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June 2003

Add an Accessible Family Restroom

Women in wheelchair washing hands.

Accessible restrooms are crucial to visitors with disabilities who need assistance. They allow people with disabilities to visit museums, parks, theaters, and libraries. In other words, to fully participate in the life of a community. Betty Davidson, exhibit designer at the Museum of Science, Boston, summed it up this way: "They may not come to use our restrooms, but if they can't, they won't come again." (See ADA Standard 4.22)

Family, unisex, or single-user restrooms are no substitute for accessible men's and women's restrooms, but they offer flexibility: males or females can use them, and one or more individuals, of the same or opposite sex, can use them. Examples are a caregiver and child, and a person with a disability, alone or with assistance.

Illustration of single-sex restroom.

What makes a single-user restroom accessible? The ADA requirements are likely to overwhelm those of us who are not ADA professionals. But look again. You will see that the guidelines are really asking us to pay attention to what amounts to restroom basics: readable signage; easy to open doors; floor surfaces that are clear, level, and barrier free; enough space to get to things and turn around; doors that are easy to lock and unlock; and faucets, sinks, coat hooks, trash receptacles, and soap, paper towel, and toilet paper dispensers within easy reach. The illustration on the right shows minimum dimensions for a single-sex restroom. Note the floor space between toilet and lavatory. It allows someone to transfer from wheelchair to toilet either from the front or from the side.

You can learn firsthand why inches matter in restrooms by asking someone who uses a wheelchair to take you on a "tour" of one of your accessible restrooms. Print out the table below as an additional reference. Although not complete, it lays out some of the basics to pay attention to. Finally, don't forget to take a measuring tape with you and paper and pencil. You will want to take some notes as well as write down questions to ask an ADA technical assistance expert.

Coat hooks, paper towel and soap dispensers

All those items someone needs to reach place no higher than 48 inches above the floor (44 inches recommended). Some designs are easier to use than others.

Door hardware and faucet controls

Door and faucet controls need to be operable with one hand and not require tight grasping, pinching or twisting of the wrist to operate.

Grab bars

Two grab bars are required: one behind the toilet and one on the side wall nearest the toilet. Firmly attached and installed at same heights between 33 inches and 36 inches above the floor, they help someone transfer from wheelchair to toilet. Minimum bar lengths are 36 inches behind toilet and 42 inches on side wall.


Top of toilet seat should be between 17 and 19 inches from the floor. If height is 17, install grab bars 33 inches above the floor; if 19 inches, install grab bars at maximum height of 36 inches.

Toilet paper dispenser

Mount below side grab bar at least 19 inches above the floor and within easy reach.


Height, knee space, and reach all come into play here.


Mount so that bottom edge of the reflecting surface is 40 inches above the floor or lower.

Pipes under accessible sink

Wheelchair users roll under sinks. Insulate the pipes or use a protective panel to prevent burns.


Mount sign on wall adjacent to the latch side of the door. (Placing sign on the door puts person reading it in vulnerable situation.) Make centerline 60 inches above floor. Use matte finish, contrasting colors, raised characters and Braille.

Sign for accessible family restroom.

Trash receptacles

If mounted or built-in, recommended disposal height is 44 inches maximum above the floor. If moveable, find a convenient location not in anyone's way and mark the spot to remind maintenance crew.

Unisex/family restrooms can also provide such amenities as two toilets, one for adults and one for children, a cot, and changing table. But if you add any of these features, make sure you understand and follow the requirements for adequate floor space.

Check your changing table. If you have a changing table in your accessible restroom, do the following. Put the table in the open position, step outside, and then open the door. When changing tables are left down by the previous user, the clear floor space and the turning space available to a wheelchair user are much reduced. Measure how much clear space remains when the table is down. The minimum requirements are 30 inches by 48 inches. Next, test how easily the device can be folded. Can you do this easily from a seated position? Now that the table is folded, can you reach the handle from a seated position? (Sometimes a loop can be added to the handle to make reach easier). When folded, does the table extend more than four inches from the wall? If it does, it may be considered a protruding object. And finally, open the table once more. If the top is over 38 inches, it is too high for most wheelchair users (between 36 inches and 38 inches is preferred).

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National Science Foundation LogoAccessible Practices EXCHANGE is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grants No. ESI-9814917 and HRD 9906095. Opinions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and presenters and not necessarily those of the National Science Foundation. Blue Line ASTC is not responsible for the enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The information presented here is intended solely as informal guidance, and is neither a determination of your legal rights or responsibilities under the ADA, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. This web site is not intended to offer legal, architectural, engineering, or similar professional advice. You should refer specific questions to an attorney, and/or national, state, and local ADA authorities. Association of Science Technology Centers Logo Copyright 2006 by the Association of Science-Technology Centers Incorporated. All rights reserved.