Tips for Making a Shower More Accessible

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Making a shower accessible is a smart move, whether you need it today or want to ensure your home remains your castle as you age.

How easy would it be for you to use your shower if you had to rely on a wheelchair or walker, or your vision was impaired, or you had difficulty using your hands? The answer matters.

While you may be able-bodied today, in the future you or someone in your family may be physically challenged. Accidents, illness and aging can make the once-easy task of showering problematic.

Having an accessible shower, functional and safe for anyone with disabilities or impairments, provides some assurance you could stay in your home should someone in your family face physical challenges. It also allows you to accommodate an aging relative.

And consider this: Everyone in your home will appreciate incorporating these features in a bathroom upgrade.

Types of Accessible Showers

A shower you can enter without stepping over the side of a bathtub — called a “curbless” or “roll-in” shower — is ideal for someone with a wheelchair or walker, according to Paul Klassen, founder and CEO of the Pinnacle Group Renovations in Calgary, Alberta. His company specializes in home renovations that help people age in place.

“Depending on the degree of disability, some people may be okay with a short curb (called a “walk-in” tub or shower),” he says. “But most of our clients want curbless.” That removes obstacles someone could trip on.

Klassen says a person’s needs and the available space dictates the size of an accessible shower. Sarabeth Asaff South, a home improvement consultant with Fixr.com in Derry, New Hampshire who specializes in accessible design, recommends at least 48 inches square but preferably larger.

Tips for an Accessible Shower

If you’re building a new bathroom or remodeling to add an accessible shower, be sure it has the following features. Otherwise, try to incorporate one or more of these in an existing shower.

Create a wide shower entry

To be compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines, the entry should be at least 36 inches wide. But you should make it whatever size you need to accommodate the person’s needs. “The entry width can vary, because wheelchairs vary in size,” Klassen says.

Skip the door

“We build showers without doors to provide access without having to open a door,” says Klassen. “We want to create the easiest access to empower the person using it.”

Klassen does recommend a glass panel splashguard. “We always spec 10 mm glass at a minimum,” he says, because it’s tempered and extra-thick. If you do include a door, make sure it’s made of 10 mm glass.

The floor should be nonslip

“Tile works well for an accessible shower,” says Klassen. “For the floor, choose a small tile, which is best for creating a slope to a center drain. Look for one with a coarse surface. The many grout lines created by the smaller tile helps the floor be nonslip, too.”

Use contrasting colors

“When someone’s eyesight starts failing,” says Klassen, “it helps to have a color variance from the floor to the walls.” That helps them distinguish where the floor ends and the wall begins.

Klassen recommends dark colors on the floor and light on the wall. “You could incorporate a contrasting horizontal band of color on the wall for a nice design element,” he says.

Provide good lighting

“The lack of proper lighting is a big contributor to falls,” says Klassen. He recommends waterproof fixtures and accessible controls. Or you could use motion-activated lights, so when someone enters the shower the light automatically turns on.

Install a handheld shower

“One that’s on a sliding arm makes it fully adjustable to meet any person’s needs,” says Klassen. You may be able to change out an existing wall-mounted shower head with a sliding arm handheld shower.

A fixed shower head is optional

Include one in addition to a handheld shower if you’d like the shower to have multiple ways to bathe.

Controls should be accessible

“Locate them by the door, not across the shower,” says Klassen. That way, the person showering can turn on the water without being in the shower stream.

Grab bars are essential

Klassen’s clients understand importance of grab bars, “‘But most say, ‘We don’t want our bathroom to look like a hospital’s,’ ” he says.

To avoid that look, he recommends products that serve dual purposes, like a soap dish/grab bar or shampoo shelf/grab bar. If you’re adding grab bars to an existing bathroom, secure them to studs.

In a new or remodeled bathroom, Klassen recommends lining the walls with plywood to gain flexibility for grab bar location. “So if a homeowner says I want a grab bar right here — wherever that might be — we can put it in,” Klassen says.

Add a seat

Klassen prefers a flip-down seat attached to the wall. “It can be folded up to open up the space in the shower, but it’s there if someone needs it,” Klassen says.

Accessible Shower Kits

To add an accessible shower without taking on a full-blown remodel, consider installing an accessible shower kit. These are typically modular designs so you can get it into your bathroom.

Look for a kit with seating, grab bars, shelves for soap and shampoo, a handheld shower, a low threshold that’s wheelchair accessible and a nonslip surface on the floor.

Kathleen Childers
Kathleen Childers, a Minnesota-based writer, covers topics about home and life for a variety of clients.