Making A Home More Accessible To A Child With Special Needs

Assuming you haven’t recently won the lottery, you most likely don’t have an infinite amount of money to make your home more accessible—and, even more key, enabling—for your child with special needs. So I was pleasantly surprised to hear all sorts of inexpensive, easy ideas from Pattie Moore, an internationally renowned designer who specializes in meeting the needs of people of all ages and all abilities. Amongst her many achievements, in 2012 she was inducted into the Innovators Hall of Fame at The Rochester Institute of Technology.

Pattie explains that she worked with Lowe’s to launch the Gatehouse Custom Access Ramp System. “It’s so flexible—you can go through any entry door, not just the front door!” she says. “It’s stylish, and available at different price points, colors, and materials. It can be a real source of pride for a child. Children need to have ownership of their environment.”

One styling ramp

Parents of kids with special needs don’t have to sacrifice style to make their home accessible, she continues: “You can have a lovely home that embraces children of all capabilities—you just need to create safe, welcoming havens inside and out.” These are the great tips Pattie shared for making a home more accessible to kids with autism, cerebral palsy, and other special needs—told in alphabetical order because as Pattie says, “I like to keep it playful!”


It is so helpful to keep a daily journal about you and your child, noting likes, dislikes and triggers. The journal—kept on paper or on your smartphone, with lots of photos—can be invaluable when you seek medical help . And it can be a how-to manual for arranging and designing your home. You might notice your child had a meltdown when you went to church or the grocery store. Perhaps it’s people, perhaps it’s lighting that caused the reaction—you’ll see a pattern. Or he might get uncomfortable when he gets near a lilac tree or an aunt who wears perfume because the strong aroma is an issue. This journal can also help with caregivers—like Grandma will realize, Oh, for heaven’s sake, I put the wrong cartoon on. And a journal like this will help if you ever speak with a company that supplies enabling products or designers who create homes and public spaces. We need details, you could help push the science!


You want to look for what’s working in your child’s life and replicate it. So if he likes bouncing balls, have lots of bouncing balls. Once, a parent of a little boy with autism complained that he was writing on the walls. So I said, “Give him walls to write on!” We painted walls with chalkboard paint. He had colored chalk and he’d sit in his room and write by himself. Some stuff he erased, some he kept up. The parents would say, “Look the sun is shining, let’s draw the sun!” It started expanding the child’s realm. He stopped coloring around the house, and he had the safety and security of his room.


Make sure you have a clear, safe pathway for your child. But you want to think of getting rid of emotional roadblocks, too, not just the physical ones. If a child like Max loves purple and he gets a yellow shirt as a gift, tell friends and family to stop buying yellow! Then be prepared, next year he might want red!


Don’t keep anything around your home that’s fragile or that you’ll be upset about if it gets damaged or destroyed. Look at all the commercials we see with pets and families spilling something and then the mom/actress comes in and says “Don’t worry!” and she sprinkles or sprays something that makes it magically go away! This is real life, and you want a durable environment so that when s*** happens, it’s no biggie. Why set up a child for failure? Picture his face if he dropped or broke something and looks to you with puppy-dog eyes. You don’t want them to feel broken or stupid, you want to bolster their confidence. If you have been given the blessing of a child who needs more attention than most, cherish the moments. You may not be able to have crystal today, but you are going to miss these days when he is grown.


Try this exercise: Travel every pathway in the house your child travels and see where he’s going and what he’s encountering. Think of the worst-case scenario—if he fell, what would he hit? If your child is little or crawls, get on your hands and knees. Parents are always shocked when they do that. They forget about things like garbage cans you press with your foot to open, and how easy they are to topple over. That chair you got as a wedding present may be beautiful, but if it’s a danger it has to go in the attic.

“Elegance” is the other “e” word here because you can have an elegant home. I think it’s reasonable for parts of a home to be out of bounds for kids, and to have locks on certain doors. If you have a sitting room where you hang when girlfriends come over and you want it to be in best-kept shape, there is no reason to feel guilty about locking it up. It’s an important lesson for a child to know parents have their own space, too—and to keep them out of harm’s way. So make your bathroom a lockable room with bath salts and candles, just as long as you are diligent and vigilant about keeping kids out.


Rubber can be very unforgiving. If a child is wearing sneakers on stairs with rubber treads, he might stumble. Carpeted treads are forgiving. In general for carpeting you want firm, tight-woven piles, which provide good traction and wheelchairs can ambulate on them. I’m a big fan of indoor/outdoor carpet and carpet squares—you can just take one off and replace it if someone spills juice on it. And you want some nice padding beneath the carpet, too, for when a child tumbles. When my mom fell and didn’t break her hip, she credited the fact that I put extra padding beneath the carpeting!

Lowe’s site has a devoted section, Lowe’s Accessible Home, with everything from faucets to light switches. The store contributed to my ongoing basement renovation.

Image of child in walker via Shutterstock

From my other blog:

Proud to be a special needs warrior mom

An iPad giveaway for kids with special needs

Add a Comment
Back To To The Max
  1. by Kim

    On January 24, 2013 at 11:11 pm

    I freaking love this. My kid brother has Muscular Dystrophy, diagnosed at around 8. These are all lessons my mom learned the hard way. To her credit, the only time I ever remember her freaking out was when he tripped, knocked over HIS fish tank, and we tried to clean up the mess before rescuing the fish!