Universal Design For Parents of Special Needs Kids: It’s Important for You Too!

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Stunning, but how many potential safety problems can YOU spot?

I just finished the coursework for my CAPS certification (certified aging-in-place specialist)!  Amazing instructor and loads of valuable information about construction and renovation that only the National Association of Home Builders could impart.   And not just for aging-in-place; the concepts of accessibility make homes more visitable for family and friends, and more livable and adaptable for the future.   Now I have to decide how to add this knowledge to my practice to help families make their lives easier and better….might as well start blogging about it now!

Universal design is more visible in public places.  Hotels are installing features that make showers more accessible and banks are providing variable-height counters to fill out deposit slips.   But most of us don’t think that we need universal or accessible design in our own homes as non-disabled adults.  Wrong.

Universal design allows your great-grandmother more ease when she wants to meet your baby in your own home.  It helps your neighbor with multiple sclerosis come over and water your plants when you take the kids to Disney.  And it allows you to carry a kid, carry a bag and pull the dog into the house without dropping one of them.  Universal design also allows your husband, who tore his achilles tendon during a pickup basketball game, to get into the shower by himself while he decides if he can admit he’s not 25 anymore.

 But for parents of kids with special needs, the need is two-fold: universal design helps them do a demanding physical job, but it also allows their children more independence earlier. These parents are lifting and carrying heavier children than they might otherwise.  In and out of the car, the crib, the stroller and more.  There is a big difference between lifting a 20-pound toddler and a 47-pound preschool child wearing heavy AFOs.  Parents are hauling around equipment like therapeutic strollers, standers and medical equipment every day.  I have written a bit about positioning your child How To Get Your Special Needs Child To Sit Safely In The Tub and Kids With Low Muscle Tone: The Hidden Problems With Strollers , but now I will be addressing design beyond equipment.

Universal design’s principles of low physical effort and adequate size/space for approach and use will give enough room at a landing for the stroller, and the parent, and the dog.  It will make it possible for your child to open the door for himself and to reach the sink without being held up to the water.   Universal design’s principles of equitable and flexible use will allow children more access with less assistance as they build skills.  The principles of simple and intuitive use, tolerance for error and perceptible information reduces confusion and safety risk to children.  A good example would be faucets with both temperature control valves to prevent scalding and handles marked with red/blue codes instead of H/C.  No reading interpretation is required once your child knows “red is hot” or “red is stop”.  That happens easier and earlier than reading skills.

I don’t hear a lot of parents complain about the wear-and-tear on their bodies as they care for their children, but I see it.  Parents: don’t think that because you don’t say anything that your occupational therapist isn’t aware that your back is giving out.  That is a shame, because OTs could be helpful to parents in this situation.  Not in telling them to hire help, but in teaching them how to move with more ease and how to select and use equipment based on universal design principles to make life better for everyone.

Maybe after this post, I will be hearing from all those parents who go to bed tired and wondering how they will be able to keep up with the physical demands of special needs parenting over the years to come.

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