Adapting your home to be more accessible to wheelchairs and safer for people who have difficulties with mobility is a big job. When redesigning your living spaces for accessibility, you might want to start in one of the most important and most frequently used rooms of your house — the bathroom.
Check Widths and Heights
Two of the first things you’ll need to adapt in your bathroom are the heights and widths of doors, shower stalls, sinks and shelves. For the bathroom’s amenities to be fully usable from a wheelchair, you’ll need to carefully measure spaces to be sure that the sink and mirrors are low enough to be easily reached, there’s enough extra room to turn the chair around, and that shelves for toiletries and other necessities are at the appropriate height.
Selecting a suitable bathroom vanity will help you plan the rest of the space efficiently. When choosing a vanity, make sure that the mirror hangs low enough for a seated person to view well, that the sink’s taps and faucet are within an arm’s reach, and that there is enough room under the sink to be able to pull a chair in close, for example when washing your face or brushing your teeth. Depending on the rest of the layout of your bathroom, you may want to opt for a hanging, wall-mounted vanity to maximize on space for maneuvering the chair.
Save Floor Space
Once you know what vanity you’ll install, take a hard look at how you can best use the rest of the floor space so that anyone in a wheelchair will be able to navigate the bathroom easily. If you anticipate that the bathroom will be used by someone who needs a helper, then you should plan even more floor space so that both people have room to get around. One way to maximize usable floor space is to convert the bathroom door into a sliding or accordion-style opening instead of a swinging door. This kind of door is often easier to open and close from a seated position, and requires less square footage for installation. Whatever you choose, you should make sure that the doorframe is at least 32 inches wide, and wider if possible.
Likewise, turning the position of the toilet and removing fixed storage cabinets can also buy you some additional floor space.
One of the biggest objects in your bathroom is probably the bathtub or shower stall. Depending on what style of bathing area you already have, you may be able to use the same configurations without changing the plumbing hookups for your new wheelchair-accessible shower or walk-in tub. A simple option for your bath redesign might be to convert one end of the bathroom into a “wet room,” with no ledges or obstructions to maneuver on your way to the shower tap. In any instance, installing a handheld shower hose instead of a traditional wall-mounted shower head will help make the shower easier to use for seated or assisted bathers.
Grips Provide Safety and Independence
When planning the new layout for your bathroom, carefully note the best locations for grip bars. If you’re dealing with a smallish space, you may want to explore the idea of fold-down bars, especially in the toilet and shower area, though permanently mounted bars will be preferable as they will allow faster navigation of the bathroom, especially at night.
That said, your bathroom should always be well-lighted. If you can, work with the natural light coming from windows or skylights for comfortable daytime illumination. But, in the evening or in the winter, you’ll want to have adequate lighting by the mirrors and in the shower/bath area. It’s important to consider where and at what height you place the wall switches as well. If possible, choose larger, flat switches to make it easier to turn lights on and off with a gentle touch.
Additional safety features you’ll want to look at including in your new bathroom include non-slip flooring and intercom or alarm buttons that can be activated in case of emergency.
About the Author: Sally Greenaway is a former interior decorator who now consults builders and homeowners on the best ways to adapt their homes for special needs.