Update 12/28: A previous version of this story had missing attribution to some commentary. It has been updated to reflect both people interviewed.
When an able-bodied person thinks of accessibility, chances are good what springs to mind for them are physical world accommodations. Disabled parking spaces. Curb cuts on sidewalks. Automatic door openers. Someone may not think so at first blush, but all of these alterations are examples of assistive technology—the only difference is they exist for analog purposes rather than digital ones.
So it goes with disability-friendly restrooms. While an able-bodied person may relish the roomier space in which to do their business, among other features, the truth is the larger space exists not for convenience but for a wheelchair’s sake. There needs to be ample room for a person to get their chair in the room and maneuver to the toilet and/or sink, transferring if necessary. Grab bars near the toilet are there to assist with said movement. All told, these features serve a practical purpose: they’re meant to make using the bathroom—something all humans must do—a more accessible experience. What may feel like a luxury resort to most people is actually a bonafide necessity for disabled people of all types.
The team at Interior Architects (referred to henceforth as IA) spends a lot of time thinking about diversity and inclusivity vis-a-vis design. The company, founded in 1984, describes itself on its website as a “global firm of architects, designers, strategists, and specialists [who] focus exclusively on environments through the lens of interior architecture.” They see themselves as self-described “agents of change” who help innovative and grow community via inclusive physical design.
Clark Pickett and Jemma Radick, both design directors at IA, explained in a recent interview with me over email that principles for accessible restrooms stem from federal arbitrations with the Department of Justice. These guidelines and standards are part of model codes, living documents that, they said, “provide designers dimensional and functional criteria to follow towards compliance with the current code.” For accessible restrooms, the code outlines requirements like space and measurement (for things like a wheelchair’s turning radius), accessories (for things like grab bars), and elements not mandated yet represent best practices (for things like clear signage and contrasting materials on the floor and walls).
“For individuals not served by well-designed and thoughtful facilities, tremendous stress can be created that can affect the well-being of the workplace as a whole. Designing a restroom is one of the most personal space types there is. In some ways it is universal, and in other ways it has to accommodate a very diverse population with different needs, physically, culturally, and neurologically,” Pickett said of the imperative to create more empathetic and inclusive physical spaces. “As we advance design for this space type we need all the tools we can to be more inclusive. That includes expanding the definition of accessibility to accommodate more physical impairments, cultural diversity, and neurodiversity.”
Pickett and Radick called restrooms “perhaps the most important facilities in the built environment” for reasons of bodily function, health, and sanitation. Thus, it makes perfect sense to strive to create restrooms that can be used by the widest swath of people possible. Although there are national standards for accessible restrooms, there can be extra requirements at the state level. In California, for example, said additional standards fall under the purview of the Division of the State Architect, itself a part of the state’s Department of General Services. Moreover, they told me while the Americans with Disabilities Act and the International Building Code do cover wheelchair accessibility, the truth is there remains a “needs gap between code minimum and best practice that is truly inclusive to all” beyond only for those with mobility impairments, they said. “IA is aiming to provide a wider range of accommodations and privacy for diverse needs, including vision impairment [beyond Braille], hearing impairment, gender equity, and neurodiversity,” they said. “As the code continues to evolve incrementally, IA thinks broadening the definition of accessibility is important for more inclusive design.”
Accessible bathrooms, Pickett and Radick said, isn’t something the disability community has been clamoring for. Industries, notably hospitality and retail, have embraced the idea of experiential restrooms that go beyond the drab, utilitarian perspective offered by offices and the like. “The restroom is one of the few common denominators that all users of a space will encounter over the course of their day,” they said. “Making restrooms an inclusive and equitable space creates a safe experience for all people, and enhances a basic amenity that’s typically forgotten.”
Jemma Radick, experiential design director at IA, thinks cool restrooms are cool. “How many times have you visited a new restaurant and afterward you can’t remember the dish you ate, but you can remember how cool the restroom was?”
The push for more accessible and, crucially, inclusive restrooms is of particular import to Radick. Radick’s son is trans, so the idea of restrooms that foster LGBTQ+ equality is a cause she is “personally passionate about.” In an interview concurrent with Pickett’s, Radick spoke candidly in admitting her previous obliviousness in accepting what she called the “gender-segregated status quo” regarding restrooms. The inflection point occurred for Radick when her son started having trouble accessing restrooms in public spaces, including within the family’s midwestern school district where they previously lived.
“Seeing his struggles to meet his basic needs safely has thrown into sharp focus an issue that trans and gender non-conforming people everywhere encounter on a daily basis,” Radick said. “Witnessing his lived experience motivated me to ask [questions like], ‘Why aren’t gender-neutral restrooms a common practice after at least a decade of discussion? What’s holding us back?’ While cost, square footage, use, and code were easy barriers to identify, public perception and level of comfort was a metric that we couldn’t quantify. There was no research out there to source.”
To that end, Radick told me, IA committed to doing its own research and found most people saying in a survey that they preferred a so-called “privacy for all” approach rather than shared gender-neutral facilities. “Myself and IA sincerely hope,” Radick said, “that this new perspective on gender-equitable restrooms will catch on and that we’ll see more and more ‘Privacy for All’ facilities in the future.”
What Radick described about her son is yet another example of the fluidic and dynamic nature of accessibility. It will first and foremost be about providing equal access to people with disabilities, but it’s also about trans rights too. Likewise, accessibility is not merely a bespoke suite of esoteric software for computers; accessibility features extend to the real world just as aptly. Technology need not be expressed in ones and zeroes to be considered tech. As ever, accessibility is all around us and never-ending. Achieving equality will forever be an evergreen cause, for disabled people and for those from other marginalized communities.