Home Remodeling and Modifications for People with Special Needs
Is it difficult to remain independent and get things done at home because of the lack of modifications in a standard house or apartment? The U.S. government, as well as a multitude of private not-for-profit organizations, is doing its best to make sure that each person with a definable need has a home that accommodates their limitations and requirements. There are resources available for determining what modifications need to be made and what needs to be done to get them completed. In addition to that, funding is available for the disabled, elderly, veterans, low-income, and even for students and others who are just getting started in life.
If you own your own home, you have the right to make modifications, although it is very likely that a local inspector may have to approve them and make sure that they meet safety standards and that the construction is being done properly.
However, it’s not just home owners who have rights. According to the federal Fair Housing Act and Fair Housing Amendments Act, disabled renters are allowed to make reasonable modifications to make life easier, as long as the property is not left in a way that it cannot be reasonably used by the next tenant. As long as you have a disability that can be confirmed by a doctor, you are protected by the law. The property owner has some protection as well. To avoid people abusing the right to modify a home, a property owner may ask to see a letter from your physician confirming the disability, especially if it is an invisible disability, such as a mental disorder, that may not be easy for a nonprofessional to identify.
- To learn more about your rights, visit NOLO’s Disabled Renters' Housing Rights page.
- The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is also a good source of information. You can visit their Disability Rights in Housing page to learn more.
- The U.S. Department of Justice also offers a complete Guide to Disability Rights Laws.
The U.S government has many programs that offer assistance with home modifications. Here are a few of our top picks:
- For veterans – The Veterans Administration offers housing grants for home modifications. To learn about what is available, you can visit Military.com’s page, New VA Rules for Specially Adapted Housing Grants.
- For senior citizens – Senior citizens are also offered additional assistance with home remodeling to allow for continued independence. You can visit the Rural Housing: Housing Repair Loans and Grants page at Benefits.gov to learn about it.
- For low-income individuals – A limited income doesn’t have to mean a limited life. MyChildWithoutLimits has a great page on Funding Home Modifications.
- State level resources – To find out what is being offered by local housing departments in your area, visit the National Council of State Housing Agencies website.
To begin with modifications, the first thing you will need to do is consider your needs.
Assess your space and your needs. It is easiest to make a checklist that clarifies what you currently need assistance with at home, what are your current safety concerns, and what would make your life easier.
Things to consider:
- Handrails – Are they already provided in all areas where you may need them, such as along ramps, stairs, in the bathroom, or by the bed?
- Stairs – Do you need to climb stairs to get into the building or to access areas within the building such as laundry facilities or rooms in your apartment or house?
- Tripping hazards – Are there rugs or other aspects of flooring that may cause a tripping hazard?
- Lighting – Is there enough lighting and can motion sensors turn it on or is the switch easily accessible?
- Non-slip surface – Are there areas in the kitchen, bathroom or elsewhere that may be a slipping hazard?
- Doors and door handles – Are the handles easily reachable and is the door maneuverable?
- Safety – Can you see who a visitor is without having to open the door first?
- Your own unique needs!
To learn more about creating a checklist and assessing your needs, visit The Assistive Technology Advocacy Center (ATAC) of DRNJ’s Home Modification Resource Guide.
You can also visit AARP. They have an excellent page, Make Your Home a Safe Home.
The Next Steps
Now, it is time to start the process, but where should you begin? Planning!
This is a good time to bring a contractor in to help create a design for the adaptations. It is important to find someone who is qualified. Ask locally, look into their references, and do not be afraid to reach out to more than one before making a decision. You can also check with the Better Business Bureau and your local Chamber of Commerce to see if they have any complaints filed against them.
- If you are looking for ideas to share with your contractor, the Fall Prevention Center for Excellence has a great Video Library.
- The Federal Trade Commission has a section on Hiring Contractors.
This is where all of the ideas come together. Work with a professional and make sure that all of the details that you need are included in your design. You want your home not just to be adapted to your needs, but also to be a pleasure to live in.
