I’ve never managed to get through an episode of DIY SOS without crying. Between the personal stories of the families for whom daily life at home has become such a struggle and the transformative work of Nick Knowles and his team, I’m damp eyed and lumpy of throat from the start.
Beneath the wonder though, at their clever design and heartfelt efforts, is a backstory.
Behind the handpicked selection of families for whom DIY SOS is a savour are thousands of families who need their help just as much.
The families you see on DIY SOS are not such a rare commodity that the problem of accessible housing can be solved by the benevolence of a TV production company alone.
In the real world, the material side of the TV screen, there is no ready-made supply of suitably adapted housing for those who find themselves disabled or who have a disabled child.
Moving house, even to a bungalow situated on the most pancake flat of plots, doesn’t solve the common problems of doorways too narrow for wheels, space to be able to get in and out of the bath or in to bed using a wheelchair, ceilings strong enough to take a hoist, a flat driveway for an adapted vehicle, and a home big enough for the whole family and all the adapted equipment, plus perhaps carers too.
Homes like this just don’t exist in the British housing stock. When we were facing the prospect that our home may not be affordably or practically adapted for our little boy, we looked, and Rightmove served us nothing.
Our first attempt at adapting our home, working with the Disabled Facilities Grants team from our local authority, didn’t go so well. Two years of lift breakdowns, exposed live electrics in the lift shaft and a garden with a newfound post-apocalyptic wasteland design, cracked oil tank as the centre piece, left us stuck.
Often stuck in lifts.
Permanently stuck in a home we could now neither live in safely nor sell.
So we stayed put and hoped, with our creative thinking hats firmly planted.
The difficulties we faced with the Disabled Facilities Grants process are not unique.
Of the families we know who have used DFGs to help them adapt their homes, at least half of them have had to have the work redone because of poor design or workmanship.
The grants, while seemingly generous to an untrained eye, don’t touch the sides of the real cost of adapting a home.
The design process, led by local authority teams who often have little experience of complex adaptations and limited knowledge of the equipment and supplies available, can be fraught with difficulty.
At one point, plans were drawn up to site a through-floor lift in the middle of our kitchen, in front of the fire place, while outside a zig zag concrete jungle had already been created.
Often, families are told they must sacrifice their entire and only reception room to house a lift or a downstairs bedroom, leaving nowhere for the family to sit.
Often, hospital style plastic flooring in the home is pitched as the only acceptable option by local authority teams. Not because it is the cheapest. But because the process is rushed and ill-thought through, having not progressed from the ‘medical model’ era of disability (google it, but only if you’re not feeling vulnerable).
Often, ugly metal ramping is used in and around people’s homes when non-slip tiles or deck boards would be just as safe and sometimes cheaper.
Often, families are left to manage contractors they have had no involvement in choosing, that have been appointed by the local authority, with ill-conceived plans and vague budgets, leaving them exposed financially as well as causing damage to their homes.
Others are told their homes cannot be adapted at all and they must move which, all too often, isn’t true.
To be able to stay in your own home when you’re juggling the perpetual curveballs that disability brings means that some small thread of the narrative of your life can remain constant.
To be able to stay in your own home and have it adapted sensitively, without whiff of industrial wasteland nor hospital, is life enabling.
Over the last three years, we have worked with our local DFG team to help improve the process. Not just for us but for other families in Cornwall too.
I can say that lessons were learned from our first round of disastrous adaptations and the Cornwall DFG team has gone on to improve the service they offer to one that is becoming more family-centric, transparent and supportive.
As a result, four years after we first started adapting our home, we have just finished.
Our garden has an outdoor lift, to get our little boy safely from the house to the car, with two flat level play areas for him to access.
The whole garden is still a useable family space, with enough room for us to grow things, barbecue, lounge and do gymnastics to our hearts’ content.
The lift we chose was bespoke built, allowing us to have a safe way of transporting a wheelchair passenger in and around the garden without compromising on space.
It is marine grade, to help it survive the salty sea air where we live.
Inside, we created our own design and plan for the adaptations, which was then tweaked and tested by the DFG team to make sure it was viable.
Since none of us would have benefitted from having a through-floor lift sited in the middle of the kitchen, we tinkered with the floor plan both upstairs and downstairs which meant we have been able to site the lift in its very own hallway space, tucked neatly away next to the utility room.
Tweaking the floor plan and moving the family bathroom meant we have been able to create an adapted en-suite for our little boy, with his own bathroom including a bath with a built in hoist seat and a riser to help carers to wash him comfortably.
Of course, no adaptations ever come cheap. Even bad ones.
For us, the DFG has covered the cost of the lifts and the bath and not much more. We have had to take on a significant amount of debt to fund the work and may be working until we die to pay this off. The DFG team has had to pump in additional resources to fund the rectification of the mistakes made the first time around.
The end result though, is a home that our little boy can stay in. A home that we can all live in as a family, that he can remain a part of and that we can enjoy in as normal a way as possible.
The brutal alternative would be for him to go into year-round residential schooling, at a vast cost to the state, while we waited for the gold dust that is adapted social housing. Which of course, none of us wanted.
Instead, we are able to stay in our own home independently, at a significantly smaller cost to the state, as well as keeping our family together and maintaining a sense of control over our own lives. And dignity.
That’s the power of a well-planned disability adaptation.