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Residential Department: BackSpace: February 2012



Financing for individuals and families with special needs may require special care

The number of Americans with special needs — ranging from physical disabilities to mental impairments — is growing. As this special-needs market segment continues to expand, more and more individuals and families need help to find accessible housing and the financing to secure it. These families need assistance in a number of areas, and mortgage brokers and originators who help them may find a fulfilling market niche, as well as an increasing client base.

A growing market

The special-needs market already is much larger than many people suspect. The most recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that more than 18 percent of Americans have a disability, and 12 percent have a severe disability. A disability can be defined as any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities for the individual.

"More than 50 percent of those aged 65 or older have some form of disability, according to the Census Bureau."

Many who are unfamiliar with this market sector may be unaware of how broad its scope is. To get a better understanding of the potential clients in this niche, consider a family with a member who has one of the following special needs:

  • A developmental disability, like autism, Down syndrome or Angelman syndrome
  • A mental illness, like post-traumatic stress disorder or schizophrenia
  • A cognitive or neurological disorder, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkin-son’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), or multiple sclerosis
  • A physical disability, such as cerebral palsy, an amputation or a traumatic injury causing paralysis

These conditions cover a wide spectrum of individuals, which is why so many families are affected.

Disabilities transcend generations and income groups. Families of all ages and classes can find themselves caring for young children with disabilities or for aging parents — and sometimes both. An estimated 54 million Americans have a disability, whether it’s developmental, cognitive, physical or mental. According to the National Disability Institute, one in every five individuals reports a disability; 20 million families have at least one member who has a disability; and more than one-third of American households either report a member with a disability or are impacted by disability.

And the number of people with disabilities is growing. Because of medical advances, children have been able to survive illnesses and live with conditions that previously were fatal. As more premature babies have been saved, the risk of those children having disabilities has increased; and as more women give birth later in life, the risk of genetic disorders also increases. Conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression and autism are being more readily diagnosed. In fact, according to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of children with a disability increased from 8.2 million to about 10 million between 1997 and 2008, driven largely by increases in the diagnoses of autism and ADHD.

The aging population is another growing factor in this market segment. More than 50 percent of those aged 65 or older have some form of disability, according to the Census Bureau. A recent study published in the Archives of Neurology predicted that the number of people treated with Alzheimer’s disease will reach 13.2 million by 2050. In fact, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, every 69 seconds an American develops the disease.

In addition, separate from the conditions brought about by aging, people with disabilities are getting older, as well. There are an estimated 641,000 adults age 60 and older with intellectual and other developmental disabilities in the U.S. That number could double to 1.2 million by the year 2030, when members of the baby boomer generation will be in their 60s.

Working in this market

To meet the growing demand from these individuals and their caregivers, mortgage brokers must approach each situation on a case-by-case basis and be well-versed in the ways that special needs can affect financing.

First, brokers will need to introduce the topic of disabilities from the start and have appropriate information to offer in response. A couple of simple questions can open the door to the special-needs market. Brokers might ask:

  • Does anyone in your family depend on you for assistance?
  • Do you or any of your family members have a disability?

Mortgage brokers must explain to their clients why they’re asking these questions. It’s important to know about disability issues because there may be lending opportunities or assistance programs that can be incorporated into the planning process for the borrowers.

If the family answers “yes” to either of the above questions, brokers should be prepared with a few follow-up questions, like:

  • Will I be working with the family of a person with a disability, or directly with the person with the disability?
  • Is accessibility a concern?
  • Beyond what I can do for you, do you need to be referred to other services and programs for additional help?

Mortgage brokers and originators must understand the rights of the individual and family. Federal law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities, including in the selling or financing of housing. Brokers and originators can become a solution for the lending needs of individuals with disabilities if they understand their needs, as well as their rights. By bringing this knowledge to the table, brokers can increase their value to clients and become experts in this niche.

Lending programs

Mortgage brokers and originators should understand more lending programs than the obvious U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Fannie Mae options. There are many programs that offer attractive lending options not only for people with disabilities, but also to families who have a person with a disability living with them. These may include:

  • Lower-than-market interest rates
  • Lower-than-market downpayments
  • Assistance with closing costs and lowered origination fees
  • Loans and grants for assistive technology

On the Web

For more information on disability issues, visit the resources available at the following websites:

Most programs are designed by states and counties. A good resource for brokers is the information provided by Disabled World on disability housing and home loans for disabled people ( It lists by state the authority that provides special home-loan programs for those with disabilities. Programs are changing constantly, so it is important for mortgage brokers to research the various opportunities available when they identify their client’s needs. (For more on disability issues and where to research them, see the sidebar to the right.)

This knowledge is critical because, in addition to serving the niche better, if mortgage brokers don’t work appropriately for their customers, they could be putting their business at risk. Ignorance is no excuse, so becoming educated is key to serving clients in the most effective manner.

• • •

Through education and resourcefulness, mortgage brokers can become trusted professionals in the special-needs niche. They not only will reduce their business risk, but also deepen the relationships they have with customers. Brokers may find it rewarding to help those with special needs secure financing for their homes. And by serving this growing market segment sensitively and skillfully, brokers and originators can get more referrals and more business.


Mary Anne Ehlert is founder and president of Protected Tomorrows Inc., the leader in enhancing the lives of families with members who have special needs. Through their work with clients and families’ advisers, and alongside other advocates and legislators, Protected Tomorrows addresses many concerns of families with special needs, like future-care funding, government benefits, legal considerations, residential options, employment opportunities, recreational choices, education options and family communication. Contact or visit

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