Andy Blake: What use is a house if you can't get to the front door?

There are 300,000 too few wheelchair-accessible houses, and the crisis is getting worse
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The Independent Online

This year I had the enormous privilege of leading the GB paralympic basketball team as we battled it out in Athens. I'm proud of our bronze and hope to get some revenge on the Australians next time. I might not be able to walk; but there's nothing else I can't do.

This year I had the enormous privilege of leading the GB paralympic basketball team as we battled it out in Athens. I'm proud of our bronze and hope to get some revenge on the Australians next time. I might not be able to walk; but there's nothing else I can't do.

However, a few years ago, my off-court life was very different. Back then, when I returned from a day's hard training it would be a real struggle to get my wheelchair through the front door of my home - it was so narrow. And that was just the start.

The house I lived in was not fit for purpose. It was inaccessible and inappropriate; the design and layout - totally ridiculous. I couldn't even invite friends around for dinner as the kitchen was a no-go area for wheelchairs. The four walls around me meant that I was needlessly dependent on other people. Sometimes I felt like a prisoner. My only "crime" was to be disabled. Can you imagine how frustrating that feeling is?

Some of you probably can. There are 9.8 million disabled people living in this country, many of whom are wheelchair users. Research carried out by the disability charity John Grooms last year revealed that a quarter of disabled people were living in homes where it was either difficult to move around or get in and out. Forty per cent of these people felt their housing situation made them unnecessarily dependent on other people. I am quite clearly not alone in my own experience.

When my job dictated that I had to move, the situation became even more hopeless. There was simply nowhere for me to go. Local-council stocks weren't designed with disabled people's needs in mind; big steps leading up to a house don't work well for someone who relies on wheels to get about.

My search for an accessible home went on and on. Disabled people can wait for up to 10 years to find somewhere suitable to live, so I guess that I was fortunate. I found a house built by John Grooms Housing Association (JGHA), the leading specialist provider of wheelchair-accessible housing in the country.

The move has been a great success. Now I can get on with my life and concentrate on those Aussies. However, too many other wheelchair users are still boxed in one room or navigating all those obstacles in their own home.

Disabled people face a housing shortage; finding a house is similar to entering a lucky dip - and winning a lucky dip is a matter of chance. There is a shortfall of 300,000 wheelchair-accessible homes. This is not a problem that is going to go away. As the number of disabled people continues to increase, so the situation worsens.

Fresh from Athens, my team will be taking on some leading Conservative MPs at a basketball match at their party conference in Bouremouth tomorrow. It's an unlikely image I know, but it is all in support of John Grooms, as the charity launches a campaign to get people talking about the important issues facing disabled people. The campaign is appropriately titled: "Life is a Lucky Dip for Disabled People".

I have dedicated my life to sport and I hope that the politicians I play, along with their peers, will dedicate just a bit of their time to disability issues. In the run-up to the general election, politicians will do well to remember that this is not a minority issue that can be brushed away. There are millions of votes up for grabs.

My own experience highlights the problems that disabled people can face when trying to find somewhere suitable to live. Sadly, this is not where the problems end. In all areas of life, be it accessing suitable health care or simply getting on and off a bus, the challenge is huge. Politicians and the people who manage services have got to start talking to disabled people and acting on their concerns. It's the only way we are going to get things right in the future.

Some things require immediate action and really should be featuring in the manifestos for the next general election. We need much more social housing built to wheelchair standard. Voluntary organisations such as John Grooms needs incentives to help build new residential homes. More nurses must be trained to understand the needs of disabled people. There must be a statutory right to respite care. And local authorities must do more to open up lifestyle opportunities for disabled people in their own communities.

With the welcome new anti-discrimination laws coming into force this month to improve access for disabled people, it is too easy to think that the job is now done. Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go before disabled people will be able to say that they have access to adequate services and are allowed to do the things that non-disabled people take for granted. After all, what good is an accessible shop, if you can't even get out of your own front door?

The writer is captain of the GB paralympic basketball team. For more information about the John Grooms campaign 'Life is a Lucky Dip for Disabled People', see