Children with physical disabilities need a safe home environment that meets their changing physical and social needs. But what is the best way for parents to create this type of house?

Environmental psychologist Richard Olsen, PhD, a research professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), has developed 16 easy and affordable ways people can make their homes safer and more comfortable.

Olsen regularly studies ways to improve living environments for the aging and people with disabilities and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Our studies consistently illustrate that with several simple, relatively inexpensive modifications, such as reorganizing the kitchen cabinets or installing anti-skid strips on the stair treads, people can create safer and more comfortable living environments,” said Olsen, who also directs the health and aging division at NJIT’s Center for Architecture and Building Science Research.

CM0061These ideas emerged from two projects. One, funded by the Health Care Foundation of New Jersey, consisted of 25 interviews and assessments of low-income, older individuals caring for a family member with dementia or grandchildren.

The researchers then implemented a series of low cost home modifications. The Administration on Developmental Disabilities of the US Department of Health and Human Services funded the other project. Researchers assessed the abilities and homes of 80 older people with intellectual disabilities.

Recommendations from these studies include the following 15 tips.

15 ways you can improve home safety for people with disabilities

1) Double railings: If your home has stairs, install a second set of railings. “The other railing offers more support to climb up and down, plus allows some people the important opportunity to use their dominant hand,” Olsen said.

2) Grab bars: Install grab bars in and around the tub. The bars enable people to climb into the tub or shower more easily.

3) Shower and tub seats: A seat in the bathtub enables someone to sit up in the tub rather than pulling herself up from tub floor. In a shower, these seats work well, so that no one has to stand and lose their balance.

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4) Hand-held shower head: An individual can sit in the tub/shower and wash himself or the caregiver can wash him more easily.

5) Raised toilet seats and grab bars at toilet: “These are inexpensive and they really can help someone get on and off the toilet,” said Olsen. “Many people tend to grab a built-in paper dispenser for help, but this is dangerous. They are not grab bars, and can pull out of the wall.”

6) Install good lighting at stairs: Sufficient lighting at both the top and bottom of a stairwell is important. “Any place you are making a transition from one level to another should be well-lit,” said Olsen.

7) Anti-skid strips on the stair treads: Grip strips, available at hardware or home improvement stores, can help prevent slips and falls. They also highlight the edge of the stair tread.

8) Re-organize kitchen cabinets: Frequently-used items should be within easy reach so that no has to reach, bend over or, worst of all, use a step stool. The goal is to prevent anyone from losing his balance.

9) Light switches at room entries: Sounds simple, but make sure every room of the house has a light switch adjacent to or near the entry. “It is easy to lose your balance or trip over something when you are walking through a dark room to turn on the light,” said Olsen.

10) Eliminate thresholds between rooms: Again, thresholds represent another tripping hazard.

11) Install threshold or mini ramps: For easier wheelchair access at high thresholds on exterior doors, install a threshold or mini ramp, which will make it much easier to get a wheelchair through the door.

12) Lower closet pole and shelves: It’s easier to access clothing if the poles and shelves are within easy reach.

13) Keep washer and dryers on the main level: Keeping the laundry near the heart of the home is a good idea to keep in mind if you are building a new property.

14) Get rid of throw rugs: “At times, throw rugs can be a real problem,” Olsen said.

15) Clean up clutter: This is obvious — the fewer things people have to take care of, the easier it is for them to function.

Accessibility is key

“Accessible design is the gateway to a safe and supportive home. All of our work with people with disabilities — both adults and children — has convinced us that the need for an accessible home cannot be emphasized strongly enough,” notes Dr Olsen and co-authors B Lynn Hutchings and Ezra Ehrenkrantz in the book A House For All Children, Planning a Supportive Home Environment for Children With Disabilities.

The authors add, “Accessibility is vital both to your child and to you. For your child, it is the critical pathway that will allow him to function safely and at the peak of his abilities. For you, an accessible house can help ease the physical and emotional strains of parenting a child with a disability. Generally speaking, it is better to develop a home modification plan now that will still work for your child and the equipment he will be using when he is fully-grown.”


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About: Olsen often lectures about how people can create better living environments for children with disabilities and people with Alzheimer's disease. Olsen's two texts, both supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Princeton, are filled with good advice -- ranging from ways to make kitchens safer to how best to talk an upset person. The books are A House For All Children, Planning a Supportive Home Environment for Children With Disabilities (2000, NJIT Press) and Alzheimer's and Related Dementias Homes That Help, Advice From Caregivers For Creating a Supportive Home (1993, NJIT Press). Olsen has produced a video, also called A House for All Children, describing how six New Jersey families altered their homes to make them more suitable for people with disabilities.

Original publication date: February 2, 2005

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