Accessible Housing – finding a new home for expats with disabilities

How YOU can support disabled customers better

The relocation industry exists because moving home isn’t easy especially when moving country at the same time. But what if your needs aren’t as simple as “a nice place to live”? For people with specific needs, the challenge of finding accommodation is amplified.

Whether someone has a disability related to mobility, their sensory or learning abilities, they will almost certainly have experienced problems in finding a new home. The hardest thing to acknowledge is that many of these problems are linked to the initial fear or even discomfort others may feel around people with disabilities, or false perceptions that they have.

finding a home for disabled person

'If a person has a high sensitivity to external stimuli, hearing the neighbour’s refrigerator humming away all night can do more than just ruin a good night’s rest.'

For example, some landlords are unwilling to rent to families including disabled people. The feeling is that the disability makes the family difficult, more likely to cause damage to the property or require expensive modifications to the building.

These concerns are unfounded, based on misunderstanding of the realities of disability, and should no longer be part of the conversation. Simply put, finding a home should be no more difficult for one family than the next.

Let’s look at the reality of making finding a home accessible for all…

Is it as scary as landlords think?

Whilst it’s true that accessibility needs are not as scary or complicated as many people feel, there’s no denying that requirements do exist. Users will have specific needs which will need to be addressed for them to live comfortably and independently.

The most visible form of disability is mobility: wheelchair users, both in the case of people who need a wheelchair permanently, or only on occasion, need space and easy access. Ensuring that doors are wide enough in the home, and ramps are in place instead of steps is the most common consideration, but that’s not the end of it.

Wheelchair users will also need to ensure that any facilities such as lifts have wide enough doors and can take their weight plus that of their chair. The best way to find out the client’s needs in this case is simply: ask! Some people who have mobility impairments are able, for example, to climb one or two steps – some are not.

Bathrooms may need the most modification, with some people needing handrails, walk in showers or similar. Whilst this CAN be the case, it’s worth starting by asking what their current setup is and whether the space is suitable. After all, there’s little point installing handrails if the turn from bathroom to bedroom is too tight to navigate anyway.

One concern a landlord may have is having to add “ugly” bars or supports to the bathroom. However, there are now many products on the market that are easy to install and remove. There are also “invisible accessibility” architectural solutions that can make a home adapted for your clients of all ages and abilities.

For users who have sensory disabilities, the requirements might be a little less obvious. For a person who is deaf, for example, any home will need to have fire alarms installed which give a bright, visual cue or vibrate. These adapted fire alarms are available online and can be installed just as easily as any other fire alarm.

Someone with a visual impairment might have a service dog or may want to live very close to their place of work or school. A quiet and calming environment can have a profound impact on those with learning disabilities or people with autism. Location is key, but so is acoustic insulation, as anyone suffering from tinnitus will tell you.

In fact, if a person has a high sensitivity to external stimuli, hearing the neighbour’s refrigerator humming away all night can do more than just ruin a good night’s rest. Similarly, living above or next door to a restaurant or having a room that backs onto the communal bin area will be a no-go for anyone sensitive to scent.

What can relocation agents do?

The first step is to make a positive effort to change your business and mindset to accommodate the needs of disabled customers. This isn’t just about having a wheelchair friendly door and a ramp to your office (although this is of course a great first step).

In Belgium there are subsidies available for businesses who wish to make adaptations to enhance the accessibility of their offices and commercial spaces. For example, in Brussels the subsidies cover up to 70% of the whole cost of the operation. You can find out more about the subsidies available for your business here.

The most important thing is to create an environment in which your clients feel safe to discuss their needs. Not just once, but throughout their contact with you. That starts with your marketing, dedicating space on your website to make it clear that you support clients with a disability and how you do that. Any qualification interviews or questionnaires should also include space for families to indicate any specific needs or requirements they have.

It’s crucial to approach this conversation in a positive way. Don’t ask for a list of disabilities, that can come across as both insensitive and invasive. Instead seek input on specific needs from the property. Even ask for any features or facilities which their current accommodation has (or lacks) which would be needed in their new home. The aim is to invite disclosure without invading privacy.

Disability-related needs should be proactively considered when arranging property visits as well. It’s common for relocation agents to schedule one or two days of property viewings and drive the clients from one viewing to the next. In this case, it’s important to establish whether a family has any specific needs which may impact how they can travel. Does anyone need to bring a wheelchair? If so, how much storage space is needed for it? Or does anyone have issues getting in and out of vehicles, ruling out lower cars? Also here, the best way is to ask your client directly.

Equally, you may find that a family wants to use public transport to ensure they can get around independently following the move so the locations and order of visits will need to take that in to account. For people who have a mobility disability, ensuring accessible public transport is available near is crucial: you will find information in the websites of public transport companies, such as STIB, TEC or De Lijn.

You may also want to find and have access to a sign language interpreter in the case of a client who is deaf or hard of hearing. You can’t always rely on family members to relay messages, and engaging an interpreter is a strong sign of how much you are dedicated to supporting your customer. You can communicate by writing, of course, but for an on-site visit using the services of a sign language interpreter will be easier for all.

Please note that there isn’t really a “universal sign language” so first ask your client if they would like a sign interpreter, for which language, and then you can contact a specialised professional.

Try to hear what’s not being said.

Cultural, social, and personal reservations can sometimes make people reluctant or unwilling to disclose their needs. In those circumstances, it can seem almost impossible to help the people who need it most.

The only thing to do in these instances is to be aware of the indications which you are given. For example, a family instant on having a home on the ground floor may have a member who has mobility limitations. Equally, a need to be as close as possible to work or school may indicate the same.

Ultimately, there is a limit to what you can do. The best thing you can do is to be clear that your business stands ready to support the specific needs of clients with a disability, when they are raised, and that you are listening. Opening the door to the discussion will make all the difference.

More than just a nice thing to do.

Offering inclusive service options is about more than doing the right thing. It’s about keeping an open mind and hearing the things that aren’t being said. Ensuring that your business is actively capable of supporting the needs of clients with a disability will have a positive impact on your bottom line.

By offering services tailored to this sector, you open a whole new market for yourself. You will also create a differentiator for your business against more traditional competitors. There’s a clear business case for ensuring that your company is ready to support the needs of all. Though, just like any new market, you will need to invest both time and money to make the most of this opportunity.

Our thanks to Eleonora Censorii of Destination Everywhere Accessible Travel for her insight and support in this series. If you would like to discuss making your business more inclusive for people with disabilities, or further information on the solutions mentioned in this article, we recommend having a chat with Eleonora.

ABRA members enjoy a free consultation and discounted rate from Eleonora.

 

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