The inclusive restroom: Design tips for accommodating special needs

By Emily Smith

Creating spaces that are comfortable and usable for everyone is always a goal of an efficient design, but inclusivity becomes even more crucial when designing for special needs, especially in such necessary spaces as a public restroom. In my experience as an electrical designer and as a mother of a specialneeds child, I’ve learned that designing for the human life cycle – not just a single point in time – is the best way to ensure a design works for every user. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements related to design typically focus on physical abilities, but there are many special needs considerations beyond the physical that need to be addressed in design. Sensory processing differences, autism spectrum disorder, and developmental disabilities also fall under the ADA umbrella. Designing a restroom with both physical and non-physical special needs in mind can help you create a design that is convenient and usable for all. 

Restrooms fulfill such a basic human need that they can often be overlooked in inclusive design. But they can have a significant impact on the daily lives of the people who use them, whether they are designed well or not. For many, it is a straightforward space, but for those whose lives require additional equipment, bags, and helpers, or who have sensory or physical abilities that don’t mesh well with common restroom designs, a visit to this straightforward space can become a daunting event. 

When designing an inclusive restroom, consider these tips: 

Paper towels trump hand dryers. In a move to be more environmentally conscious, many companies have opted to eliminate paper towels and replace them with hand dryers. But the noise can cause stimulus overload for some with special needs. Providing only paper towel dispensers in a multi-stall restroom can eliminate the unexpected noise of a person using a hand dryer. 

Opt for quiet, manual-flush toilets. Similar to the hand dryers, it’s disconcerting for many users to have a toilet unexpectedly flush while it’s in use, especially those with sensory processing differences. Choosing manual flush toilets can also be a more sustainable option if you add a water-saving flush feature. 

Increase space for changing tables, which can be difficult to find – especially in men’s restrooms. Many parents, me included, worry that the provided changing table will not adequately support a child larger than the average 2-year-old, a diaper bag, and other needed equipment. Since many changing tables are installed out in the open, with no place to set personal belongings nearby, the child’s privacy and safety could be at risk if the caretaker must set their supplies in an area too far from the changing table. Additionally, many caretakers have more than one dependent with them at a time. Providing a larger restroom with extra space for a larger, special-needs-compatible changing table and clean area for small children to stand can significantly impact the ease of caring for a specialneeds child. 

Designing your facility to be inclusive for special needs of all kinds can be a daunting undertaking. But starting with a small space like a restroom can help you focus on the features that are important to you and those who will encounter your space. Providing a well-designed restroom may seem insignificant, but to those whose everyday lives are impacted, it will make all the difference. 

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