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Woog's World / A special designer for special-needs kids

Published 8:33 am, Sunday, December 9, 2012
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Kelley Schutte studied design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She and her husband lived in San Francisco, where he worked with Wired magazine. When it was purchased by Conde Nast 15 years ago, the couple had to move east.

Their son had cerebral palsy -- the result of birth trauma. They needed a home that was, in Schutte's words, "maneuverable." They found one in Westport.

Her career blossomed, with residential and commercial design work. At the same time, she began watching home improvement shows on television. She realized there was important work to be done in designing -- or redesigning -- spaces for children like her son. And for those with other special needs, whether physical disabilities or challenges like autism, the key word, Schutte says, is "functionality."

She began designing and building homes that were functional on the inside but did not sacrifice aesthetics on the outside.

Her work became known. Pediatricians recommended her to the parents of patients who needed to adapt their homes.

Schutte did not abandon her other work. But her design efforts for families of children with physical and mental challenges are, she says, "my favorite aspect of my work. It is very, very fulfilling."

Her adaptations are creative and clever. Some of them elicit "wows." Others are of the why-didn't-I-think-of-that? variety.

For example, she installed a slide in her own home. It enables her son to move easily from one floor to a lower one. But it's also fun. And when he played with other children, he did not have to worry about slowing them down.

With autism on the rise, Schutte is working with more non-verbal children. A touch-screen system, with an iPad and speaker, allows a child to have a "voice" that can be heard throughout a house.

Children with cerebral palsy have difficulty standing (a gross motor activity) while brushing their teeth (a fine motor skill). Installing a cabinet with a pull-out seat eases the challenge.

Schutte has discovered that many modifications she planned for children work for others. Senior citizens benefit from her designs. So does anyone recovering from surgery. Simple changes to staircases -- for example, installing handrails on both sides of the stairs -- is a boon not only to children with balance problems but also the elderly.

Lowering counter heights and replacing difficult-to-maneuver door knobs with much easier lever handles also improves the quality of life for people of all ages with a broad array of physical challenges.

Children with cerebral palsy and epilepsy are not strong on their feet. Replacing tile flooring with cork can ease falls. The same is true for elderly people who are prone to falling.

Some innovations are more creative. A bar in a closet enables someone in a wheelchair to pull clothes down to their level. For youngsters, a Dutch door to a bedroom fulfills both the need for privacy, and ease of access if help is needed.

Schutte works closely with each family. She listens to their needs, then walks them through her own home to show what she's done. She also looks at their current house. Through that process, ideas evolve.

Though safety comes first, aesthetics are also important. "I don't want a home to look like an institution. The goal is to make a place warm and charming, not cold. Or up-to-date and fashionable, if that's their goal. And I never want anyone to feel `different.'" Something as simple as using natural materials -- wood handrails, say, rather than metal -- makes all the difference in the world.

Living and designing in Westport has been a wonderful experience. Schutte calls herself "blessed" to live in such a caring, giving community.

Over the years, she's noticed little things. "Staples has done a beautiful job" of inclusion, she says. She particularly appreciates all the ramps. But "some of the doors are weighted way too heavily" to be easily opened by physically challenged youngsters.

At the elementary schools, more and more playgrounds comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Still, she wishes there were two handicap-accessible swings -- not one -- so children could play together. (She gives especially high marks to Devon's Park, a "boundless playground" in Norwalk.)

Schutte travels often with her son. Europe is a challenge -- its many older buildings are difficult to retrofit -- so she appreciates what she sees in this country.

Americans, she says, understand the importance of inclusive design. In Westport particularly, "zoning and building codes work for us." So do town employees. "The Fire Department knows my house well," Schutte says. "We have an elevator shaft. They know how to check it out in case of an emergency."

Reactions to Schutte's designs are very positive. Most common is, "I didn't expect that!" Schutte says, "Most people love how fun this all is. It's aesthetically pleasing and functional. There are a lot of happy surprises."

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.