The importance of making sure a home suits the person who lives there has long been recognized. As Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us.”
People with special needs greatly benefit from having a sanctuary to call their own. With the right tips and modifications, their home can become that place for them – a respite from the outside world they can’t control.
Special needs can vary greatly, from spinal injuries to dyslexia. Such a range makes it impossible to prescribe one floor plan, change, or tool for every person. Instead, this article explores types of needs, how to pay for modifications to a home, and examples of easy modifications people can make to adapt your space.
There are four broad categories of special needs. Most disabilities encompass one of these, and some can straddle two or more of them.
These categories are only for classification purposes. Those who want to know where a special need falls in legal documents should look at this list of 13 legal categories of special needs. For simplicity, this article uses the four-category model.
Physical needs are usually serious conditions that require consistent medical attention. Congenital diseases, heart defects, traumatic brain injuries, and autoimmune disorders fall into this category. People with these needs will have to keep a strong support system and get advice from medical professionals.
Developmental needs become obvious early in life. Autism and Down syndrome are both examples of this. Therapy and intervention can affect the severity of developmental issues. Catching them as early as possible is crucial. For example, the earliest recommended screening age for autism is 18 months, but symptoms can show up as early as six months.
A person with behavioral needs will require special attention to curb adverse behaviors. Tourette’s Syndrome and ADHD are common disorders that require behavioral intervention. Therapy and medication are common treatment methods. Ultimately, it is the individual who decides which method (or combination of methods) suits them best.
These needs relate to emotion, personality, self-worth, and more. These are not exclusive to people with disabilities – everyone has emotional needs. People with depression, anxiety disorders, addictions, and compulsions need to take extra care in this area.
It’s vital that the person with mental health needs sees a professional for long-term care. There are many choices to make here, including therapy, medication, and rehabilitation. Only a licensed professional can recommend one for their patient.
Sensory-impaired special needs relate to those with partial or full loss of one of the five senses. Hearing loss, blindness, and muteness are all part of this category. It is important to remember that even people with minor, partial blindness can have special needs.
Paying for Modifications
Home modifications can be expensive, but there are many resources available to help bear the costs.
Waiver programs such as those through Medicaid and tax deductions can give people a decent head start, if not pay for the entire sum. Nonprofits like Rebuilding Together can provide the resources needed as well. They specialize in providing free home modifications for families with disabilities.
People worried about their finances can research nonprofits in their area to find some that benefit them. The first step people can take is getting in contact with organizations that will connect them to the right services. For example, Florida is home to the Florida Housing Finance Corporation. They’ll refer people to local or national programs to help fund modifications.
No matter what a person’s income looks like, there are options available to them. Home modifications in low-resource settings are technically and financially feasible and can lead to a reduction in functioning difficulty and improvement in the quality of life of people with disabilities (Tongsiri S. et al., 2017).
Home modifications positively impact the independence, autonomy, self-care, and well-being of people living at home with care (Carnemolla P. et al., 2019). Throughout this article, there will be themes of increased control and independence mentioned. It’s imperative that a person with disabilities maintains a sense of autonomy.
Research shows that changing the built environment can reduce levels of disability, reduce healthcare costs, and improve quality of life (Altman B. et al., 2014). This means home modifications don’t only impact the person with the disability; they also allow care providers to spend less time attending to special needs. As a result, the strain of constant care can be lifted from the caretaker’s shoulders.
A study by Sheffield, Smith, and Becker (2013) showed that home modifications also decrease fear of falling and create a safer environment for the person with a disability.
The following sections will walk through a typical home and give examples of modifications for each area. Keep in mind, making changes to a home is protected by law. Even those who live in an apartment can’t be asked about their disability status by their landlord. Reasonable changes can be made to create accommodations for a disabled person. Those who feel a landlord has violated their rights may want to consider seeking legal counsel, and certain attorneys will take disability cases pro bono.
As a final note, home modifications are subjective. This article does not list modifications for each special need. It does state the need, however, if the modification is specific to one disability. People should always choose options that work best for them and their family. No one knows their needs the way they do, so they should feel free to take, skip, or tweak any advice given in the following sections.
Entrances and Exits
Finding an efficient way to enter their building is the most obvious need. Those who require a wheelchair should add ramps or lifts. They can make a simple ramp on their own with a how-to guide and some 2x4s.
Lifts are more complicated and expensive, but also more space-efficient. The height of the entrance to the home will determine how much ramp space is required, but a lift can work on high entrances without taking up any more space.
