Housing Rights Of People With Disabilities – Overlooked And Understudied

two panel illustration - left hand panel has set of stairs and a person in a wheelchair with a frown on their face. The right hand panel shows a ramp and the same person with a smile on their face.
This image was created to illustrate the social model of disability. The article linked to this post discusses multiple models that are in use.

Jewelles Smith is based in British Columbia. She has deep knowledge of parenting with a disability, through personal experience, disability advocacy and research.

In her doctoral research, Smith compares human rights legislation with the lived experiences of women with disabilities as they grow up as adults and as mothers. Human rights legislation in Canada explicitly includes people with disabilities. Smith’s research involved personal interviews with mothers with disabilities. It proved a rich source of data to identify how legislation, regulation, policy and services create multiple barriers for women with disabilities.

Housing is woven throughout the experience of parenting: people may move or alter their homes. Smith’s research teases out how moms with disabilities have managed. She illustrates how housing design can extend to shape the lives of the moms.

Here is one example which starts with the child protection system. The mothers reported that child protection services could assess that they weren’t fit parents. Being found ‘unfit’ can mean removing children from their parents and placing them in foster care. Parents, regardless of ability, are strongly motivated to avoid this outcome for their children.

How could this be related to housing?

It is possible that a child could be taken into care because the mom is unable to bathe her child. This could be due to the physical features of a home. This one factor might not on its own see a parent losing their child, but it is an issue that must be fixed. The power of child protection laws means that working out the solution requires approval of the child protection agency. Thinking through possible solutions illustrate how complicated it could be:

    • The home could be physically modified. This depends on having access to money to pay for modifications. Bear in mind the people with disabilities have extra expenses and often, low incomes1. There may not be savings to pay for renovations. Borrowing money with a low income means it’s likely that you’ll have higher interest charges (assuming you qualify for financing at all).
    • If you are a tenant, you could ask your landlord to make modifications to your home2. This possibility is explicitly included in some human rights legislation in Canada. The legislation about renovating a tenant’s home is also tempered by legal language, which gives wiggle room for landlords to say it’s too expensive, or simply “no.” It may take a human rights complaint to get to “yes.”
    • Some moms may have help in the form of human support — someone who helps with the activities of daily living. Here again, there could be barriers. Do the duties of the attendant care worker extend to bathing a child3? It might be convenient (both for the worker and the mom) for the worker to live in on a part time or full time basis. If the parent lives in social housing, occupancy rules may not allow the worker to do this.

This example involves just one difficulty and the story might not end there. As Smith says,

“The entire home needs to be fully accessible for disabled parents (an ongoing issue) connected to universal design across the lifespan.”

Smith’s research underscores the value of including people with experience when implementing human rights and when implementing universal design programs. Her thesis will be of particular value to decision makers, researchers, program managers and advocates. It may also be useful to people who are looking for insight about disability. It is posted at the University of British Columbia: Understanding systemic barriers across the lifespan : a human rights inquiry into disability and mothering


  1. Here is information about extra expenses and income levels in Canada. It draws on data from the 2015 Census and is published by Statistics Canada: A demographic, employment and income profile of Canadians with disabilities aged 15 years and over, 2017
  2. Here is a commentary about landlord obligations from the Ontario Human Rights Commission: Duty to Accommodate
  3. Attendant care programs don’t automatically assume that people with disabilities are parents. See this description of services from one Canadian service provider, the March of Dimes: Attendant Care Services