Handicap Restrooms – What Really Makes Them Accessible And Why Most Fail

Illustrated image with pink, blue, and yellow bold background with a woman of color in a wheelchair, a white woman in a wheelchair, a man with an amputated leg on crutches, a non specific gendered person with a service dog, and a bearded man in a wheelchair.

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I used to think that getting over the stigma of becoming a wheelchair user was my biggest challenge. But, boy, was I wrong!

As it turns out, one of my toughest battles is accessing the handicap stall in public restrooms!

Here we are in 2021, and there is still new business construction that doesn’t consider the needs of the disabled in their planning. There truly is no excuse for it.

So what really makes a public restroom accessible? As a disabled person who has used a wheelchair and rollator since 2005 and will most likely need one for the rest of their life, I have a lot to say.

Illustrated image with blue background and a blonde plus size woman sitting in a wheelchair wearing a purple sweater, black shirt, green and purple sweat pants, and purple shoes. Hot pink caption bubble outlined in yellow saying What good is a handicap stall if my wheelchair cannot access it?

Disclaimer: This blog post contains affiliate links. I may earn a small commission to fund my coffee drinking habit if you use these links to make a purchase. You will not be charged extra, and you’ll keep me supplied with caffeine. It’s a win for everyone. I am not a medical professional, and nothing stated in this article should be mistaken for medical advice.

What I Expect A Handicap Restroom To Provide

Handicap restrooms should provide more than space to use a toilet. They should also allow a disabled patron the ability to access it without assistance!

Note that I said access and not use. That is because using a toilet independently is a different issue from accessing it. There are some people who, no matter how well a stall is designed, will need assistance. However, even if they need assistance using the toilet, it is no good if they and their caregiver struggle to access it. With that said, here is what this wheelchair user expects from public restrooms.

Entry Way

  • Easy entrance – Wide-open entryways or doors that open electronically or that are lightweight. Having to flag someone down to open the door is not a form of accessibility.
  • Doorways that are not at the landing of a ramp. Have you ever tried opening a door from a wheelchair while on a ramp? It is dangerous and shows no thought or concern for the disabled.
  • Doorways that aren’t located in a tight corner making it impossible to enter straight through. (Thank your lucky stars if you haven’t experienced the struggle of trying to enter a standard doorway while having to hold back a heavy door from a tight corner!)
  • Room for two-way wheelchair traffic – Most restrooms are built with room for two-way foot traffic. In this case, when the wheelchair enters, it takes up all the space, and no one can pass.

The Disabled Diva at Disneyland on her pink power wheelchair. She is a 50 something year old white female with long, curly, blonde hair. Behind her is Tomorrowland and Space Mountain. She is wearing black shorts, a black tank top, a royal blue kimono, Minnie Mouse Main Attraction Space Mountain Ears, and a Disneyland facemask. Hanging from her wheelchair is a black Disney character embossed Dooney and Burke handbag and Mickey Mouse shaped hand sanitizer.

Handwashing Station And Stall Access

  • There should be at least one accessible sink. If there is only room for one sink, it, along with the soap and drying towels, needs to be accessible to wheelchair users.
  • The accessible handwashing station should be easy to access and should not be blocked by baby changing stations or anything else.
  • Accessible stalls should be the first in a row of stalls. It is easier and less stressful for a wheelchair to wait in the open area of the restroom rather than down a walkway where no matter where we wait, we are in the way of people exiting standard stalls.

The Accessible Stall

  • Wide door
  • Safety bars
  • Toilet paper within reach (if we have to lean forward it is too far)
  • A sink – Even if there is an accessible sink in the handwashing area, one in the stall would be appreciated so that when the restroom is full, the wheelchair user doesn’t have to block much-needed floorspace for others.
  • An emergency cord

Current Accessible Restroom Codes

When choosing which accessible elements to provide, the ADA Standards for Accessibility recommends giving the following priority in the order listed below.

  • An accessible entrance
  • An accessible route to the altered area
  • At least one accessible restroom for each sex or a single unisex restroom
  • Accessible telephones
  • Accessible drinking fountains
  • When possible, additional accessible elements such as parking, storage, and alarms.

Most public restrooms that I have frequented only provide an accessible stall and fail to provide an accessible route or entrance to the stall. I believe this happens because of all of the different exceptions regarding how much it will cost to make something accessible. Read the standards for yourself and see if you can see how public buildings can limit the number of accessible options they provide regarding wheelchair access.

