Toilets: We all need them

Photo shows a public washroom with an accessible toilet, paper towel station and sink. The toilet has a grab bar beside it as well as a wall mounted sensor for flushing. The private washroom has a contemporary, stylish tile pattern that covers every wall from floor to ceiling.

Written by Melinda Vaz and edited by Jessica Gomez-Jones

Creating accessible places and spaces is crucial to the development of an inclusive world. From landscape architecture to interior design and everything in between, design experts must be engaging the lived experience of people with disabilities to continually improve the impact of the spaces we design on the daily lives of the people using them. At GGA, our Rick Hansen Certified Interior Designer, Melinda Vaz is specialized in offering streamlined and thorough approaches to accessible interior design for architecture projects across all sectors. While her expertise spans many nuanced design spaces, today we’re honing in on one key location in any public space: the restroom. Below we address 11 aspects of accessible washroom design that are often overlooked but are crucial to maintaining safety, security and dignity for all users.

Two images of the accessible washrooms at Brookfield Residential YMCA in Calgary that display signage indicating gender and accessibility. The top image shows a sign indicating a universal washroom and the bottom image shows a sign indicating it's men's washroom with accessible features. You can see into the men's washroom and get a glimpse of some of the stalls.
Above: Signs with the universal symbol of accessibility indicating a universal washroom (top) and a men’s washroom with accessibility stalls/features (bottom) at Brookfield Residential YMCA.

1. Automatic door opening mechanisms

Why? For most occupancy groups, every door that provides a barrier-free path of travel through a barrier-free entrance requires an automatic door operator—especially entrances to public-use washrooms. Without automatic door openers some people won’t be able to use them at all as their ease of entry and egress into a vital space is compromised.

Best practice: Consider the use of a “doorless” privacy wall or specialized configuration of entrance vestibules at the entrance of restrooms to avoid the need for doors and power door operators. The “doorless” concept provides visual screening to prevent people from looking into the restroom from the outside. As a bonus, eliminating restroom doors can improve hygiene by eliminating the spread of germs and disease on door handles.

2. Accessible signage & mounting heights for people with vision impairments

Why? Signage not only directs people to the different areas of a facility but also guides them on the easiest, quickest pathway to get there. Appropriate signage is critical in public restrooms for maintaining traffic and avoiding urgency for all visitors.

Best Practice: Signage should include the universal symbol of access, graphics and tactile signage specifications used to identify washrooms. Placement for these signs is also really important. If a door is present, ensure the sign is mounted on the wall on the latch side of the entrance, not on the door itself; this is intended to reduce the collision hazard for people with vision impairments who rely on tactile signage.

3. Wheelchair turning space & maneuvering

Why? When it comes to accessible washroom design, size matters, and getting into a small space in a wheelchair is only half the battle. In a poorly spatially allocated washroom wheelchair users are unable to turn around and/or exit restrictive spaces, adding to the frustration and the amount of effort. Clear space is required for wheelchair users to turn and position themselves adjacent to the toilet to facilitate a seamless transfer from one seat to the other safely.

Best practice: Provide a larger clear turning diameter of 1700mm or greater inside the washroom circulation area to accommodate larger mobility aids like scooters.

Left: Architectural diagrams produced by GGA-Architecture showing the maneuvering radius needed in accessible washrooms for wheelchair users who require more space to safely enter, use and exit the restroom.
Right: An accessible washroom design in Calgary downtown’s
the Ampersand that features ample space for maneuvering, washroom accessories conveniently placed below the grab bar as well as an automatic toilet flushes that is unimpeded by the toilet seat.

4. Tankless toilets with backrests or support

Why? A toilet lid isn’t just a toilet lid. For those with compromised core strength or limited balance a toilet lid or a toilet tank serves as a backrest to lean against, helping to stabilize and support washroom users. Without this support, there is an increased risk of injury—making an otherwise regular trip to the washroom a taxing balancing act.

Best Practice: Provide back support where there is no seat cover, lid or tank. Rear grab bars should also be mounted above the tank for users to maneuver to and from the toilet with ease of effort.

5. Washroom accessory placement

Why? If not placed correctly, washroom accessories often impede the use of grab bars in washroom spaces. Grab bars are imperative for accessible washroom design. If toilet paper dispensers and sanitary disposals are in the way, it’s difficult if not impossible to use them.

