Getting old and unsteady, or even disabled, is something that the healthy of all ages secretly imagine won't happen to them.
But the truth is New Zealand has an ageing population. We are living longer and there is a group that is thinking about our future.
It's also an organisation with a long history in caring for and empowering the disabled, going right back to 1935 when the Crippled Children Society was established as a community response to the crippling disease, polio, which affected hundreds of children at that time. These days that organisation is called CCS Disability Action and it supports disabled people and works for their fuller inclusion within their families and communities.
It is one of New Zealand's largest community-based agencies, has an annual turnover of $35 million, and employs more than 800 staff in 16 branches throughout the country. From 2004 until last year, Vivien Maidaborn was its chief executive. During her time in this office, she led the organisation to establish an innovative social enterprise, Lifetime Design Ltd, which is working to change the design of New Zealand homes so they can work well for people of every age, stage and ability.
For two decades, CCS Disability Action had been lobbying government to do something about the accessibility of residential housing. The problem of young disabled people not being able to leave home and start independent lives is predominantly influenced by the lack of accessible housing, which has meant that families have had to revert back to institutional solutions.
CCS Disability Action members never made any real progress on the question of government regulations affecting residential housing. When the Building Code was reviewed in the early 2000s, CCS Disability Action realised it wasn't going to make much progress there either, and it had to concede that it had failed in its lobbying strategies.
"When we finally named that our approach really wasn't working - and it actually hadn't been working for a very long time - we found it was very liberating. We decided to look at it as an opportunity," Maidaborn says.
"Then someone else on the board made the throw-away comment that it was about time we gave up on the government and trusted the market. This was personally challenging to me, because at that time all my instincts were telling me you'll never get social innovation out of the market. But it started me thinking: What would it look like if we rejected this polarity? What would it look like if we really combined the best of business entrepreneurship with the best of social innovation?"
These questions led to the creation of Lifetime Design Ltd, and the Lifemark. These business entities are owned by CCS Disability Action, and intend creating more housing options for people across the ages and stages of life, while also making a return to CCS for further investment in creating accessible environments.
"Lifetime Design is a business that operates as part of a consumer rights movement. My own background is in human rights movements, and I had never thought of using the market to drive a rights movement. But what I've learned with Lifetime Design is that consumers are also communities . . . and that consumers can act as a community as easily as they can act as individual customers in a shop. "We can see lots of social change happening here - with successful examples like Fair Trade, Certified Organics, and food labelling like the Heart Foundation tick. We have created the Lifemark to be an effective consumer trademark, which is part of this overall movement."
The demand for housing that works better for all people is set to rise significantly over the next 30 years. Maidaborn points out that, by 2061, life expectancy will have increased by about six years and the 65-plus age group is predicted to account for 27 per cent of the population. Disability rates rise with age as people develop sensory impairments and mobility issues.
But unfortunately, the design of most New Zealand houses does not yet take into account this dramatic shift in demographics, and now about 45 per cent of older people have a disability and live in homes that are not modified for their needs. Homes that are awarded the Lifemark have more than 30 design features that make the house accessible for everyone and easy to adapt as the needs of its residents change.
These features include a level entry, widened doors and well-lit passageways, which give trouble- free access for wheelchairs, or older people using a walking aid, or for parents carrying children.
The kitchen design ensures that there is enough space around appliances and cupboards to move around easily, and that cooking and cleaning can be done in comfort, even in a mobility device or wheelchair. Bedrooms also have plenty of space to manoeuvre. All living rooms have switches, power sockets and other controls at a handy height to avoid bending or reaching. The toilet is accessible for everyone and there's a bathroom on the entry level. The bathroom walls are strengthened to be ready to be fitted with future handrails, and there's enough space for a level entry shower that can also fit a shower seat. Many of these Lifetime Design features are just good common sense ideas, and are often subtle enough to pass un- noticed until they are needed. Many of the features do not add a significant cost to the homes, especially if they are implemented at the time of construction. In fact, research has shown that retrofitting an existing house is considerably more expensive than building these features in from the start.
A study by the Ministry of Social Development in 2009 elaborates on these savings. The Economic Effects of Utilising Lifemark at a National Level report found that the housing sector could save up to $60 million a year by choosing the Lifemark design standards in all new housing. These savings would be made not just by private homeowners and housing developers - there would also be a significant savings benefit to taxpayers and the Government.
The Accident Compensation Corporation alone would save $2m a year if just 10 per cent of those people disabled through an accident injury were living in a Lifemark home.
So if this is all just pragmatic "common sense", why hadn't it been done already?
Maidaborn points out that, until the establishment of Lifetime Design, there had been no organisation to take on the complexity of working with all the different groups and sectors that need to work together to make it happen. "The reason nobody else has taken on this challenge is because mostly, as a human species, we tend to think in our own silos. The disability sector has got their own space and services, and until the activism of recent decades they never really saw themselves as a human rights movement. Aged care and older people's movements have also got their space. Grey Power, for example, hasn't really been connected to other community agencies, even though it has developed huge lobbying powers in itself," she says. "Injury prevention groups have tended to work in an ACC-funded environment which hasn't been a political environment. And the Green Building movement has done a lot of incredible work on the concept of sustainable building, but the notion of the sustainability of the people living in these building has been largely missing.
"Meanwhile, there's also a huge boundary between all these social movements and the marketplace. And that leaves out all the construction industry, the finance industry, and the whole design industry of architects and engineers. Nobody has been connecting them . . . so that has left the territory totally wide open for innovation and initiative."
As Maidaborn and CCS Disability Action picked up this challenge, they brought together representatives from a cross- section of interests including the construction industry, developers, architects and housing designers, community groups, consumers, manufacturers, suppliers and the Government. The common response was: "Yes, we have been talking about the need for this for years - let's make it happen!" zEdited from How Communities Heal - stories of social innovation and social change, by Vivian Hutchinson and the New Zealand Social Entrepreneur Fellowship.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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