Safe Bathrooms for the Disabled

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Providing safe bathrooms for people with special needs requires knowledgeable planning in the field of what’s called universal design. When implementing your plan, remember that such bath­rooms need not look institutional. Begin the planning process with an inventory of the intended user's skills, focusing not on disabilities, but capabilities, likes, and tastes. What can the person do? What does he or she like to do?

Bathrooms for Disabled should be larger than normal

The first priority in bathrooms intended for people who use wheelchairs is plenty of room for access and maneuvering. Barrier-free bathrooms are usually larger than average. Provide for an open area within the bathroom that's at least 5 feet in diameter to allow for easy turning. Also provide 4 feet of clear space in front of each fix­ture, as well as between the sink and the toilet, if both fixtures share the same wall. These spaces also will allow room for a caregiver, if needed.

Make doorways 3 feet wide to enable a wheelchair to pass through. The bathroom door must swing outward rather than inward and should be fitted with a lever-type handle, not a knob.

Specify a vanity designed for use from a wheelchair. Plan for a sit-down dressing table with a 31-inch-high countertop and at least 30 inches of clear knee space underneath so a chair can pull in close.

The shower stall should have no threshold that would impede the entrance and exit of a wheelchair. The stall should measure at least 4 feet square, and its opening should be at least 36 inches wide. Install the control valves and showerheads at two different heights, or include a hand-held nozzle that can be used from a seated position. A built-in seat in the shower, along with a sturdy grab bar, can provide extra comfort and utility.

Other features of an accessible bath include grab rails mounted on reinforced walls beside the tub and toilet, faucets designed to reduce the risk of scalding, a tele­phone, and lower light switches (48 inches off the ground puts them within reach of wheelchair users and kids).

If you've ever been on crutches or required a wheelchair to get around, you quickly realize how daily tasks that once seemed simple, like using the bathroom, can become difficult and time- consuming. If you or a family member has a disability that restricts mobility, there are several helpful changes that can be made to a bathroom.

The National Kitchen & Bath Association provides a list of access standards to NKBA designers to make bathrooms more easily usable by the physically disabled.

Doors are Wider for Wheelchair Access

First, consider access. Typically, bathroom doors are 2 to 2 1/2 feet wide and are hinged to open into the room. But such a door is too narrow for a wheelchair, and its inward swing makes it difficult for a wheelchair user to maneuver inside the room. A three-foot-wide replacement door that is designed to swing outward will ease access and keep the bathroom's floor area clear. Lever-handle lock sets rather than doorknobs make it easier to open the door.

Second, the floor surface should be of a slip-resistant material. There are many ceramic floor tiles available with roughened finishes that will provide sure footing for those on crutches without impeding wheelchairs. The strips or moldings, called thresholds, that cover transitions between different floor materials should be kept as low and seamless as possible so wheelchairs have a smooth, level path into the room.

Plumbing fixtures and faucets also make a difference. A hand-held shower head with a long hose that attaches to the faucets is helpful, as is a seat that fits into the tub or on the tub rim. With these two modifications a person can have a complete shower while seated. The toilet can be replaced with one designed for the disabled. These toilets are made with higher bowls, at least 15 inches above the floor, to minimize effort in getting up and down.

Sinks, rather than resting on top of cabinets, should be supported from the back or sides, to allow knee space underneath. Also, since wheelchair users sometimes lack sensation in their legs, the plumbing lines under the sink should be insulated to prevent accidental burns from hot pipes.

Finally, grab bars should be installed on the side of the tub and toilet. Since the bars may have to support a person's full weight, they must be securely screwed into solid wood studs in the wall framing.

To find an NKBA designer or remodeler in your area who’s familiar with universal design principles that provide accommodations for special needs, you can search for an NKBA professional at


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