Doorways and Hallways
Doorway thresholds can be another obstacle for people in a wheelchair. By removing the threshold, the wheels can roll smoothly through the entryway without getting stopped by the raised metal. Use a door sweep on the front door to keep the entryway weatherproofed.
Consider widening the doorways if the disability requires a wheelchair, crutches, or walker. This will allow the person with the disability to move in and out of rooms without worrying about anything catching on the frame. Freedom of movement is important for people with special needs. Tight doorways and halls can make the entire home feel cramped and uncomfortable.
Even small changes while modifying a home can decrease a person’s need for care (Gitlin, L. et al., 2001). Something as simple as a doorknob can give a person with disabilities a greater sense of independence. Round doorknobs can be difficult to turn for people with muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy, for example. Lever handles are preferable and generally easier to turn. For a cheaper option, some companies manufacture rubber slip-on levers that can cover existing round knobs.
For people with low mobility, hallways can be tedious. Make sure they have a straight, unobstructed pathway down the hall. Some door frames stick out quite a bit — consider changing those if there is an issue. Don’t block off any space with cabinets or furniture. Avoid anything that makes their movement more difficult.
The living area should be a place of relaxation for everyone in the family. People who have a family member with a vision impairment should try to keep the room bright. Highlight important areas with 60- to 100-watt bulbs, open up the blinds, and add floor and table lamps. The lamps should be out of the way so no one can run into them. Place brightly colored objects near key pieces of furniture to help them stand out. Contrasted colors are key here. They are easier for a person with a vision impairment to see.
If the person is completely blind, never move furniture around. They will become disoriented. Don’t buy movable pieces like ottomans; they’ll inevitably get knocked out of place. Keep decorative objects away from table edges as well.
Plants have no place in a living room when there is a family member with special needs. Someone will knock them over. This can cause injuries, messes, and potential allergic reactions when pollen gets into the air.
Consider making a nook or “hiding corner” for people who are sensitive to stimulation. They can retreat there when things get a little overwhelming. Stuff the area with pillows and blankets that will make them feel safe. Another option is a “crash corner,” filled with pads and foam. It can be a great way to vent aggression safely.
A person’s bedroom should be the space they have the most control over. It may be tempting to tell them what is best, but try to step back and allow them to make decisions about its design. The control they have will encourage their self-esteem and independence.
The possibilities for designing a bedroom are endless. It’s most important to make the person feel like it’s their space. Here are some ideas to consider for a person with sensory sensitivities:
• Stimulation corner
• Body pillows
• Loft bed to maximize space and decrease clutter
• Mini trampoline for exercise and venting
• “Sit-n-spin” ceiling-mounted chair
• Exercise bike
• Yoga ball for venting
Medicines and medical equipment should be kept on nightstands and always within reach. Consult a doctor for tips on where to keep more sensitive medical items.
Bathrooms can become dangerous if they are not adapted for special needs. Overflows, falls, and shattered glass are potential hazards that should be avoided by taking precautionary measures.
Install grab bars for people with mobility constraints. A wall-mounted toilet can allow easier access. A walk-in tub or roll-in shower is also a must. Accessible shower and bathtub aids will make bathing easier. Countertops can also be lowered to appropriate wheelchair height.
Stairs cause obvious mobility issues for people confined to a wheelchair or walker. Ideally, the person with a disability should be able to live their life on the ground floor of the building. If it is necessary to use the stairs, consider installing a lift to make the process easier.
An elevator is a more expensive option. The typical two-person version will cost about $7,000. Obviously, the larger the elevator, the more expensive it will be. Keep in mind, maintenance costs for the elevator must also factor into the equation. All important amenities should be kept on the ground floor to limit the number of trips to another floor.
People who have a family member with disabilities may have to rethink their furniture. The section about living rooms already discussed the issues that mobile pieces create for people with vision impairments.
Those who live with someone whose disabilities can make them destructive may not want to invest in expensive furniture. Head to the thrift store instead of Ikea. Buy covers to make the furniture look nicer. It’s not worth spending money on a new piece of furniture when there’s a good chance it won’t last anyway.
Plenty of modern pieces incorporate metal — this can be a bad idea for the home of someone with disabilities. Go for soft, rounded pieces that aren’t easily shifted. Feel free to get creative. There are great furniture sets that don’t conform to the typical couch/loveseat combo or profile.
