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MIKE HOLMES: Homes can accommodate special needs

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I've always said your house should work for you. It should be built to make your everyday life easier, not harder.

But when you have special needs, a standard home doesn't cut it. You might not be able to reach the kitchen cabinets, or get in and out of the bathtub easily, reach light switches, or even leave the house without help. These things can make you feel like a prisoner in your home.

Sometimes it's not even about convenience -- it's a matter of life or death. What if you couldn't hear the doorbell or smoke or carbon monoxide alarms? If you can't hear them you might as well not have them. It's a huge safety issue. But that's the reality for over a million people in Canada living with hearing issues -- and that scares me. Can't imagine how it feels for them.

Unfortunately, not everyone can afford a custom home. So instead of changing their house to fit them, most people just live with it as is. I've seen people try to deal with these kinds of issues on their own.

On one job I recently worked on the homeowner was deaf. So she would get her friends to text her when they got to her house since she can't hear anyone knocking on the door. But that doesn't work if the person at her door doesn't know her or have her number.

And what if there's an emergency like a fire? If she's awake she can probably see and smell the smoke. But what if she's sleeping? When it comes to residential fires it's usually the smoke that kills you, not the fire; and if you can't hear a smoke detector, the chances of that happening is practically 100 per cent.

Some people assume that's just the way it is and nothing can be done about it. But today, homeowners have the advantage of small things that can make a big difference.

For example, on the job I mentioned earlier my guys installed an electrical system that is interconnected with the doorbell, smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector. So when the doorbell rings a strobe light flashes. Same thing with the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors; if there's smoke or a carbon monoxide leak, the strobe light goes on. The system works with a plug-in unit that the homeowner can take with them anywhere in the house. So it doesn't matter where they are, they'll be able to see the strobe lights.

There are also bed shakers, devices you put under the mattresses or your pillow. Depending on the system it's connected to, the device will shake the bed. So let's say the bed shaker is connected to the smoke or carbon monoxide detector. If the detector goes off, the bed shaker will vibrate the bed to wake the person up. These devices can even be connected to your alarm clock or telephone.

If you have the budget there are bigger projects you can do, too. A few years ago I worked on an ASL interpreter's house and she talked about how a house can be "deaf-friendly." This means having clear lines of sight between rooms so people can communicate using sign language even when they're not in the same room. Makes sense.

Clear lines of sight are created by getting rid of any non-load-bearing walls. If there is a load-bearing wall, a contractor can create a pocket window. But the size of the window needs to be determined by an engineer. These professionals will make sure the size of the window doesn't compromise the strength of the wall, which still needs to support the weight above. The last job where we installed pocket windows they were about four feet wide, which is perfect for line of sight but doesn't compromise structure.

Not everyone can afford to knock down the walls in their home. I get that. But like I said, there are smaller modifications that go a long way. To learn about them, speak to the pros.

A good electrician or plumber will know about the latest and greatest gadgets and fixtures for people with special needs. A professional contractor will tell you how to make your home work for you. They have their noses in the research and talk to other professionals about things that will help them do their job better.

There's no harm in asking about your options -- especially when the stakes are high.

-- Postmedia News

Catch Mike Holmes in his new series Holmes Makes It Right, Tuesdays on HGTV. For more information, visit For more information on home renovations, visit

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2013 F9

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