I’d been wanting to move to London for as long as I can remember. Primarily to better my media career but also for a different way of living. I felt too sheltered in Dublin; too safe. As if I were constantly waiting for my life to start. I wanted things to happen. I longed for a chance to bask in a new city. So over the last few months, I finally decided to put my plan into action. I knew it would be a challenge but when you have a partial disability, as I do – mild cerebral palsy (CP) – you tend to forget the stakes aren’t even.
In my case, the stakes weren’t just uneven – they were almost nonexistent. Accommodation alone would be a bigger mountain to climb than I had ever anticipated.
This I found out in one of my first calls to a letting agent. I would need an apartment on the ground floor, I explained, tactfully leaving out the mobility for a later conversation. "What do you mean you can only take a room on the ground floor?" came the impatient snarl from the end of the phone. Slightly startled, I began to reply. "We have nothing like that available, sorry," said the agent, cutting across me and hanging up. The way she’d emphasised "like that" made me feel as if I were asking for a penthouse on a £500 budget. I hadn’t known summertime is effectively the worst time to be looking for rented accommodation, let alone if you have specific needs.
I stared at the phone for a few minutes, trying to ignore that uncomfortable swirl in the pit of my stomach and the voice inside my head which said this would only be the start of my difficulties.
'Why exactly do you require a ground floor studio?' I replied with the words 'partial mobility' and there was silence on the line.
The next agent was no better. "But exactly why do you require a ground floor studio?" I said the words "partial mobility" and there was a small silence on the other line. "This one is accessible once you get up to the third floor, would you like to view it?" Er, does the building have a lift? "What? No, just three flights of stairs." I thanked her, and hung up the phone, again trying to push past the awful sense of foreboding I now felt. And I hadn’t even mentioned the frame yet.
To explain a bit more about the mild CP: I’ve had it since birth but my mobility is good. I can live and walk independently and unaided, at least once I am on a flat surface. Anything uneven can cause me to go off balance: a small knock from a passerby, even a startle from a car alarm (it’s funny, but true). And if I fall in an outside space, I usually can’t get up unaided. One of my deepest fears is falling in public, for this reason. I can get up stairs but because I’ll be bringing my Kaye walker to London – a necessary, yet slightly bulky walking aid I need if I’m to walk any unfamiliar distance – the studio flat I hope to get would have to be ground level. To carry the frame upstairs wouldn’t be physically possible. My energy levels can dip so I just couldn’t exist in an unfamiliar, hectic city without it with me each day.
I tried to explain this to the next unsuspecting agent, adding that if there were space on the ground to store the frame for easy access, perhaps first floor might be okay after all (several calls in, ground floor was getting me nowhere). The agent seemed more receptive, but then I stopped. What if there was a fire in the middle of the night? How would I get up, quickly put on the leg splints I can take no more than a few steps without, and then tackle the stairs in a panic? I couldn’t. Not if I seriously valued my safety, at any rate.
I meekly hung up the phone, took a deep breath, brushed away the frustrated tears in my eyes and decided to change tactics. I’m a glass-half-full person, challenges make up my daily life. I could do this. The studios were hugely expensive anyhow, most £1,500 per month (minus the bills) and outside my budget.
Plan B. Perhaps a roommate was the best idea (and cheaper too). Again, the same thing. One landlord repeated the line, "so you’d be bringing a frame?" five times throughout the conversation, while three other places seemed suitable but after I inquired about accessibility and handrails near stairs (it’s not possible for me to climb up or down them without at least a single rail), I was told the rooms had been filled or suddenly, dates didn’t suit. In an incident that particularly stung, I booked a £200 non-refundable flight to see a room that was promised to me after a two-hour chat on the phone. I was told just two days later that they had decided on another candidate, all promises (and money spent) forgotten.
They’ll insist it’s never about the differently-abledness of it all of course, but even when you’re a totally optimistic person, as I am, there is sometimes no ignoring the elephant in the room. I changed the phrasing, leaving out the words "mild disability" entirely in any subsequent conversations – it didn’t seem right to leave myself open to judgement before they’d had a chance to meet me. But then I was worried. Was it unfair of me not to disclose it, even though it doesn’t affect my ability to be a good tenant and pay rent? I fretted endlessly, though similar to a job application, why should I have to disclose anything? Yet I felt if I didn’t, I’d blindside potential flatmates or landlords. It was a catch-22.