Living with a person with special needs will most likely require more durable, cleanable floors. Spills, accidents, and messes can be daily occurrences. Those who still have carpet may want to consider a switch to hardwood or tile floors.
Carpet holds odors and is tough to clean. It may be more comfortable on the feet, but it’s tougher on the joints of someone pushing a wheelchair. Hardwood and tile are much smoother, easier to clean, and more durable.
If the person with the disability is at risk of falls though, homeowners may want to keep the carpet because it provides a softer landing than hardwood or tile floors.
Coloring, Lighting, and Sound
When dealing with people who are sensitive to stimulation, these are three big topics to keep in mind. Lights can affect their mood. Even the right lights can make a humming noise that agitates a sensitive person.
For the walls, try to pick soothing colors like blue and beige. Be careful about what colors are selected. In a brightly lit room, pastels and washed-out colors will reflect more light and could bother a sensitive person.
Those who don’t want to paint can install ambient mood lighting, which can have the same soothing effect. Avoid floor lamps in this case. Keep the lights high and out of reach.
If the person with the disability is prone to wandering, monitoring devices can be a great way to set family members’ minds at ease. Install alarms on the fences and put motion sensors around the perimeter of the property. If they’re set off, people will have time to intervene before the person gets too far.
GPS trackers can fit on a person’s wrist, in their pocket, or attach to their wheelchair. No matter where they go, loved ones will always be able to track them down. This is one more line of defense to use to keep a loved one out of danger.
Alarms and Safety Equipment
Installing safety equipment is critical. These few actions could end up saving someone’s life.
Start in the bathroom. Install flood-prevention devices under the sink, toilet, and near the bathtub. They’ll sound an alarm if they sense an overflow. Some even shut off the water supply if the alarm is triggered. Scald-prevention devices can also be installed in every faucet. These are just as important, as they’ll prevent the special needs family member from burning themselves with hot water.
Those who are worried about the windows in their house breaking can replace them with tempered glass. The tempering process makes it about four times stronger than normal glass. Bathroom mirrors can even be replaced with tempered versions.
Smoke, carbon monoxide, and radon gas detectors are vital for the whole family’s protection. If someone has a hearing impairment, make sure to install a flashing fire alarm instead.
Consider buying a medical alert bracelet or necklace for the family member with a disability. If there’s an emergency, they can easily call for help from almost any position.
Finally, install a wireless doorbell camera. If the family member with special needs is able to use a smartphone, they can check who is at the door and talk to the guest. They won’t have to go to the door or look through the peephole.
Storage and Shelving
Keeping a tidy home is important for any family, but it’s particularly crucial for those with special needs. If they have mobility constraints, it’s easy to snag things with a wheelchair, walker, or crutch. If they have a vision impairment, it’s simple to trip and fall if something is out of place. If they have autism, clutter can become overwhelming and stressful.
Large, flat storage bins come in handy. Slide them under beds, dressers, and wardrobes; they’ll keep things out of sight, but still accessible. Use vacuum-sealed storage bags for large winter coats. The vacuum will shrink them down to fractions of their size, freeing up extra space. Hang the bags in the closet or put them in those shiny new storage bins.
Those who have problems keeping things away from someone should consider raising their cabinets. Make use of vertical space, especially if a home is on the smaller side.
Every situation is unique. What works for one family and one disability may not work for another. Adapt these tips or modifications as needed to create an inclusive, relaxing, and controlled home.
Altman, B.; Barnartt, S. Environmental Contexts and Disability; Emerald Group Publishing: London, UK, 2014; Volume 8.
Carnemolla, P.; Bridge, C. Housing Design and Community Care: How Home Modifications Reduce Care Needs of Older People and People with Disability Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019, 16(11), 1951; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16111951
Gitlin, L.; Corcoran, M.; Winter, L.; Boyce, A.; Hauck, W. A randomized, controlled trial of a home environmental intervention: Effect on efficacy and upset in caregivers and on daily function of persons with dementia. Gerontologist 2001, 41, 4.
Sheffield, C.; Smith, C.; Becker, M. Evaluation of an Agency-Based Occupational Therapy Intervention to Facilitate Aging in Place. Gerontologist 2013, 53, 907–918.
Tongsiri S.; Ploylearmsang C.; Hawsutisima K.; Riewpaiboon W.; Tangcharoensathien V. Modifying homes for persons with physical disabilities in Thailand. Bull World Health Organ. 2017. February 1;95(2):140–5. http://dx.doi/org/10.2471/BLT.16.