The Accessible Bathroom
Part I – Planning

Note: The "Accessible Bathroom" series originally appeared on a blog page and was never completed. Several elements of design have not been discussed such as fixtures, electrical and cabinetry. It is not known if the series will ever be completed. However, if you have a specific question relating to the topic here, feel free to contact us with your question.

Introduction — The "Before" Design

In a series of articles, I will discuss how I remodeled my bathroom to be more accessible. The reality is that most designers know very little about accessible design. Most will argue this point until they realize that ADA compliance does not equate to accessible design for you. In many situations, it may not even come close. This is the difference between an ADA compliant design and an accessible one. In the series, I will explain why I did chose approaches to accessibility and hopefully give you some background in developing your own design or modifications. When done well, accessible design need not look of the sterile institutional look that is rampant in most of what you've seen in the past. In fact, much of it can increase the value of your home and be tax deductible as a medical expense!

Bathroom Floor Plan
Bathroom View #1
Bathroom View #2

This is the original design of my master bathroom. It was sooo boring that one ran the risk of falling asleep while looking at it. Wasted space and awkward placement of items in the room make it a poor design even for the most able bodied person. You can click on the images for a larger view. They are computer renderings of the original. I procrastinated in taking “before” pictures until far into the remodel. The computer images closely approximate the original.

The bathroom door was the most unfriendly element of the design. The door couldn't be completely opened because of the towel bar. Also, one had to open the door as far as possible to get to the toilet or shower. In a wheelchair, this made for fun navigation for getting around the door.

The shower had sliding glass doors with a lip that one had to step over to enter. Add to this that the floor of the shower as well as the entire bathroom was tiled in non-wet rated glazed tile. This means that when it got wet, it became extremely slippery. A hazard for the most able bodied but a death wish for someone with a disability.

There are numerous other problems with the design even for the able bodied. To make it accessible to me would require the bathroom to be gutted. The positive of this is that some features that if installed alone would have been costly because of the related work required for installation. Because of the extent of remodeling that would be required, access to plumbing, electrical and structural would be significantly easier and less expensive. Or more correctly stated, if installed separately.

In my situation, my disability slowly progressed over time. This allowed me to carefully consider different approaches to making a design both functional and esthetically pleasing. Of course, I did make mistakes and would have done things differently if I had to do them again but, my hope is that my experiences and thoughts will help you make smarter choices.

Getting Started

The key to an accessible design for you is to become involved with the design process as much as possible. If you are having a new home built, tour the model home and, if possible review the floor plans to see how you can improve accessibility for you. New construction, even with production homes, is easier and significantly less expensive to adapt before building starts than during a remodel. Most builders are more than happy to adapt a design to accommodate your needs and, frequently, with minimal cost impact. Regardless of new construction or a remodel, you will need to become involved with the design.

It is likely that you will hire people to perform the work. There are countless resources on the web for selecting a contractor (designer, architect, etc. as appropriate for your situation) to insure quality work. In my case, I used a friend's friend, a general contractor – big mistake, it was a nightmare that could fill volumes. I knew better to shop around, check references, etc., and the one time I didn't, I got inducted into the contractor hell experience club! However, from that experience, I did learn enough to play the role of general contractor when I remodel my other bathroom as well as other home projects. In short, select professionals that you can work with and check references. You can be involved in the actual construction any degree you want but, it is your involvement with the design that is critical to the bathroom being accessible to you.

Start a Wish List

Start a list of features you want. Don't worry about cost or practicality, it is a wish list! Have fun with it. Also, make a list of items that dislike about the current bathroom. You'll find that in noting what you don't like, you'll think of things you wish you had. In some cases, items on your wish list will not significantly add to the cost of the project. It is important not to try to determine a solution to all you wishes because a better and less expensive solution may exist. Regardless of how expensive, impractical or silly you think a wish is, add it to the list.

From the silly standpoint of my own list – Glow-in-the-dark grout for the floor tile. Yes, it's possible and you can buy the chemicals that are intended to be added to paint or grout. It almost made it but cost overruns nixed it in the end. What's your silly want?

My list started out long before I became disabled. I, more than once, pulled a towel bar out of the wall. Not a hard thing to do, they're just set into place with plaster. I repeatedly said that I wanted to make all towel bars, grab bars regardless where they were in the room. It was the first item on my list – towel bars - all grab bars that could be used as a grab bar or towel bar! I'll discuss more about grab bars later and how I determined placement.

My Wish List started something like the below:

  • Grab bars, lots of them!
  • Bidet
  • Shower light
  • Vent fan
  • Change door swing
  • Accessible electrical outlets and more of them
  • Non-slip flooring

My Hate List which help create items for the wish list looked something like:

  • Door swing
  • Medicine chest (the common wall mounted variety)
  • Toilet paper dispenser location
  • Only one electrical outlet and located out of reach from a wheelchair
  • Very slippery floor when wet
  • Cabinets not as accessible as I wanted (more on this later)

My actual lists were much longer and yours may be as well. In creating your lists, also consider items that would improve the design apart from accessibility considerations. In my case, adding a vent fan and light in the shower area were on my list. You should review your list many times. It will continue to evolve as you further yourself into the design process and actual construction.