How To Make a Bathroom Accessible for Anyone

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Create a safe, accessible bathroom that's also stylish. Here's how.

Sometimes making a bathroom accessible is a necessity. But more and more, it’s becoming a choice that reflects a desire to be prepared.

For what, exactly? You might be injured or endure a major health crisis in the future. An elderly parent may move in with you. You might want to ensure you can age in your home. Or maybe you want to make your house more appealing when you sell it.

So what does it mean to make a bathroom accessible? Three accessibility experts share their experience and suggestions.

Accessible Bathrooms: Where To Start

If you or a family member works with an occupational therapist (OT), start the transformation by talking with that person. “This helps me understand what the client needs,” says Andrea Hysmith, founder and owner of ASH Interiors and Design in Ellicott City, Maryland.

The OT can discuss specifics, like where to put grab bars, how the shower should function and so on.

All of our experts recommend consulting with designers and contractors who specialize in accessibility. Think about it: A designer with this expertise knows best practices for accessibility, as well as up-to-date design concepts and products. That person could save you time and money while creating a bathroom that functions perfectly for the entire family.

You can also research tips and best practices yourself. “The National Kitchen and Bath Association has guidelines,” says Sarabeth Asaff South, a home improvement consultant in Derry, New Hampshire who works with Fixr.com. “NKBA Kitchen and Bathroom Planning Guidelines with Access Standards” costs $11.

Hysmith recommends the free resources at the National Institute on Aging (NIH).

How many accessible changes you can make depends on the size of the bathroom, whether you’re planning a total remodel or just some improvements, and your budget.

Required Dimensions for an Accessible Bathroom

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has specific requirements for commercial bathrooms to be considered compliant. ADA compliance isn’t required for homes, but it’s the standard designers and contractors use to create what’s often called accessible or universal design.

“Universal design is a great thing,” says South. “It’s good for all people, including seniors who are aging in place.”

For a bathroom, the ADA requirements include:

  • Room to maneuver: A 60-in.-dia. unobstructed clear space so a wheelchair can rotate.
  • Entry door: “The door to the bathroom must be wide enough to admit a wheelchair,” says South. That means a minimum of 42-in. wide and no more than a 1/2-in.-high threshold.
  • Toilet: The space for the toilet should have at least 15 inches from the center of the bowl to a wall or other object, says Hysmith. More space is even better. “ADA calls for the toilet height to be a minimum of 17 inches from the floor to the seat area, not including the seat,” says South.
  • Grab bars: They should be installed 42-in. high on the side of the toilet and 36-in. high on the rear wall. Grab bars aren’t specified by ADA for a shower or tub, so where you put them is up to you. “Location is specific to the individual’s needs,” says Paul Klassen, founder and CEO of Pinnacle Group Renovations in Calgary, Alberta. “But generally, think about your path into the shower (or tub) and where grab bars are needed. Inside the shower, have a stabilizing bar you can grab onto.”
  • Clearance space: The bathroom should have a 60-in.-dia. open space to let a wheelchair turn or an aide provide assistance without hitting obstructions.

Key Elements of an Accessible Bathroom

  • Secure grab bars: Klassen stresses the importance of proper grab bar installation. “Grab bars should be attached to wall studs or other secure material,” he says.
  • Unobtrusive entry doors: Accessible bathroom doors typically swing out rather than into the bathroom, to maximize access and to prevent encroaching on the 60-in.-diameter open space required.
  • Easy-to-use faucets: “These should have lever handles instead of knobs, so they’re easier to turn on with one hand or without grasping,” says South.
  • Wide shower entry: ADA guidelines require the entry into the shower be at least 36 inches wide, but make it big enough to accommodate the person’s needs. “The entry width can vary because wheelchairs vary in size,” Klassen says.
  • Handheld shower: “One that’s on a sliding arm makes it fully adjustable to meet any person’s need,” says Klassen. To upgrade an existing shower, change out a wall-mounted showerhead with a sliding-arm handheld.
  • Seating: Klassen prefers a shower seat attached to the wall that can be flipped down and folded up, creating more space when not in use.
  • Proper lighting: “Lack of adequate light is a big contributor to falls,” says Klassen. Hysmith recommends recessed bathroom lights in the ceiling, along with overhead lights or wall sconces by the mirror. In the shower, Klassen suggests waterproof recessed lights. “You can automate it so that when someone gets into the shower, the light comes on,” he says.

Choosing Accessible Bathroom Fixtures

  • Toilet: Most manufacturers sell what’s referred to as comfort-height or chair-height toilets. They run from 16-1/2-inches to 18 inches from the floor to the top of the bowl’s rim. (Standard toilets are typically 14-1/2-inches high.)
  • Shower and/or bathtub: “Install ADA-standard tubs — they open and fill when you’re inside and seated (called walk-in tubs),” South says. For the shower, “you want at least 48 inches square, and preferably larger.” It should be a low-curb or no-curb entry to allow wheelchair access and eliminate a tripping hazard. You can custom build a shower or purchase a shower kit.
  • Sink/vanity: It should be placed so the top is 34 inches above the floor, with clearance beneath for a wheelchair. Typically wall-mounted, the sink should not be within the 60-inch clearance space in the bathroom, and should be clear of the bathroom door when it’s opened.
  • Grab bars: Look for grab bars that, well, don’t look like grab bars. Luckily, you have lots of options that make a design statement. Many serve dual purposes, as a grab bar and toilet paper holder, or a soap or shampoo shelf.

How To Pay for Bathroom Accessibility Improvements

Grants available from the federal government, state governments (check with your state’s housing and finance agencies) and private organizations can help cover the costs of accessibility improvements. Or you could take out a low-cost loan through a federal agency like the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Contact disability advocacy groups in your area for additional help.

Do Bathroom Accessibility Improvements Need an Inspection?

“Typically, an inspector isn’t looking for accessibility compliance in a home,” Hysmith says. But other general construction or remodeling, like structural, plumbing or electrical changes, will need to be inspected by a local building code official.

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