It dawned on me then that I would have to use an agent, and likely pay a hefty price for a studio too. So I tried research, more phone calls, a few desperate emails. I could find virtually no support for anyone in my position trying to make such a move, who wasn’t already living in the country and who didn’t have a hefty savings account. How was this so impossible? To get a ground floor studio which didn’t cost the earth, with a stand-in shower and close to accessible transport was, I soon found, akin to finding a needle in a haystack.
Branch Properties specialises in finding, sourcing and providing accessible accommodation. Founder and director, Sallie Stone-Bearne agrees that general checks do have to be made when considering a tenant. "With regard to tenants, agents are allowed to ask any questions in relation to the 'Right to Rent' checks. This provides general information to make sure letting agents and landlords carry out the necessary checks – they must ensure someone has the legal right to rent before letting them a property."
However it’s a fine line, she explains, between enquiring about specific needs and asking outright about a disability a tenant might have.
"The agent should also ask the tenant’s specific requirements, but it is a delicate matter. The landlord must have complied with their legal duties such as keeping the property safe and free from any health hazards and making sure all gas and electrical equipment is safely installed and maintained and so on, but the Equality Act 2010 applies to rentals and discrimination based on 'protected characteristics'. These cover age, being married or in a civil partnership, being pregnant or on maternity leave, having a disability, race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin, religion, belief or lack of religion/belief, gender and sexual orientation."
In other words, landlords or agents can’t directly ask about your disability as a basis for accepting your tenancy.
"If a potential tenant has a visible disability, the agent could (and we say they should) ask about specific needs to ensure the property meets their needs, but this is a sensitive subject because if they then didn’t let to that person, it could be argued they had been discriminated against. The only reason that a landlord or agent can refuse to let a property is if the tenant can’t pass the financial assessment and therefore can’t demonstrate that they can pay the rent," Sallie continues. "They can’t ask questions that are offensive or unlawfully discriminatory."
"Agents shouldn’t enquire about disability unless it is raised by the tenant, and generally speaking they are not to ask about physicality; The Equality Act 2010 is in place to protect those with disabilities from discrimination. People with specific requirements are not required to disclose their mobility limitation, disabilities or access needs to the agents. Most agencies tend to be cautious so as not to appear discriminatory but it doesn’t always work like this. We have found that when prospective tenants choose to be upfront, people have reported on occasion, for example, that the rental agency withdrew the offer when they turned up in a wheelchair, but they can’t say outright that people can’t have the tenancy due to their disability."
"This is one of the many obstacles we at Branch Properties overcome. So because we are known to work with accessible properties, that conversation about the tenant’s particular needs is already open."
"Nevertheless, it is probably not correct to say landlords or agents would want to discriminate because of disability. But there is no level playing field. Just the act of getting to the agency or looking online can place people with specific needs at a disadvantage. Properties are rarely described in a manner that enables a disabled person to know whether the property is suitable for them."
I tried to arrange more viewings but then I had another unforeseen obstacle: how the hell would I get to multiple viewings in a short space of time just using public transport? However good it might be in London, the whole city was still foreign to me. There was no way I’d be able to attend multiple viewings in a day alone; to get to even one could take twice the time. Taxis would cost a small fortune.
I had to take a break from house hunting because I was emotionally exhausted – the disappointment so draining.
I cried properly then. For weeks I seemed to cry about the potential move and it was supposed to be fun and exciting! I had to take a break because I was emotionally exhausted – the disappointment so draining. I was always positive but I hated that there were barriers this early on, that my mobility differences seemingly put many off, even though legally they couldn’t use it as a reason not to rent to me. I still felt forced to apologise for being myself; having to ask permission to bring an aid felt humiliating. Of course, I was putting it all down to my mobility, when it could have just been a run of seriously bad starting luck.
There is help out there. If you feel you have to complain or report unfair practices or need extra support, Sallie says there are options available. "We would recommend three ways, the first two are property and agency specific – The Property Ombudsman, The Property Redress Scheme (PRS) – and the Citizens Advice Bureau, to deal with more generic unfair practices or discrimination."
And on that note, I refuse to give up. I’m not a quitter, I wasn’t raised to be. There’ll always be difficulties, people who will make judgments in ignorance. Those few certainly aren’t worthy roommates. But people have been kind too. Some agents, friends and family have been warm and helpful. Try again, they advised. When it isn’t so busy, when a few weeks have passed, when you’ve saved more.
I intend to. I’ll try and try again until I get there, because I refuse to have it any other way.
Branch Properties, based in London, specialises in finding, sourcing and providing accessible properties and has launched a service specifically aimed at meeting the accommodation needs of those with disabilities.