By Leah Shepherd
Employees with disabilities sometimes struggle to use bathrooms at the workplace, even if the bathroom meets Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards.
Common complaints about workplace bathrooms include stalls that are too small or narrow to allow a wheelchair to turn around, counters and sinks that are too high, missing grab bars, and toilet paper and flush handles being out of reach, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The ADA requires a workplace to have accessible bathrooms if it is open to the public, such as restaurants, hotels and doctor’s offices. Private businesses that aren’t open to the public still must comply with ADA-accessible design standards if they modify a facility or build a new one.
Even with a bathroom that’s technically ADA-compliant, some wheelchair users find it’s not safe to use, depending on the wheelchair’s size, the person’s size and strength, and other factors. “Not all ADA-compliant bathrooms are created equal, and sometimes things that are considered accessible actually aren’t really accessible in a practical sense,” said Kristen Cox, executive assistant for the American Association of People with Disabilities, a disability rights advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.
Advocates say addressing these shortcomings must be a priority for employers.
“There is no wiggle room here. Any barriers to a safe and accessible bathroom must go to the top of the list. No exceptions. I cannot stress this enough,” said Claudia Center, legal director at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund in Berkeley, Calif.
Employers could face a discrimination lawsuit if they don’t provide an accessible bathroom to an employee who needs one. A recent example is the New York City Department of Education, which in 2021, without admitting any liability, paid $50,000 to settle a discrimination lawsuit over not providing an accessible bathroom for a middle school teacher who used a wheelchair. The lawsuit said the staff restroom was too small and the toilet was too low for her to use.
“Bathrooms frequently are the last thing employers might think of when trying to make the workplace accessible. Especially with more and more businesses requiring a return to the office, it’s vital to make your workplace accessible for all employees,” Cox said. “Not having an accessible restroom available at the workplace can make it significantly more challenging for a disabled person to feel included and fully engaged at work.”
A lack of truly accessible bathrooms has other drawbacks for employers and employees.
“Hiring employees with disabilities is important and can be a crucial part of adding diverse perspectives to the workplace. But it is impossible to accomplish these goals if a person with a disability cannot easily and safely access the bathroom,” said Amy Scherer, senior staff attorney with the National Disability Rights Network in Washington, D.C. “If the bathroom does not work well for your employees with disabilities, it may take unnecessary time and energy that can impact their abilities to reach their maximum productivity levels at work.”
For a workplace bathroom to be ADA-compliant, the following criteria must be met:
- The entrance door to the bathroom must be at least 42 inches wide to accommodate a wheelchair.
- The toilet stall should have at least a 60-inch diameter with enough space to accommodate a wheelchair on the sides of the toilet or directly in front of it. The height of the toilet should be 17 inches to 19 inches.
- Grab bars in the stall need to be 42 inches high at the side of the toilet and 36 inches high at the rear of the toilet.
- Sinks must be at least 34 inches above the floor. There should be a knee clearance of 27 inches by 30 inches wide and 11 inches to 25 inches deep.
- Toilet paper holders must be within reach of the toilet. They can be located below or above— but not behind—grab bars.
- Doors must have handles that can be used with one hand and that open with no more than 5 pounds of force.
“One should keep in mind that a person with disability might have loss or limited use of at least one upper extremity, [so] the faucets, soap dispensers and hand dryers must also be easy to use with only one hand,” Scherer said.
The purpose of the ADA specifications is to ensure an individual can safely use the restroom without having to request help with opening doors or transferring back into a wheelchair. If the dimensions are wrong, an employee could risk falling or getting cuts or abrasions from any sharp edges on the toilet paper dispenser or grab bars.
“A bathroom stall itself may be accessible, but what about the doors to enter the restroom itself? Are they automatic? If they are, is the automatic setting on all the time, or does it get turned off? Frequently, the buttons are way out of reach for anyone using a mobility device,” Cox said.
Employers also shouldn’t be content with mere compliance. “If the minimum requirements imposed by the ADA are already being met, perhaps consider if there are some adjustments that might make things easier for the employee,” Scherer recommended.
It might be necessary to consider bathroom needs on a case-by-case basis. “Remember that not all people with disabilities have the same abilities or limitations, even if they are wheelchair users,” Scherer said. “I happen to be a wheelchair user who is under 5 feet tall and has some range of motion limitations in my upper extremities, so I have to approach things a little differently than my taller, stronger colleague who also uses a wheelchair.”
When an employee raises a concern about the bathroom, HR and managers should “listen and be proactive,” Center said. “Brainstorm immediate same-day fixes, as well as longer-term fixes. Immediate fixes might be telework or longer paid breaks to reach a different bathroom. If the employee does not have a specific suggestion of what would work for a longer-term fix, reach out to the Job Accommodation Network for ideas.”
The Job Accommodation Network is a free service from the U.S. Department of Labor.