In July of 1990, the United States Congress enacted a civil rights bill called “The Americans with Disabilities Act” (“ADA” for short). Similar to other civil rights legislation, it protects Americans with disabilities from any kind of discrimination, most crucially the unintended bathroom facility discrimination physically disabled people had to deal with every day.
To understand why this legislation was passed, try to imagine not having the use of your legs. You come to a toilet stall that is not big enough for your wheelchair. You are only a few feet away from your destination but faced with a terrible option. To get to the toilet, you have to abandon your wheelchair to outside of the stall where it can be stolen, then crawl on the floor, lift yourself onto the toilet, use the toilet, then crawl on the floor again back to your wheelchair that will hopefully still be there. Given this terrible scenario people were facing on a daily basis it is easy to see why the bill was passed with bi-partisan support.
Though the ADA was a great legislative achievement, it hasn’t fixed every restroom accessibility problem in every public place. The ADA changed how restrooms would be built after 1990. Restrooms built before that point would not have to change if it was not “readily achievable”. This meant that many of the restrooms that were inaccessible to those with disabilities would stay as they were. Many ‘grandfathered’ restrooms are still around today and creating uncomfortable challenges for millions of people.
Fortunately this is an issue that can often be addressed cost effectively. Here are some examples of these types of pre-ADA challenges and how they might be solved.
An Easy Fix
In this case the toilet stall is wide enough but the door itself requires a narrow turn that isn’t suited for wheelchair use. The fix is very simple; it only requires that the door be adjusted for easy access that doesn’t require a pinched turn. By doing this, the restroom is completely brought up to ADA standards as shown in the floor plan below.
The floor plan also shows a similar fix that can be done on the women’s side to bring it within inches of compliance. Even though it is not compliant it would still result in a much more favorable situation for disabled visitors.
A Too Narrow Turn
ADA requires having a bathroom entry that is operable for wheelchairs. In this case, the privacy guard for the front door is VERY close and requires a sharp turn to enter. This problem would be solved by extending the concrete slab directly out from the front door and moving the privacy partition in front of the door further away from the building.
Unfortunately, not all such cases of meeting ADA are so simple.
Too Narrow Restroom
In this example, we have a masonry restroom that is too narrow to park a wheelchair beside the toilet. Worse yet, the structure is not an easily removed metal stall but a brick wall. For this to be made ADA it would require a difficult and expensive renovation to the whole restroom. In many cases like these it’s more or less unsalvageable for ADA, requiring an entirely new restroom building to be placed in the area.
However, in this dreaded scenario there is a workaround. You could install a free-standing unisex single flush restroom next to it. All the utilities are right there.* If you did this, you should provide the same type of fixtures as the main restroom (i.e. flush toilet, sink, and urinal).
Not only does a free-standing unisex single flush restroom instantly make your situation ADA compliant, but it would also provide additional benefits such as:
- You have added more capacity to the restroom facility.
- You have provided a “family” restroom for those who may need assistance from someone of the opposite sex such as father-daughter, mother-son, caretaker-patient, etc.
- You help accomplish potty-parity by effectively adding another stall for women or men depending on which side is in greater demand.
- You can reduce maintenance costs during the slow times of the year because you can close down the large restroom and leave the small one open.
In summary: For new facilities, they must fully meet the requirements of the ADA. For older facilities, you need to have a plan for doing the best you can. Sometimes it’s a simple fix, and other times you may unfortunately need an entirely new building. In many such cases, adding a free standing single unisex restroom building next to it could be a money saving work-around to satisfy ADA.