For many years, disabled persons were left to get around as best they could, without any national protection. However, that changed in 1990 when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted. It protects the rights of the disabled to equal access to public facilities, including restrooms.
Each state implements the ADA with building code regulations. California's building code requirements, combined with the federal rules, make for a very detailed framework of bathroom access requirements.
Americans with Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is first and foremost a civil rights law. Passed in 1990, it prohibits many kinds of discrimination against persons with disabilities. Protected areas include employment, education, transportation and all places that are open to the general public both public and private.
The law is intended to ensure that those with disabilities enjoy the same rights and opportunities as those without disabilities. It confers civil rights protections substantially equivalent to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age and religion.
Which disabilities qualify for protection under the ADA? The legislation speaks in terms of “substantial impairment” to define those protected under the law. An individual must have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits an important life activity like hearing, seeing, talking, walking, working or taking care of oneself.
Right to Access Public Facilities
One of the important protections under the ADA is the right to access public facilities. Since restrooms are an important part of any public facility, regulations governing the accessibility of restrooms are an important part of the ADA regulations.
State of California ADA Protection
The federal ADA does not prohibit states from having their own disability protection laws. Rather, as is the case with minimum wage, the federal law sets a minimum national standard for disability protection. It permits states to offer even greater protection, but not less.
California is one of the states that offers the greatest amount of legal protections to people with disabilities. The state's Unruh Civil Rights Act guarantees full and equal privileges and services “in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.” Similarly, the California Disabled Persons Act ensures that people with disabilities or medical conditions have equal rights to free and full use of public places.
This is accomplished in large part through the state building codes. The Division of the State Architect (DSA) promulgates building code provisions to address accessibility for persons with disabilities. The building code provisions apply to government buildings and facilities (state and federal), privately owned public accommodations and commercial facilities, and public housing. They were developed to provide a single code that meets the stringent requirements of the California Building Standards Code, the 1991 Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines.
ADA Compliance for Facilities and Buildings
The ADA access compliance applies to all public buildings, plus any private entity that owns, operates, leases or leases to a "place of public accommodation." This includes most entities that receive the public, like restaurants, cafes, theaters, medical offices, retail establishments, museums, parks, libraries and public and private schools.
Some private facilities are exempt from the ADA access provisions. These include private membership clubs and religious organizations. All newly constructed buildings that are places of public accommodation must follow the codes. For preexisting structures, barriers to access must be removed when it is "readily achievable" to do so. This means that the barriers must be removed when that goal can be easily accomplished without too much difficulty or expense.
When an existing building is altered, the changes must encourage accessibility as much as possible. If, for example, a doorway is relocated, the new door must be designed to be sufficiently wide to meet the current accessibility construction standard. If an alteration is made to a central area, like to the lobby of a bank, the construction must also include an accessible path of travel to the altered area.
ADA Requirements for Accessible Path of Travel
Making restrooms accessible to disabled persons in California requires first that the building itself must be accessible. Under California state law, property owners must provide an ADA-compliant accessible route of travel from the public way to the building entrance. A compliant building should have accessible parking areas as well. To the extent possible, the disability access route should be the same as the route for the general public.
Accessibility Standards for Restroom Facilities
When it comes to the actual restroom facilities, regulations ensure that the door is accessible to wheelchairs. Generally, accessible doors must be at least 36 inches wide and have lever-type hardware. The toilets must have sufficient floor area to allow wheelchair access with a clear path of travel, typically at least 30 inches wide and 48 inches deep.
The restroom must also have a clear floor space – a circle with a diameter of 5 feet – that permits a wheelchair to turn around. The California building codes do not permit an accessible toilet stall door to swing into this turnaround space. Under these codes, accessible stalls must be at least 60 inches wide and allow a 60-inch turning radius inside the stall.
ADA Standards for Accessible Design of Restroom Fixtures
Under the ADA every public restroom must have at least one accessible toilet and sink. Men's restrooms must include at least one accessible urinal. To be "accessible," fixtures must meet height requirements. An accessible sink, for example, cannot be more than 34 inches from the floor and must have knee clearance below. The seats on accessible toilets must be between 17 and 19 inches above the floor.
The California building codes also mandate grab bars or handrails beside and behind accessible toilet areas. These must be placed 33 inches above the floor under California rules. The ADA permits slightly higher placement.
Both the ADA and California law require that accessible restrooms provide accessible toilet accessories, like soap dispensers, paper towel dispensers and waste receptacles. Toilet paper dispensers must be placed within an accessible reach range as well, generally no more than 40 inches from the floor. None of these accessories can be located where they may get in the way of the accessible path of travel.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.