Ignoring Special Needs Can Cost You Business

One way to keep your showroom relevant in this challenging climate is to market a portion of your showroom to a niche market – an underserved subset of your overall market. You might want to consider targeting customers with special needs, such as those with a physical disability, wounded warriors or seniors looking to age in place.

This is an area where you can stand out from your competitors. Does your showroom feature displays that demonstrate functionality for a person with limitations? Are your designers trained in creating kitchens and baths that accommodate special needs consumers?

“Most dealers are not knowledgeable about consumers with special needs and they’re missing out on a terrific niche market,” says Larry Swartz, owner of Certified Kitchen Design, in Vista, CA. “We have to get creative and look at untapped market areas to appeal to new customers.”


According to the National Aging in Place Council (NAIPC), a senior support network based in Washington, DC, a majority of older Americans want to remain in their homes for as long as possible. There’s a growing trend toward seniors staying at home rather than moving into retirement communities or assisted-living facilities. This often requires some retrofitting to allow for safer daily living.

NAIPC suggests these adjustments to make kitchens more user friendly for seniors, which could be reflected in your showroom as points of interest:

  • Ensure ample maneuvering space for walking supports or wheelchairs;
  • Vary countertops heights for multiple users and functions;
  • Install a sink with knee clearance;
  • Install a raised dishwasher or dishwasher drawers to minimize bending;
  • Lower cooking or preparation surfaces;
  • Mount a wall oven or microwave at reachable heights;
  • Provide abundant accessible storage, including pull-outs or ample drawers for one-step action;
  • Provide a desk/work area with knee clearance that serves multiple functions.

If you have room, why not reserve at least one small area of your showroom for a kitchen that displays these features, or baths to highlight ease of use options? Remember, it may not only be the special needs customers who take notice. Many of your customers will have parents or other acquaintances who are, or will soon be, in the aging-in-place population, or who may be living with a limitation.


Cynthia Shull, designer with Kitchen Mart, of Sacramento, CA, specializes in designing baths for “a growing population of consumers who are not the typical showroom visitor,” she says.

An important part of displaying special needs products, Shull says, is to make them look attractive. “When you have to deal with a disability, the last thing you want is to have a bathroom that looks depressing. I wondered why companies weren’t making prettier accessories for disabled people. I’ve had a lot of fun exploring the possibilities, and in turn, improving my consumer connections as their expert.”

Shull’s introduction to the special needs market was an overweight customer who wanted to renovate his bathroom. “As I talked to the couple, I realized that nobody was really taking care of their needs,” she recalls.

She started by making a home visit to look at the existing bath. “The standard 32"x32" shower wasn’t workable for him,” she says. “I had to design something that let him get everything wet at the same time. The bathroom was on a concrete slab, which limited our options, because we didn’t want to have to come in and jackhammer everything. And I’m not a proponent of walk-in tubs. Who wants to sit in the tub for three minutes while it drains?”

The solution was to reduce the width of the adjacent vanity to accommodate a 42"x42" Corian shower with a neo angle – and no door – that gave the customer room to turn around, take a real shower and shampoo his hair. And, it conformed to Shull’s insistence on combining functionality with a pretty appearance.

Since working with her first special needs customers 11 years ago, Shull has been dedicated to exploring everyday disabilities – and, more recently, including appropriate display features into her firm’s showroom.

“When you think about disabilities, you think about major ones like multiple sclerosis,” she says. “I look more at the common things like carpal tunnel and limitations that come with aging. How do you turn off the shower without a functioning arm? I’ve developed a little carpal tunnel myself and it’s made me think about things like opening vanity drawers, or rotating your wrist upside down to pull them out. Those little nuances are significant.”

Shull has been working on showroom designs attractive enough not to look like they were created for special needs.

“There are some fascinating products available in bathroom design,” she says. “How about using attractive metal grab bars in a coordinating finish as towel bars that everyone can use? It’s possible today to provide a good look and function, both by design.”

With one of Kitchen Mart’s locations situated near a large senior population, Shull thinks it makes sense to use the showroom to tap into that market, saying, “I’m getting people to think about the future necessities before they become necessities. My showroom supports our presentations to this consumer group.”

Swartz agrees: “You never want to tell anybody over 65 that they are a special needs person. But you can talk to them about planning for future needs at this age.”

Swartz’ showroom doesn’t have the usual clusters of kitchen vignettes. Instead, he’s designed his products into a working kitchen and his office and meeting spaces. Some of the design features are for special needs.

“One of the things I show people is my desk because it’s 29-1/2" high,” he says. “We have cabinetry that works for everybody. It doesn’t take a lot to incorporate this into your showroom.”

Swartz designs kitchens for residential communities of the Training Education & Research Institute (TERI), an organization that serves individuals with autism, mental retardation, severe behavioral disorders, learning disabilities and other conditions. He says special needs customers make up about 10-15 percent of his business.

“I think it’s going to be very big this year and we’re going to add it to our focus,” he notes. “As an industry, I think we’re leaving a lot of business on the table because we just don’t know what’s available to help these customers.”

With a growing need waiting to be filled, it makes sense to have a showroom with displays that visually demonstrate features for special needs customers – or anybody who wants their home to work better, now and in the future.