Best Practice: Ensure the toilet paper dispenser is mounted on the side wall, typically below the grab bar and within comfortable reach from a sitting position (typically in line with the front edge of the toilet). Forcing users to reach up or in front of the toilet creates a significant falling hazard for most people with mobility and vision disabilities.

6. Automatic toilet flushers unimpeded by seats

Why? The whole point of a censored flush is to not touch the sensor, so why is it a battle to get at the sensor without having to touch the toilet seat to lower it? Often activating the sensor can be a feat—they’re either overly sensitive or do not work—as we have likely all experienced. Those with limited balance who have to move around within the stall to undress can often find overly sensitive automatic flushers as these can be activated quite easily.

Best Practice: Position toilet flushes above the toilet seat or on the transfer side of the toilet (the side opposite the wall), eliminating the need to reach over the toilet to flush. This reach creates an unnecessary risk, especially for people using wheelchairs, those who have mobility impairments, limited balance and/or low vision.

7. Accessible mirrors

Why? Addressing your appearance after a trip to the washroom is a quintessential human experience, ensuring nothing is tucked where it shouldn’t be and that you feel ready to exit this private safe space and re-enter a more public environment. The best accessible toilets have a mirror that can be viewed by people who are both standing and sitting. There should also be counter space provided as they could be needed for catheter equipment or other requirements.

Best practice: Angled mirrors are preferred to lower mirrors that are mounted above the lavatory. This allows a person who uses a wheelchair to visually scan themselves from head to floor. If an angled mirror is not provided, then, in addition to the mirror mounted above the lavatory, a wall-mounted full-length mirror should be provided. It’s a good idea to fit a shelf within easy reach too as people often need somewhere to place those essential bits and bobs when visiting.

8. Paper towel dispenser placement

Why? Pushing a wheelchair with wet hands to access a paper towel dispenser is counterintuitive—not only do hands become dirty again, but wet hands can also slip off the wheel which can cause injuries. Not having access to paper towels can also increase the chances of slipping and falling, especially for someone using walking aids or crutches.

Best Practice: Paper towel dispensers and waste receptacles should be within reach from the edge of the lavatory if mounted from a wall and accessible from a seated height to accommodate a range of users.

9. Coat hooks & shelves for personal items

Why? Coat hooks are regularly fitted high up on washroom stall doors to accommodate long coats, but this can be difficult for wheelchair users to reach. Nobody wants to put their clothing on the toilet floor and it can be frustrating to anyone with any disability—shoulder injuries, arthritis, MS or nerve damage for example.

Best practice: Beyond the coat hook mounted behind toilet partitions, an additional coat hook can be mounted on a side wall that can be reached from a seated position. A shelf located within a toilet stall that doesn’t obstruct the usage of any fixtures can provide a convenient place for personal items or medical aids.

Architectural diagram showing a large view of a locker room with washrooms. The washrooms are conveniently located in the middle to allow for easy access between the different rooms.
Above: Architectural diagram produced by GGA-Architecture showcasing the placement of accessible washrooms within a larger changeroom with the shortest accessible route to ensure that users can safely and efficiently use both spaces as needed.

10. Call buttons or power outlets near toilets

Why? Imagine you’re in a washroom and have fallen and can’t get up and your phone is in your purse hanging off the coat hook that you just can’t reach to call for help.

Best practice: Provide emergency call systems adjacent to each accessible toilet that can be reached from the toilet and the floor—the two places they are most likely to be needed in the event of a fall. There should also be a cancellation feature to turn off the alarm if it’s accidentally activated. Bonus if an AC outlet is provided adjacent to the toilet to accommodate adaptive devices (or at least has a spot roughed in for the outlet).

11. Universal washrooms

Why? Gender-neutral bathrooms provide a safe, private facility for transgender, genderqueer and gender non-conforming people, families with children and people with disabilities who may need assistance. Aside from providing the greatest flexibility, they also allow people to attend to their personal needs in privacy and with dignity.

Best Practice: Locate universal washrooms in the same vicinity as other washrooms along the shortest accessible route. In most cases, users should be able to access these facilities without a key or without having to ask for assistance.

While these suggestions are just a starting point guiding accessible washroom design, they do not encompass all accessibility considerations that should be addressed when designing a successfully inclusive and equitable washroom space. Building code requires minimum barrier-free design requirements, but these requirements do not portray the needs of someone’s reality of how they utilize the space. Designing with accessibility in mind is a key component in creating inclusive spaces that can be used by everyone safely—with dignity and independence


Just say Your opinion.

  • Warren

    7 months ago

    Great article!


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