How to Avoid Design Mistakes for ADA Compliant Restrooms

June 19, 2018

The most common space for ADA compliance problems are in public restrooms. Keeping regulations in mind—particularly those tricky spots that can be easily botched—creates a useful space for every end user.

How many people can use the spaces you're designing? It's easy to overlook people with disabilities during the design process, but it's crucial to get accessibility right. Leaving people out of using a space—for example, by creating entryways that are too narrow or using furniture placement that a wheelchair can't maneuver around—means that you're not really designing for everyone.

On top of that, accessibility is the law. You won't face the consequences of inaccessible spaces directly, but your clients will. Designing a space that results in an ADA lawsuit for your client will ultimately damage your reputation as an interior designer.

ADA has no variance for measurements that are even a half-inch off the requirement and no cure period to fix it after the fact, so if the original design or its execution are faulty, your client will pay the price in court if a guest with a disability discovers they can't use the space.

Accessibility is especially tough to get right when it comes to restrooms—small spaces with big objectives to acheive. 

Sister publication posted the following article about the common ADA mistakes made in bathrooms (adjustments made relevant to designers):

To understand why ADA compliance in restrooms is such a worrisome issue, put yourself in the end user’s shoes. A wheelchair user might be able to find a work-around for a ramp that’s a little too steep—it's annoying to have to ask a stranger for help, but it's doable. Not being able to reach a toilet because you use a mobility aid is another hurdle altogether.

“When a person is denied access to use the restroom, you are at a much greater risk of that person not only being denied access, but being thoroughly ticked off,” said David Meihls, principal consultant for ADA Consultants of Indiana. “Let’s say he ends up having an accident and has to go home, take a shower, change his clothes—all of that stuff. There’s a pretty good chance he’s going to sue, whereas if someone just had to help him get up a curb ramp, that’s not as big a deal. I think that’s why restrooms are such a hot-button issue.”

Your clients and their guests are relying on you to get this right the first time, so watch out for these common mistakes and misconceptions.

5 Common ADA Restroom Design Mistakes

Certain ADA compliance issues seem to crop up more frequently than others, but it’s important to note that the following is not an exhaustive list. Your best bet is to engage a colleague, architect or consultant who specializes in ADA to assist with design from the beginning.

Find all of the ADA compliance requirements at 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design at

These five issues pop up in more designs than not—do they appear in any of your design plans?

1) Mirror height: “Almost always, the mirror will be more than 40 inches above the floor. You have to be a really tall person in a wheelchair to see yourself in a mirror if it’s more than 40 inches high,” explained Meihls. “Often it’s 10 to 18 inches too high, and it’s clear that they have not thought about a person in a wheelchair.”

2) Grab bars: All bars must also have at least an inch and a half of clear space in every direction and it’s common for a toilet paper dispenser to be installed too close, Meihls added.

3) Toilet stalls: Toilets must be located within 16-18 inches from the centerline of the wall, Meihls said. More or less than that makes maneuvering difficult. Toilet flush levers are also supposed to be installed on the open side of the stall so that the user doesn’t have to reach over the toilet, he added. However, if your toilet is violating this rule, you may be able to just replace the tank rather than the entire unit.

4) Sinks: The 1991 requirements allowed the sink to butt into the maneuvering space required for the toilet, but the 2010 update prohibits that, so older buildings often run into trouble. “The toilet now has to be within a 60-inch clear space and the sink must be installed beyond that area,” said Meihls. 

Sinks are frequently too tall as well, especially base cabinet models. Meihls said, “Sinks are often installed higher than 34 inches. Standard base cabinets are 36-inches high – you have to special order to get one that’s 34 inches high, so that’s a common problem.”

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5) Doors: Non-compliant bathrooms will sometimes have the door installed improperly so that it swings into the bathroom instead of outward. Meihls stated, “When you do that, you take away the turning clearance, so a person in a wheelchair can’t shut the door. Door closers often require more than five pounds of force to open, and the last thing you need if you’re in a hurry to get there is to be hindered by a door that’s too heavy to open.”

Frequent ADA Compliance Misconceptions

Making assumptions can also spell trouble for your client not just in restrooms, but in the rest of the building, too. In particular, assuming that a person with a disability just won’t use a certain space is guaranteed to cause problems later – even if the facility is literally on top of a mountain.

“There was a lawsuit in the late ‘90s involving a group of about 10 people on the Appalachian Trail,” noted Meihls. “This is a federally-funded trail and one of the people in the group was in a wheelchair. They were about 10,000 feet up and everyone had to use the bathroom, and the only bathroom was this toilet mounted on a base that was just sitting out in the open.

"Everyone could use it except for the guy in the wheelchair, who then sued the federal government over it. They came back and said, ‘Even if we’re installing toilets at 10,000 feet, we can’t assume that a person in a wheelchair isn’t going to make this climb’ because he did. If you service the public, no matter what your business is, you have to include people with disabilities.”

Spaces that are normally closed to non-members, like churches, can also run into trouble here, Meihls added. If you’re designing a place of worship, it is only exempt from ADA regulations if it doesn’t allow non-members to use the space, so make sure you're clear on that point before the project starts.

However, many have gathering spaces that anyone can rent for weddings, graduations, and other events, which means they must abide by ADA regulations. Meihls suggests consulting the Department of Justice’s A Primer for Small Business at to understand some of the basics of accessibility, ADA compliance, and when your client does and doesn’t have to comply.

Read more on this topic from the #1 article on The ADA Compliant Restroom

Design is about knocking down barriers and creating experiences. Keep your client happy and make sure every user can experience the space with a thoughtful design strategy that accounts for people with disabilities.

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About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with a special emphasis on covering facilities. She aims to deliver practical, actionable content for her readers.

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