It also occurs because the accessible entrances and routes outlined by the ADA are only for entering the building, not the restroom.

Another issue is with the standard measurements for wheelchair accessibility. For example, the ADA makes allowance in the measurement for knee and toe space. Still, they fail to include arm/elbow space for manual wheelchair users or a companion/caregiver who pushes the wheelchair.

Again, what good is an accessible stall if a wheelchair cannot access it?

Wheelchair restroom accessibility infographic.
When a public or business restroom provides an unobstructed path and the ability to enter it independently, wheelchair users are more apt to:
*Come back with friends
*Spend more money
*Experience less bladder and bowel issues
Find out how most fail to provide us the accessibility we really need.

What Happens When A Restroom Meets The Needs Of The Disabled

Raising handicap restroom standards is important for everyone, not just the disabled person. When a company provides easy access to a restroom that is wheelchair accessible, they become somewhere I will return and gladly support with my business. Not having to worry about asking for assistance or getting stuck behind a heavy door makes me want to spend more time and money at that establishment.

I have eaten at many restaurants that fabulously provided easy entrance to the building and wide accessible routes to a table but completely failed at providing access to their restroom. Most have narrow restroom entryways and/or no room for a wheelchair to turn once inside to access the accessible stall.

There is a reason I choose to go to Disneyland often versus visiting a variety of theme parks or entertainment venues. And that is because Disney theme parks are some of the most accessible places around. However, with that said, they still have some room for improvement.

In fact, Disneyland is more accessible than the doctor offices and hospitals covered by my healthcare plan. Even in buildings that were built within the past 10 years! Their restrooms in the public area have heavy doors, the hallways leading to exam rooms are cluttered with large tech machines that do not fit in the rooms themselves, and there is little to no space for a wheelchair in the examination rooms.

Why does any of this matter?
Because when a building meets a wheelchair users needs, we feel:

  • Welcome
  • Independent
  • Included
  • Wanted
  • Valued

Going where I know I can easily access a restroom makes me:

  • Want to spend more time there
  • Want to spend more money
  • Desire a return visit

Access to a restroom also affects my health. Having to hold “it” can lead to bladder and bowel infections.

Your Turn

I want to hear from you!
What are some restroom accessibility issues that you have encountered?
How do you feel handicap restroom codes could be improved?

Handicap Restrooms. What really makes them wheelchair accessible and why most fail!

What good is a handicap stall if my wheelchair cannot access it?

What good is a handicap stall if my wheelchair cannot access it?

Handicap Restrooms. What really makes them accessible and why most do not really provide wheelchair accessibility.

To roll out the red carpet to wheelchair users, businesses along with medical and government facilities need to make sure we can enter the restroom, not just the stall. Listen in or read more about the lack of accessibility and what needs to change.

What makes a restroom accessible and where many businesses, medical facilities, and government buildings fail to meet wheelchair accessibility needs.

To be wheelchair accessible, restrooms need more than a roomy stall. They need to allow the wheelchair user to enter the restroom independently.

Sources:

Published by Cynthia Covert

Diagnosed in 2001 with psoriasis, followed by fibromyalgia, psoriatic arthritis, endometriosis, and later a botched hysterectomy turned her world upside down. Cynthia shares her experience, advice, and tips for how to make life with chronic pain easier and less painful.

4 thoughts on “Handicap Restrooms – What Really Makes Them Accessible And Why Most Fail

  1. These are some fantastic points, but it’s such a shame that in this day and age, way too many places aren’t accessible. More than that, they seem to neglect some really obvious things. Like you say, the stall of a restroom might be okay, but not the entrance to it. I’d also say that very, very few bathrooms are stoma-friendly if you need to change your bag. I say very few, I can’t even think of a single one I’ve been in that has been! It’s fab though that Disneyland is on the ball with accessibility. As it should be given how many millions visit each year, from all around the world, all different ages and abilities and needs and so on. Well done, Disney! Super post, Cynthia.

    Caz xx

  2. It’s 2021 and disabled people are still having to fight for what’s right. Finding an accessible toilet should be simple, but it’s far from it. People with disabilities are at the back of the queue when it comes to planning new builds and in older buildings, accessibility is often a joke.

    1. It is just awful. The worst is visiting a new place and realizing upon arrival that I am not going to be able to access the restroom. As much as I love experiencing new places, lack of access is ruining it for me.

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