By Carl Davis
The National Housing Federation (NHF), a membership organisation representing more than 800 housing associations, recently teamed up with housing association Aster Group’s diversity and inclusion lead to share Twitter tips on becoming a ‘Disability Confident’ employer, posted under the hashtag #NHFDiversity.
The Disability Confident Employer scheme is a voluntary, government accredited initiative to encourage employers to recruit and retain disabled people and those with health conditions.
Disability Under Representation
According to the NHF’s latest equality, diversity, and inclusion research, the social housing sector is under representative of disabled people at all levels of organizations. Approximately 24% of the general population have a disability as defined by the Equality Act 2010, but they represent just 8% of the sector’s workforce and boards.
The under-representation of disabled people is particularly acute at leadership levels.
The NHF and equally remote Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) have just set up an independent panel to look at the root causes of poor-quality housing in the sector after being caught off-guard and shamed into acting by a damning ITV News investigation into some of the appalling living conditions created by their members.
For its part, the NHF claims that it is now “committed to having honest conversations about inequalities in the sector”.
However, when it comes to disability, this commitment is confined to the workplace and employment issues.
The Federation is reluctant to acknowledge and address the open secret of discrimination experienced by disabled social renters; something the NHF’s members are directly responsible for.
Despite the deluge of corporate claims to champion equality, diversity, and inclusion, and insistence that residents are at the heart of everything they do, the leadership of the NHF’s most powerful member organisations also seem determined to keep quiet about – and cover up – how badly they treat and systemically fail their disabled residents.
Jobs And Homes
While the Disability Confident Employer scheme is to be broadly welcomed, there has been poor implementation of the scheme. Few housing associations – or any other businesses for that matter – have progressed beyond the self-assessment stage and moved on to achieve Disability Confident Leadership.
But even if they achieve the highest level of the scheme, housing associations would still be leaving a gaping hole. As providers of homes and housing services, it is not possible to lead a greater culture of inclusivity around disability in the sector when actions are purely focused on the workplace and employment issues. Disabled tenants and residents need to be included, and treated equally, respectfully and fairly in their homes. This cannot be an afterthought.
Any notion that fairer treatment, greater equality, and inclusion in social housing will just somehow ‘trickle down’ to disabled social housing tenants and residents from the adoption of the voluntary Disability Confident Employer scheme is at best, wishful thinking.
It is difficult enough for disabled workers or potential employees to assert their rights under the Equality Act 2010, and to get workplace barriers removed and disability discrimination addressed. It is near impossible for disabled people to challenge similar barriers or disability discrimination in a service provision environment. The vast majority of legal and other disability rights advice, support and understanding rotates around employment.
One of the most frequent problems reported to SHAC around disability is that disabled people are targeted, bullied and punished by their social landlords for daring to complain about the way they are treated.
The Housing Ombudsman and Regulator of Social Housing also seem reluctant to acknowledge the problem of disability discrimination in the sector. It is not even clear whether they monitor in any meaningful way how disabled residents are treated, for example through complaints processes.
Many of the largest social landlords are the sector’s corporate trendsetters. Yet this group also has an appalling track record on disability awareness and disability discrimination.
The NHF and CIH have a poor record of including social renters generally in their conversations and campaigns. For example Together with Tenants, a sector-wide initiative that, according to the NHF, was supposed to “strengthen the relationship between residents and housing association landlords” but did nothing of the kind.
If it ever “presented an opportunity for housing associations to take the lead in accountability and resident oversight”, as the NHF claimed it would, it was an opportunity ignored by most of the larger housing associations.
Instead, it took the damning ITV News investigation very publicly hammering home some terrible truths about the clearly not-so-social housing sector to shame both the NHF and CIH into acknowledging and acting on problems everyone else but them seemed to know about.
Similarly, the 2020 Shine a Light campaign launched by CIH president Aileen Evans and Mind charity to “help housing organisations raise their game on mental health” primarily focused on the workplace. The organisers made no effort, indeed fiercely resisted, any meaningful involvement from residents with lived and ongoing experience of being discriminated against in their homes by their social landlords because of their mental health disabilities. Residents at the receiving end of this mental health disability discrimination were not so much sidelined as silenced and the Shine a Light campaign did nothing to improve their lot.
Loss of Trust and Confidence
The social housing sector has lost the trust and confidence of residents and the general public, and there is no way of sugar coating this fact. Disabled people living in social housing want to be treated equally and fairly by their social landlords, not roped into some new tick box exercise. This allows landlords to virtue signal how well they are addressing inequalities in the sector without ever changing their own long-standing negative attitudes towards disabled tenants and residents.
If the sector is rooted in addressing inequalities as Kate Henderson, the Chief Executive of the NHF claims, then an honest conversation around disability-related inequalities must take place involving disabled residents as equals alongside sector leaders.
The executives and boards must prioritise equality, diversity and inclusion, and culture change over trying to protect their own corporate reputations, power and privilege.
The uncomfortable reality behind the initiative by the NHF and Aster Housing Association is that not many housing associations have engaged with the scheme. Those which have are largely limiting involvement to the lowest level.
Real engagement by contrast requires meaningful and equal input from disabled residents, and it should be checked through external validation. This is only likely to come about if the sector is publicly shamed into taking action.
Like the limited workplace lens through which the sector views inequalities, conversations about inequalities in social housing must be radically opened up and changed too.
A Shameful Record
Far from reflecting the communities and people they are supposed to serve, housing associations and their representative bodies like the NHF and CIH, have been largely engaged in conversations with themselves. They have simply been perpetuated the negative, stigmatising and discriminatory attitudes behind the problems their residents face. This is certainly true around disability.
Aster housing association should be congratulated for the rare achievement of gaining the top level of ‘Disability Confident Leader’. But it is shameful that only 300 or so organisations out of a population of almost 20,000 signed up to the scheme have managed to achieve the highest level award. It is a disgrace that Aster is such an outlier, and shows that the NHF and its members are still not openly, honestly and urgently prepared to respect, listen to, and work with disabled residents.
Inclusive SHAC Action
Ultimately this is not just around achieving official Disability Confident status. It is about something which is not voluntary and is supposed to be happening anyway but clearly isn’t. Full compliance with the Equality Act 2010 is not optional, so let’s have an open conversation about this.
The NHF’s tokenism shows why we urgently need fundamental change and truly inclusive homes and housing services. We are delighted to be hosting a meeting on inclusion with four fantastic panellists. The speakers will be followed by an open discussion.
You do not need to register separately, just join the meeting online at the time via www.bit.ly/DisVisInc.
SHAC continues to work with disabled social housing tenants and residents to raise awareness of these systemic problems.
SHAC members have developed their own Disability Visibility Charter and are working with housing associations to pilot it.
SHAC also has a dedicated Disability Visibility group which meets regularly, and which directs our campaigning on disability issues. Join us to receive an invitation.
14 June 2022
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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