Homes that enable the disabled


Dreamhouse TV show participantsThe ABC's new reality TV series, The Dreamhouse, premiered earlier this month. I was curled up on my couch, watching with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Excitement because we were finally going to see the portrayal of people with intellectual disabilities on primetime television. Apprehension because we were finally going to see the portrayal of people with intellectual disabilities on primetime television. I didn't know whether the topic would be handled with respect and sensitivity.

The inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities in our television programming is long overdue. Three percent of Australians have an intellectual disability. However, like many other minority groups, they are rarely represented in our cultural lives. It is hard to imagine three of every hundred characters in Australia's dramas, comedies and current affairs programs having a cognitive impairment. Instead our televisions continue to bombard us with images of fit, sharp-witted, attractive Caucasian types who fall short of our reality in many ways.

Over the past 25 years people with disabilities have been coming out of institutions. They are in our streets, our shops and our schools, but not, it would seem, on our television screens. This is a loss for us as a society. It warps the lens through which we present and see ourselves. It is a yet greater loss for young people with intellectual disabilities, who often grow up without accessible role models, and are quietly pushed to the margins of our collective cultural life.

The Dreamhouse is important because it shows real people with intellectual disabilities living ordinary, socially integrated lives. More significantly it shows them in a positive light. The three people at the heart of the show, Sarah, Justin and Kirk, are portrayed as capable, likeable and funny. The program does not ignore the challenges faced by its participants, nor does it present them as insurmountable. This approach offers hope to many other people with disabilities and their families. By gently challenging fears and stereotypes, it also encourages a more inclusive society.

As its name implies, The Dreamhouse focuses on one significant challenge faced by many people with disabilities – finding liveable, affordable housing outside the family home. Moving out of home is a rite of passage for young people, yet people who need supported accommodation face long waiting lists. Sometimes the waiting time is so long as to be impractical or intolerable. For some families the heartbreak of legally relinquishing their adult children is the only means of securing appropriate housing during the parents' lifetimes. Even then some of the sons and daughters spend years being shunted between short-term respite facilities waiting for a room in a house to become available.

For those who are lucky enough to find a place in a government or non-government managed group home the challenges continue. In many cases residents have minimal say in decisions most of us would take for granted, such as the selection of housemates and staff, what to eat, where to shop, and what time to go to bed. The Dreamhouse offers a solution (in the form of a stylish Perth home staffed with volunteers) for the three people directly involved in the program. For others, outside of the program, the dream house remains a dream.

The program however has value in bringing their predicament into public view. It encourages us as a broader society to consider the options we make available to our citizens with disabilities. Its success in this was demonstrated by the flurry of activity on social media during and after the first episode.

Such discussions are particularly important at this time, with the advent of the long-awaited National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Amongst the general community there is a view that the NDIS will solve accommodation and other crises for people with disabilities. Yet with limited funding and without enormous systemic change, it is unclear how encompassing the solutions will be.

We need programs like The Dreamhouse to prompt conversation about what kinds of lives are possible for people with disabilities, and how we can best use our tax money to make dreams come true. These are not easy questions in a climate of stretched resources, competing priorities, and conscious and unconscious prejudice. Nonetheless, the conversation is an important one.

Andrea McQueenAndrea McQueen is a speech pathologist who has been working with people with disabilities for the past 20 years. She has recently produced Good Things, which explores communication and quality of life in group homes for adults with intellectual disabilities. She tweets as @aj_mcq.

Image via the ABC.

Topic tags: Andrea McQueen, The Dreamhouse, reality show, disability, people with disability, TV



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Existing comments

Maybe we should learn more about L'Arche. This has been around for a long time and is well recognised in the USA in particular. There are some L'Arche communities in Australia

PHIL ROWAN | 27 August 2014  

It's interesting to note that the Dreamhouse is staffed by volunteers. If volunteers are considered the model to replicate the Dreamhouse in the real world then it will indeed remain only a dream. In Queensland the State Govt is running down its supported accommodation in anticipation of off-loading it onto a patchwork of private providers which is what the NDIS will in reality become. With respect to the provision of accommodation services for these Australians, Reality Houses fully funded by the State are preferrable to Dream Houses.

George | 27 August 2014  

Phil is quite right. L`Arche should be the model. Every state capital and major regional centre should have at least one community, and our Church community should be 100% behind them. Let`s put our resources where out mouth is on human dignity.

Eugene | 27 August 2014  

Please see in Vancouver Canada

Cavan Stevens | 27 August 2014  

Thanks Andi for your thoughtful article! Robin

Robin Massey | 27 August 2014  

Thanks Phil and Eugene for your comments. L'Arche is alive and well in Australia and we seeks to offer not a solution but a sign that a society, to be truly human, must be founded on welcome and respect for the weak and downtrodden. We would certainly welcome discussions with people who would like to know more.. i have been watching The Dreamhouse with interest and congratulate all involve. I am interested to see how it progresses. The importance of accommodation is one thing but so is the relationships we forge within the community, these are what keeps people safe.

Michael Hutchinson | 27 August 2014  

L'Arche is in Brisbane, Canberra, Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney. We have interested people in forming Communities throughout Australia. Our website is and we are on Facebook (L'Arche Australia!)

David Treanor | 27 August 2014  

One of the better articles I've read on the Dreamhouse. The WA disability community have been heavily critical of this show, because it portrays living in a group home - and yes, it is a group home - as 'normal'. The incredibly capable and awesome young people in the house should be entitled to any kind of housing they like. The NDIS was never intended to be tied to bricks and mortar, and chasing affordable social housing which is accessible is far preferable to looking for 'buddies' in the form of volunteers. I read George's comment below and it makes me sad - because nobody else lives in 'accommodation services', they live in bloody houses. Real houses, for real people, with actual, dignified support. I wrote a blog about it here We need to stop inventing 'special things' for 'special people' and start making sure Australians with disability have access to real life.

Sam Connor | 30 August 2014  

Could Eureka Street please stop referring to people with disabilities as "the disabled" in its articles? Yes I know it only appears in the title and I know that titles must be succinct but as a publication that purports to promote social justice it's about time that offensive, depersonaliing language was discarded in every aspect of this journal.

Joan | 30 August 2014  

Fantastic article Andy! I work with a few people who are true believers in this model of community housing... It empowers people.. Cheers Kylie

Kylie | 01 September 2014  

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