Vulnerable groups, or vulnerabilising housing?

The term “vulnerable” was used repeatedly during the COVID pandemic to label people with certain health conditions, and anyone over the age of 70 years. Transport professionals also talk about vulnerable pedestrians as if other pedestrians are “normal” pedestrians. So, is there such a thing as vulnerable groups, or are people subject to vulnerabilising conditions? In the context of housing, Ilan Wiesel and Emma Power discuss the question of vulnerable groups or vulnerabilising housing.

Much has changed in housing design and technology yet homes remain inaccessible. The authors discuss the role of the housing industry and their role in maintaining the status quo on inaccessibility.

A new home showing the entry with six steps to the front door. Vulnerable groups or vulnerabilising housing?

Wiesel and Power discuss inaccessible housing as a ‘vulnerabilising assemblage’. There is a growing body of literature that lists the direct harms of inaccessible housing. However, their study considers both direct harm and future harms and documents these. The paper begins with an academic focus, but many readers will find the case study more interesting.

The paper discusses the conceptual shift from vulnerable to vulnerabilising, and then conceptualises the groupings of vulnerabilising things and processes. The authors side-step housing as a market or a system and think about it as a group of different ideologies and subjectivities. The assembly of this collection of ideas, actors and markets is not fixed but changing.

Exposure to harm

The case study explores the nature and experience using an online questionnaire and in-depth interviews. “Exposure to harm” is used to identify participants’ concerns about how they are exposed to possible harm in their home. The risk of injury or further injury emerged strongly. It creates significant emotional stress and this is harmful as well.

A man with spinal cord injury broke his leg several times transferring from his wheelchair in the bathroom. Many years later, a major bathroom modification prevented his falls. This is an example of home design vulnerabilising his body. (Image courtesy Caroma)

Modified bathroom showing level entry and a toilet with armrests fitted. Vulnerable or vulnerabilising?

The fear of homelessness and risk of house fires and the ongoing stress and worry about these risks also affected mental health. And then the worry of forced institutionalisation.

There is much to unpack in the case study and a long list of the many harms inaccessible housing brings to occupants. And not only current occupants but to those who will occupy the home in the future. Disabling conditions are a fact of life and can happen to anyone at any time.

From the abstract

The concept of ‘vulnerabilising’ marks a shift in the focus of analysis and intervention away from individuals and groups labelled vulnerable, towards the processes that generate and reproduce vulnerability.

To that end, we develop a framework that conceptualises how ‘vulnerabilising assemblages’ operate. We mobilise assemblage thinking and engage with theoretical debates on the nature of vulnerability as a universal, albeit unequal, human condition.

Addressing inaccessible housing as a case study, we identify three mechanisms through which people with physical disabilities become vulnerable:

  • through exposure to harm;
  • through erosion of defenses against harm; and by
  • legitimising or motivating harm.

We call on researchers, policymakers and grassroot activists to shift their attention from vulnerable bodies to vulnerabilising assemblages.

The title of the article is, Primed for harm: Inaccessible housing as a vulnerabilising assemblage.

Accessibility Toolbar