Austin Williams, provides a general assessment of the needs for disabled access to toilets, in the first of the NBS Shortcuts externallink series. 

How near to universally acceptable disabled access sanitary accommodation can designers get? And what are the real needs that have to be catered for? This guide looks at some of the issues that need to be considered to satisfy the regulations as well as the (sometimes conflicting) needs of real building users.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) insists that designers provide disabled access facilities to the extent that it is reasonable to do so. Under the heading of what is 'unreasonable', financial constraints can be factored in as a variable. But even with this potential get-out clause, over the last 15 years or so, toilets designed for generic disability have become normal practice in most public buildings. Disability access has ceased to be a chore for architects and has almost become a mainstream consideration. Moreover, regardless of the access auditor, the disability mentor, the impairment officer or the risk assessor, building designers frequently attempt to provide better facilities than the basics outlined in Approved Document M Access to and use of buildings (AD M) or Technical Handbook 4 and equivalents. However, with 20% of the adult UK population covered by the DDA, you can almost guarantee that you will never get an accessible toilet exactly right for everyone.

But maybe the implication that around 11.7 million people are disabled doesn't help the discussion about the types of facilities needed by the severely disadvantaged sections of the public. The much-quoted figure of 3.9 million people with 'difficulty learning and understanding', for example, incorporates the 40,000 people with profound learning difficulties, and consequently the real needs of this subset often get lost in generalised responses to the much higher global figure. Prioritising the generic figures is seen, by some, as downplaying severe disability and overcomplicating a more rational approach to disability access. After all, the statistic showing that there are ' 5,000 guide dog owners' is not as eye-catching as '2.5 million people with visual or hearing impairments'. However, separating short-sightedness and total blindness might actually focus attention on the specific levels of the problem.

How, for example, is a registered blind person expected to take a guide dog into the paltry sanitary facilities that still exist in shopping centres up and down the country? As Selwyn Goldsmith, author of the seminal Universal design (Architectural Press, 2000) and Designing for the disabled: The new paradigm (Architectural Press, 1997) has said, designers still have a wheelchair user sans assistant in mind when designing sanitary accommodation. When you factor in a carer, or consider the less socially acceptable types of disability – mental as well as physical – then many considered designs still fall far short of the mark.

Obviously the obligatory 1500 mm turning circle is a given, although extending this to 1700 mm where possible would better facilitate a carer. But other issues could be improved upon. To name but a few:

  • Floor surfaces need to be non-slip but not overly reflective.
  • Lobbies should be avoided if possible (notwithstanding the need for lobbies onto food prep or storage areas).
  • Door closers should be easy to push against, with a maximum 20 N pressure (consider using rising butt hinges).
  • Provide outward opening doors with dedicated ironmongery.
  • The colour contrasts within the toilet compartment need to aid clarity but not be garish.
  • There should be level access.
  • Shelving and equipment should have rounded edges.
  • Provide consistent lighting which must not be on a timer.

An essential requirement is that grabrails be fixed securely, with substrate and fixings sufficient to withstand a person's full body weight. Coat hooks can be fixed at various heights, provided that the lowest one does not drape garments along the floor. Radiators, disposal bins and vending machines should, where possible, be recessed and plumbing should not protrude into the space even if boxed in, in case it restricts manoeuvrability. Ensure that the WC seat remains vertical when positioned against the backrest, that all equipment is 'heavy duty' and fixed accordingly (as opposed to typical domestic nut and bolt arrangements), and that dispensers, etc are easily operable and within reach. Taps should have water temperatures not exceeding 41°C, be operated by lever grip and be of sufficiently low pressure to prevent splashing the floor.

The AD M, together with guidance by many local authorities, recommends that baby change facilities not be provided in accessible toilets or in changing rooms since this will restrict the facilities for disabled people. As baby changing and feeding often takes a considerable amount of time, this provision should be catered for in a dedicated area. However, unless audited otherwise, the likelihood of these two activities occurring at the same time is slight and so optimising compartment space should be a consideration. The baby changing equipment should be flush mounted so as not to impede the general circulation and turning circles within the compartment.

While the AD M specifies the 720-740 mm height to the top of washbasins, care should be taken to specify shallow bowls to avoid obstruction to wheelchair users. Take note also of a conflict between this and the 780-800 mm height for washbasins for ambulant disabled (often those with chronic back pain). You can either specify to the letter of the legislation or a compromise can be sought. Perhaps:

  • agree the optimum height with individual Building Control Bodies;
  • provide an additional washbasin at the alternative height (as required by AD M, if this is the only WC in the building); or
  • recognise that not everyone is going to be totally satisfied and target your specification towards the more prevalent, or more debilitating, disability.

But it's not just about access inside the toilet compartment, it is also about getting to the compartment in the first place – travel distances from any one point should be 40 m on level surfaces where possible. The British Toilet Association recommends that the number of female cubicles should be equal to 2 x (male urinals + male cubicles). Goldsmith calculates on the basis of floor areas and recommends that the ratio of 'area of female compartments: area of male compartments' be 3:1, or even 4:1 in the case of theatres. The forthcoming BS 6465-1:2006 Sanitary installations. Code of practice for the design of sanitary facilities and scales of provision of sanitary and associated appliances, links toilet provision to the population densities used for fire regulations, assuming an office density of one person per 6 m2 as opposed to the general Approved Document Part G Hygiene assumption of one person per 14 m2.

The unisex toilet we've chosen is designed for angled lateral transfer from one direction only (alternatives are available). Peninsular layouts allow transfer from either side but should only be specified in instances where skilled assistance is available. As the Centre for Accessible Environments says (The Good Loo Guide, RIBA Enterprises 2004 ), there is a 'national reticence' about these issues but, bearing in mind that “disabled men will mostly use WCs in public buildings as a urinal… approached head on”, care should be taken to avoid obstructing legs and footplates on either side of the toilet.

The final point to note is that disabled facilities can be well designed. They do not need to replicate floor-to-ceiling tiled, sterile hospital toilets. Although not everyone can be catered for, consideration in the design and specification stages for the difficulties of likely user groups – rather than ticking the boxes – will provide an environment beneficial to most users.

Related reading from

Part M: Access Statements
Access Statements