Plumbing products are designed with variations and special features to safely satisfy the needs of families throughout their lifecycles, taking into account varying human conditions such as the inability to walk, difficulty walking, reliance on walking aids, blindness and visual impairment, lack of balance, reaching and manipulation disabilities, lack of stamina, difficulty interpreting and reacting to sensory information, and extremes of physical size.
Since the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, all elements located in areas within a building are required to be accessible and must be constructed to be useable by persons with physical disabilities. Given the wide range of user needs, this creates some challenges, as accommodating a sink height for wheelchair users can create back strain for taller individuals. As such, accessibility laws and regulations throughout the United States are developed with the understanding that providing access to everyone all of the time is impossible. The goal is to provide the greatest degree of accessibility to the greatest number of individuals.
There are two major initiatives underway within the accessibility community. The first is called “mainstreaming,” or an attempt to require that everything be accessible. This is a result of the understandable desire of persons with disabilities not to be singled out and classified separately from the remainder of society.
The other initiative is called “universal design,” a concept that calls for all products and environments to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible without the need for adaptation or specialized design. Similar to mainstreaming, universal design seeks to avoid “special” treatments and designs, in favor of designs that benefit everyone through ease of use.
In the plumbing industry, universal design considerations include:
- providing knee and toe clearances under fixtures;
- locating operable parts, such as faucet handles, in a reachable range;
- making movable parts operable with little force from one hand and without tight grasping, pinching or turning of the wrist;
- providing access for wheelchair users, including enough room for the turning radius and removal of barriers to showers;
- precise placements of load-bearing grab bars.
The beauty of universal design is the comfort and performance advantages for all users. Toilets are available in a variety of heights to provide a range of comfort options. Standard toilets are about 14 to 15 inches high from floor to the top of bowl rim (not including the seat). Toilets billed as having more comfortable heights are closer to the height of a chair, from 16 to 17 inches high. Toilets of shorter heights, originally designed for elementary schools, have now entered the homeowner market in the form of children's toilets.
Slip-resistance is another innovation that provides safe use for everyone. Bathroom product manufacturers have been in the forefront of pioneering safe surfaces that have integral permanent textures, whether it's an acrylic shower or glossy enamel-finished tub.
Accessible design also includes products designed to accommodate the obese. This is a consideration in commercial installations where toilets are often wall-mounted, as well as in the installation and engineering of grab bars. While all wall-mounted toilets must pass a 500-pound load test, sheering force applied to wall mounted fixtures when a bariatric user sits down too quickly can be better supported with carrier systems or floor-mounted toilets.