Private landlords are reluctant to offer accommodation to learning disabled people, but social housing is also scarce

A lack of social and specialist housing coupled with prejudice and misconceptions is preventing people with learning disabilities living independently – and the situation is worsening.

Many people with learning disabilities want to live independently and could do so with the right support, yet they are denied choice about where they live and who they live with, and are often shut away in residential care homes.

A recent report from the charity Mencap, Housing for People with a Learning Disability, found just one in three people with a learning disability lives independently in supported accommodation (as a tenant or as a home owner) while one in four still live in registered care homes.

Mencap fears even greater numbers will lose their independence as a consequence of the government’s reform of the welfare system.

Mark Horlock, executive director of housing at Dimensions, which supports people with learning disabilities and autism, has found the supply of housing for people with learning difficulties is shrinking. “One of the problems is that there is a shortage of social housing. We are also losing housing out of the social housing sector as people are using their right to buy,” he says.

“People with learning disabilities have previously been placed into inappropriate shared housing and if they have a roof over their heads they may not be seen as a priority for social housing by the local authority. So we try and access the private sector for them but then we have to deal with people’s misconceptions. Many private landlords like to steer clear of people with benefits and many will not want to make adaptations to their homes.”

Horlock says private landlords may also assume that people with learning difficulties may display challenging behaviour, and worry about damage. “Quite often we take out the lease with the landlord and then sublet the property to the tenant as the landlord can feel this gives them more protection from issues such as rent arrears and damage to the property,” he explains.

Horlock believes if people with learning disabilities are found appropriate accommodation they may need less support, costing public services less money: “there are good economic reasons for helping them live independently”.

Dimensions is educating private landlords so they are not so reticent about housing people with learning difficulties, and also runs a housing brokerage service in Essex. The scheme has helped 30 people to find accommodation in under two years. A member of staff acts as a broker between the potential tenant and landlord, finding out about the tenant’s needs and then working with housing associations and private landlords to meet them.

Finding social housing for people with learning disabilities is tough, but there are even fewer options available if these needs come together with physical disabilities requiring facilities such as accessible wet rooms and specialist baths.

“Landlords can apply for grants to adapt their properties for people with physical disabilities [but] it depends on the local authority and demand within that local authority, how available grants are for individual applications,” Horlock says. “Grants are not available for people who need to share the adaptation. It would help if local authorities made grants available for people who need to share adaptations.”

Having seen little progress from local authorities and central government, disability charities are stepping in to improve the situation themselves. Leonard Cheshire is due to build new accessible housing developments across the UK to pioneer independent living. Meanwhile Mencap’s housing arm, Golden Lane Housing, is developing a new social investment bond with help from the Big Lottery Fund. It hopes to raise up to £30m to invest in permanent homes for people with a learning disability.

For these charities, battling to give people with learning disabilities a place they can call their own home can have huge benefits. Living independently gives them a better quality of life and enables them to become part of the community.

Ian Fletcher, 22, and Jonathan Clarke, 21, who both have learning disabilities, recently moved in together into a house in Darlington. “We love it,” Fletcher says. “We have been friends for years, so we knew it would be good to move in together. We like our house and space. Now we can do what we want, when we want, in the community.”