For ideas for how to go about designing a home, you can visit:
- Purdue University’s page for Tips on Building an Accessible Home
- The Home Design and Adaptations for Use for a Person with Special Needs section on the Lifecare Innovations website
- The Accessible Home Design Information and Ideas section at Disabled World
Remodeling can be a big step, and not every home needs major alterations. Some can do with just temporary and removable modifications. The process of major modifications may also leave the space unusable during the construction process; however, the long-term results may be more than worth the temporary inconvenience.
To learn more about remodeling, visit:
- The National Association of House Builders section: Learn About Aging In Place and What a Professional Can Do for You
- Eldercare.gov’s page on Home Modifications
- The Together We Transform brochure for Safe and Healthy Housing
Other Things to Consider
There is a lot to consider when making changes to the home. Take your time, consider all of the pros and cons, and look into as many resources as you can.
Temporary vs Permanent Changes
Do you plan to stay in the residence, or will you be moving at some point? Investing in major changes to a building that you cannot bring with you may not be suitable if you see yourself changing locations in the future. However, permanent changes may be sturdier and long lasting, which can be beneficial in the present as well as the future.
Tips and Advice
Look into what adaptations are used in other residences. Do not forget to consider the materials, available space, and how you will be using that space. Most importantly, never be afraid to ask questions!
You should also take into consideration your own specific needs. Will recommended changes make a big difference to you? Are there other changes that could improve your daily life more than others?
Don't take the retail prices of items at face value. There are different ways of paying for updates which means certain updates may be less expensive than the sticker prices you see.
- Ramps and walkways – Aging in Place has a great section on Ramps.
- Kitchens – Wellcome home has a section on Universal Kitchen Design.
- Bathrooms, Bedrooms and General Spaces – The Colorado State University Home Adaptations for the Disabled factsheet has great sections on bathrooms and bedrooms, as well as other rooms in the house.
- Materials – The Center for Universal Design discusses various products for home modification for disabilities on their Home Modifications and Products for Safety and Ease of Use page.
- Multiple Sclerosis – The National MS Society has a great paper on Adapting Your Environment.
- Spinal Cord Injuries – the United Spinal Association had a great list of resources in their Home Modifications section.
- Stroke – The Internet Stroke center has an excellent page called Adapting the Home after a Stroke.
- Alzheimer’s – Aging Care has an article on Providing a Safe Home Environment for Alzheimer's Patients.
When making estimates, make sure to include all labor, materials, permits, consultations, and extra expenses such as alternative accommodations while the area is under construction.
- Fixr gives a general idea of what things cost on their Disability Remodeling Cost page.
- Home Advisor offers a guide to remodeling costs on their Addition & Remodel Cost Guides page.
When added all together, the costs can seem unattainable, but remember the government programs listed at the beginning of this article, and also look into the following organizations:
- Modest Needs
- Travis Roy Foundation
- Gary Sinise Foundation
- National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modification
Additional Information for College Students
Disabled students are protected under the law. You have the right to reasonable accommodations, and that includes either on-campus or off-campus housing that is adapted to your needs. In addition to a suitable living space, if you have a proven disability the university must also assist in making sure that you can access courses and course materials.
- To learn more about your rights, visit LDOnline, College Students and Disability Law.
- For an example of a standard accommodations document for universities, visit Saint Petersburg College’s Quick Help Guide.
- The U.S. Department of Education offers advice for disabled students who are transitioning to college on their Students with Disabilities Preparing for Postsecondary Education page.
- To get an idea of how universities respond to the challenge, you can visit the American Physiological Society’s Inclusion of Students with Disabilities in the Lab section.
Additional Information for Renters
As a renter, you may feel as if you lack the rights of a homeowner. However, that is not the case when it comes to U.S. law protecting the rights of the disabled. You simply need to know your rights, and know who to reach out to when those rights are not being recognized.
To learn about your rights, you can visit: