Greener Across the Pond? Exploring Special Needs Differences Between the US & UK

Stacy Warden, mum to Noah, traveled to the UK last year and says she fell in love with it. Here are some of what she said she desired most about what the UK offers for children who have special needs:

Television Programs

Just about all UK children’s programming features children with special needs. My first introduction to this huge difference in children’s television was while we were in our hotel and we turned it on to BBC.

I was so shocked when I seen not one, not two, but five children with different levels of abilities in wheelchairs gardening on a show called Something Special with Mr. Tumble.

It became and instant hit, so much so we bought a multi-regional DVD and imported the box sets. I thought maybe it was just one particular show, however upon further exploration other UK shows were equally inclusive, Balamory, and Mr. Bloom’s Nursery also featured those with special needs.

Here in the US we see the occasional child with special needs, but our programs are not nearly as saturated with children of different abilities like they show in the UK. It does our child the world of good to see other children regularly on television who are just like him.

Equipment Vendors & Equipment

Hands down you ask any US parent and we will tell you all the very best adaptive equipment originates and exists in the UK.

Many of us spend countless hours attempting to find creative ways of getting items shipped from across the pond.

It’s very discouraging when you know something exists but your child doesn’t have access to it. And it’s been my experience that vendors in the UK don’t just view what they do as a job, but as changing lives for the better.

They care, and they genuinely mean it.

Accessible Bathrooms

I almost thought I was on another planet when I landed at Heathrow Airport in the UK and experienced our full-fledged accessible bathroom.

Nothing like you could ever imagine. A changing table for older children and adults, a ceiling/hoist lift, huge space so the entire family could comfortably fit, height adjusted sinks and super clean.

I’ve never come close to experiencing anything like it. And it’s not just Heathrow Airport, Changing Places has hundreds of accessible bathroom locations all across the UK with more expanding each day. I have never even seen one anywhere that could even hold a candle to what the UK is doing anywhere in the USA.

Disabled vehicle and housing assistance

The UK also has a higher rate mobility (a disability state benefit), if you receive this you can apply for a Motability car.

Motability is a UK based charity. This provides for the cost of your car, car tax, insurance and maintenance is paid.

There is an advance payment which for smaller cars can be nil but for WAVs can be up to £20,000. You can apply for grant funding to help with the advance payment. This is a national program.

The UK also provides for disabled housing assistance. Depending on the disability your child (and home) can be assessed for a Disabled Facilities Grant – again a national program but interpreted differently within different counties.

This can mean anything from wet rooms, downstairs toilets to lifts, chair lifts and also full extensions to provide downstairs bedrooms, widened doors, ramped access etc.

Here in the US there is no such program whatsoever to help assist, much let alone cover the entire cost of an accessible vehicle.

And there are no housing assistance programs offered for families with special needs children.

For some select families who qualify some states offer Medicaid Waiver programs that will generally permit for one home modification every five years.

Terminology & Attitudes towards those with special needs

What I loved most about the UK was the attitude towards my child with special needs. Not once was a single person unkind.

We were approached often as if we were any other family to say hello or wave, people spoke directly to our son, never thinking twice if he was non-verbal. The UK has also gravitated away from using words like “handicapped” and now find the word rude.

The proper reference is the use of the word disabled.

It’s a much kinder and gentler approach to viewing those who are differently-abled.

Very refreshing and it left me feeling like my child was unconditionally accepted and loved by all.

Claire Smyth, mother to Daniel likewise has some features about the USA that she feels are desirable when raising a child with special needs:

I lived in Georgia for a year as a student and visited almost 20 states so feel I have some grasp of life in the States.

However, I haven’t been there since Daniel was born so my views in terms of special needs come from my online experiences and connecting with American special needs families over the years – so here goes…

Equipment Vendors & Equipment

I chuckled when I read Stacy’s list because in my experience, a lot of what I have wanted to buy for Daniel comes from American companies.

Few of which ship to the UK or if they do the shipping costs can actually be more expensive than the item wanted.

Therapy, types and availability

I definitely think American families have greater opportunities to access a wider range of therapies and different approaches.

Therapies that would be considered common practice in the States are often thought of as unconventional here in the UK with some therapists not even familiar with the various types.

There is also a lack of private therapy options available here.

So if UK families do have the funds to access private therapy they often have to travel quite far to do them which limits the opportunities to do them on a regular basis.

Genetic Testing & Medical Procedures

I struggled on the right terminology for this one so I am hoping my explanation is a little better.

I feel I need to add a disclaimer at this point, I appreciate everything the National Health Servicce (NHS) provides for my family BUT it can be infuriating sometimes.

Genetic testing is one area where we have a lot of experience. Our experience has been one test at a time with weeks if not months of waiting for results before moving on to the next test.

I fully understand the principle of reduce costs by minimising the testing to the most likely/common cause before moving on to the rarer causes of the disability or symptoms. But the experience of this first hand, has been an emotional roller-coaster pushing us to breaking point over a prolonged period of time.

I understand that similar tests would have been done all at once as standard practice in the States meaning families would get much earlier diagnosis even for rarer conditions, saving a lot of heartache.

I think it would be fair to say that similar to therapies, the US would be much further advanced than the UK for genetic testing.

So for example the microarray genetic test, which can simultaneously check multiple gene sequences has only recently become a regular part of the genetic testing programme and in fact is still patchy across the country but has been more widely used in the States for a long time.

Although we haven’t had the need for medical intervention with Daniel, my heart breaks for families who have had to raise significant funds to travel to the US especially for specific epilepsy treatments and Selective Dorsal Rhizotomy.


So the UK is not known for it’s great weather especially here in Northern Ireland.

For British and Irish special needs families holidaying in warmer climates usually involves air travel to a foreign country – any one travelling with a disabled child knows the difficulties this can bring – and that’s before you even get there.

Once you’re there you then have the worry of needing medical assistance in a foreign language and within unfamiliar medical setting.

Living in Georgia, we regularly packed up the car going on road trips and experiencing so many new things – we skied, surfed, mountain climbed within neighbouring states. I completely understand why so few Americans hold passports – there’s a life time of experiences to be enjoyed in their vast country.

The First Ladies

Michelle Obama is using her position as the American First Lady to forge ahead with her own agenda to improve the world.

Her initiatives include better support for miltary families, education for girls, helping working women balance career and family, encouraging national service, promoting the arts and arts education and tackling obesity.

Samantha Cameron is the wife of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron.

But, more importantly she is mum to Ivan who had Cerebral Palsy and died aged 6 in 2009.

I wish Samantha Cameron was using her experience as a special needs mum and her position as the UK’s ‘First Lady’ to make the United Kingdom and the rest of the world a fair and just place for disabled children and their families.

Instead, special needs families in the UK are facing their most uncertain period ever, feel vulnerable and scared about the future plans of her husband’s Government.

The Firefly Garden would like to wish all our US Firefly Friends a fantastic Independence Day! Do tell us what you get up to to celebrate!


Special Needs Fundraising: Those wonderful wish granters…

It was a particularly rough patch, Sam was battling hard against the seizures once again, he was having regular chest infections due to aspiration and I just desperately wanted to do something for him to make his life a bit happier and less of a struggle. Something that didn’t involve therapy, and that was just for HIM.

So on the advice of one of our nurses, I applied.

And they got back to me to say yes, he was indeed.

Mixed emotions – thrilled that they could do something really special for my little man but devastated that he really IS poorly enough to be considered by such a foundation.

In case you don’t know who Make a Wish are, they are one of the large wish granting charities, who aim to put a smile on the faces of seriously/terminally ill children by granting them a wish.

Many ask to meet their idols, others ask to be a princess for the day, and so on. Usually, the child fills in a pack with their likes, dislikes and what they’d like to wish for.

As Sam isn’t capable of doing so, we filled the wish pack in for him and then had a chat with a representative of the charity to see if we could identify something that he’d enjoy and that would be special for him.

One of Sam’s greatest loves is swimming – in the water and with his neck float he is free to move as he wants, without us holding him.

It’s his only real taste of independence and we encourage it as much as possible. The problem being that currently his seizures have been too bad for us to take him to our local pool.

The lady asked if we’d thought of asking for a hot tub for him, given his love of being in the water and the knowledge that his seizures make him ache all over.

We had, but didn’t think it was the sort of thing they could help with; apparently, they could… and they did!

Within weeks we were contacted to say that one hot tub would be on its way to us as soon as an installation date was arranged! That date was the last week of May.

Make a Wish organised *everything* from the supplying of the tub, to installation. Sam had his own ‘wish granter’, who was in charge of sorting everything out for him.

He let us know that the hot tub Sam would receive was a Marquis Wish tub, made especially for Make a Wish; the company donate a portion of their sales of this tub to the charity and provide this particular model to Wish Children.

On Wednesday morning two amazing men from a local spa and pool company arrived with the tub on a trailer…. braving our (very) narrow driveway….

In just 4 hours, they had leveled the patio where the tub was to go, installed the tub and put in its own power supply.

We had to wait a little longer before testing it out though as the water had to be treated first… and today everything was reading as it should, and we got our first go in the water.

We were slightly nervous about how Sam would be, as it was ridiculously windy this afternoon and a tad chilly, however we need not have worried – as soon as his toes hit the water the look on Sams face went from puzzlement (‘why are my parents bringing my outside in nothing more than a swim nappy?!’) to amazement, then contentment, then sleepy!

My lovely little man relaxed properly for the first time in weeks, as the warmth of the water (currently set to a fabulous 38C) allowed his muscles to soften and his neck float meant he was safe to be allowed to just float.

One very happy little chap.

Within moments he was snoozing contentedly, floating in the gentle flow of the jets.

Our experience with Make a Wish has been incredibly positive from start to finish.

While I still feel deep sadness that my little boy really does have a serious enough condition to warrant their support, it’s acts of incredibly kindness like this that make life brighter.

Having access to his own hot tub means we can allow him to benefit from the warmth of the water as often as he wants, or needs to.

They really have made my little boy’s wish come true.

Special Needs Days Out: 10 UK Tourist Attractions with a Changing Places Toilet

Cadbury World, Birmingham

Cadbury World boosts 15 zones, we like the sound of,”Chocolate Adventure”, the best!

The Changing Places toilet is located on the ground floor within the main reception and can be accessed using a radar key.

Heely City Farm, Sheffield

Heely City Farm describes itself as a friendly farm and environmental visitor centre.

The Changing Places toilet at Heely City Farm is in the main block of toilets beside the Children’s Playground.

Chester Zoo, Chester

1.4 million people visit Chester Zoo every year to see their 12,000 animals in 110 acres of zoological gardens.

The Changing Places toilet at Chester Zoo is located in the Jubilee Toilet block next to the Jubilee Monorail station.

The toilet is open at all times throughout the day.

Find out what’s happening this summer at Chester Zoo by visiting the website.

The Eden Project, Cornwall

The Eden Project is an educational charity that connects us to the natural world.

It’s world famous Biomes house the largest captive rainforest, it has an all-year family events programme.

The Eden Project Changing Places toilet is on the ground floor at the public entrance.

Follow the link to visit The Eden Project website and find out what’s on when you visit.

Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim

The Giant’s Causeway is a National Trust World Heritage Site with an award winning visitor centre and packed full of activities for all ages.

The Changing Places toilet is located in the main block of toilets in the Visitor Centre.

It is locked, ask a member of staff for the key.

Find out what’s happening at the Giant’s Causeway this summer by visiting the website.

Camperdown Country Park, Dundee

With 28 types of animals at Camperdown Country Park and lots of great activities for all ages this sounds like a fantastic day out.

Camperdown Park is a public park, its Changing Places toilet is located on the ground floor within its suite of toilets.

Alice Holt Forest, Surrey

Walk, cycle or play in the woods at Alice Holt Forest in Surrey.

It’s Changing Places toilet is located on the ground floor of the new visitor centre and can be accessed via radar key, which is available at reception.

Marwell Wildlife, Hampshire

Marwell Wildlife is 140 acre park with 3 adventure playgrounds, a train and a wide variety of animals.

The Marwell Wildlife Changing Places toilet is in the main block of toilets and can be opened by radar key.

Blackpool Tower, Blackpool

Blackpool Tower is one of the UK’s most well known tourist venues and boosts 5 main attractions.

Including Blackpool Tower Eye, Jungle Jim’s, Blackpool Tower Ballroom, Blackpool Tower Dungeon and Blackpool Tower Circus.

The Blackpool Tower Changing Places toilet is located on the third floor of Blackpool Tower which is the Ballroom level.

It can be accessed by lift and is kept locked.

The radar key is available at the staff entrance or the Ballroom.

You will need to pay an entrance fee to Blackpool Tower to use this Changing Places toilet.

Eureka! The National Children’s Museum, Halifax 

Eureka! is an interactive children’s museum which is fun for the whole family.

It was recently named as the UK’s top Interactive Exhibition for Children by Mumsnet.

The Changing Places toilet at Eureka! is located on the ground floor.

Visit the Eureka! website for more information on opening hours.

Radar Keys

The National Key Scheme (NKS) offers disabled people independent access to locked public toilets around the country.

Toilets fitted with National Key Scheme (NKS) locks can now be found in shopping centres, pubs, cafés, department stores, bus and train stations and many other locations in most parts of the country.


VAT Exempt – £4.50

With VAT – £5.40

European delivery – £5.40

Rest of world delivery – £6.50

You can purchase a Radar Key here and find out more about the scheme.