathtime to reduce ‘manual handling’ and the risks associated with it, but we don’t have space to keep a portable hoist! We cope. But a home shouldn’t just allow you to cope. A home should be somewhere to enjoy normal family life, to support development and foster natural inclusion. 

Essentially we have 3 options: 

  1. Move house: Unfortunately accessible homes are few and far between on the private sale market and almost zero on the private rental market.
  2. Join a council/social housing list: Again there’s a lack properties and therefore any that come up are in extremely high demand.
  3. Adapt: This is the route we’ve chosen. It’s easier for us as designers, given our experience, but a daunting prospect for most people. 

We are very grateful that there is some financial support for this in the Disabled Facilities Grant (DFG), but this is a long process and, of course, is a limited sum (£30K in England), so to meet EJ’s  needs our project will involve partially self-funding (ie borrowing more!).

None of our options are a quick fix, and would involve a large amount of upheaval, stress and cost. Something that people finding themselves in need of adjustments or in a caring role can little afford. For that reason, many (like us until now) just struggle on continuing to try and ‘manage’ with what they have. 

EJ has a fantastic occupational therapist (OT) who was very proactive in getting us assessed for home adaptations and eligibility for a DFG. As we have building experience and relatively clear idea of what we intend to do, we have opted to ‘go it alone’ (with the OT assuring the DFG funds go on elements that meet EJ’s clinical needs). The more usual process is to appoint the Local Authorities management consultants, the Housing Improvement Agency, to manage the design and construction process. 

Because EJ has both learning and physical disabilities we want to make sure we considered ALL of her, not just tackle the more apparent physical needs in our adaptations. And consider our whole family – take a HOLISTIC approach.
We did consider a vertical lift, but for us, apart from the net loss of much needed space, it just wouldn’t give EJ any more independence than she has now. 

EJ is just as likely to be able to climb the stairs in the future as she is to be able to operate a lift. Indeed a lift could be dangerous with small children around! So, although it’s a big step for us as parents to sleep on another floor, the only sensible option for us is a ground floor extension with a bedroom for EJ and an accessible en-suite, giving her level access to shuffle, wheel, or (maybe one day!) walk, from her own room to all of the family spaces. 

While we’re at it, with all the building work (and the borrowing of money!), we’re going to  extend the build across the back of the house to increase our family accommodation, free up some extra space for storage, give us the extra breathing space we need for normal family life and give us a new level access into the garden. 

Also outside, we’ll reconfigure our car port, to give us a secure and sheltered bike and wheelchair storage area and a new accessible side door into the house. 

The new door will give us level access the potential for young adult EJ to have more independence or, if it’s a route we go down, could allow carers independent access to the house. 

We also wanted our plan to take into account the possibility that EJ’s mobility could improve and she may one day move into a bedroom upstairs – who knows!? In that circumstance, the new room downstairs room could be opened up as part of the family space or become a guest room (a replacement for the one EJ would move into), a play/therapy room or even a home office – it gives us options – it’s flexible. 

This is a long term plan. 

We hope this is our forever home and we want this investment to enable our family to live as inclusively as possible both now and in the years to come.

Photo of Vaila's two children playing at home