Access-orizing a Small Bathroom in 3 Stages

A thousand times I asked myself, “Why did I ever decide to buy a house with such a small bathroom?” A thousand times I knew the answer: “Because everything else about the house was so workable.”

With creativity, Sharon Gardner found ways to best utilize her bathroom's tight dimensions. Notice that she can turn completely around and easily access her shower, toilet and sink.

With creativity, Sharon Gardner found ways to best utilize her bathroom’s tight dimensions. Notice that she can turn completely around and easily access her shower, toilet and sink.

The day I saw it with the realtor I was thrilled — until I poked my head around the narrow bathroom door. It was really small. Yes, we could widen the door. Yes, I’d be able to pull along sideways to the sink, but there certainly wouldn’t be room to turn my chair around. And the tub? Well, I’d figure out something.

Love can be so blind — even with houses.

Even before I could move in, the door had to be widened, the toilet exchanged for a higher one, and a grab rail installed by the toilet. The handyman we’d hired readily agreed to widen the doorway for an extra hundred dollars if we supplied the door. We picked up a 30-inch door from Home Depot and stained it ourselves. We got a high quality ADA-compliant toilet for $249, a padded toilet seat for $18, and paid another hundred to the handyman for installing it.

The grab rail was challenging since the toilet was between the sink and tub, not next to a wall. I flipped through my stash of Disability Product Postcards until I found one featuring a grab rail that could be attached to the back wall and flipped up when I needed to slide from the toilet over to the tub, as I mistakenly fantasized I could do.

I called Otto Bock to order the grab rail and learned it could be ordered only through a local DME dealer. I could have gotten a cheaper one, but this one was pretty and could be raised. Some retailer was going to make an easy profit on a quick sale for which I’d already done the research. Hmm …  I got a price from the first dealer, then called others with a faked air of confidence, stock number in hand. “I can get this item from XYZ DME company, but it’s too high. What’s your bottom price if I put it on my credit card today, saving you paperwork for state reimbursement?” It’s amazing what deals you can get if you play your cards right.

I could have gotten it covered by Voc Rehab, but I didn’t have six months to wait on red tape. We were moving in one month! Even expediting it this way, it still had to be ordered and I knew we were cutting it close.

The bathroom door was widened, toilet replaced and grab rail installed just in the nick of time. If I maneuvered right, I could roll alongside the sink, twist sideways to wash my hands and face. Workable, even if not wonderful.

But the bathroom was still so narrow. To reach the towel shelf with my only working hand, I had to make four small figure eights in my chair to face the other direction. Sometimes it was easier to just go out in the bedroom, turn around and back in.

Bathing was still an issue. Despite the flip-up grab rail, assorted shower chairs and homemade contraptions, my decreasing shoulder strength prevented me from sliding from toilet to tub as I’d planned. And the larger ADA toilet took up space needed to pull alongside the tub to transfer directly from the chair. We wrestled with the bathing task for five years until Super Son-in-Law George convinced us to let him rip out the tub and build a roll-in shower.

Stage Two
For weeks we drafted details and shopped prices on roll-in showers. We searched the Internet under key words like “roll-in-shower water retention” and “wheelchair shower water dam.” Finally we found the perfect solution to keep the water off the bathroom floor: a thick rubber strip that would fold down as I rolled over it and pop back up once the wheels were inside the shower. I could tuck the shower curtain behind the one-inch height ($125 from Adaptive Living or other sites).

We also invested in scald-proof shower controls so I couldn’t burn myself unwittingly. One lever controls the volume, the other controls the temperature, which can never reach a scalding point. I also wanted grab rails for safety and leverage inside the shower. I located a local manufacturer who let me buy them for about half of the hardware store price.

George ripped out the old tub, laid a waterproofing pan, mudded the floor to create a slight slope toward the drain, reworked the plumbing around the studs and supervised the tile workers, who we paid $900 to lay tile on the floor and walls.

An electrical socket near the floor between the toilet and vanity was totally useless to me. A friend installed a reachable one directly above it, leaving the lower one for permanent plug-ins like my clock.

When the sheetrock dust had settled, I was stunned by how much bigger my bathroom looked without the tub making an optical barrier. By the time I’d paid for shower grab rails, levers, shower hose, water dam, tile, grout, glue, socket and labor, I’d spent just over $1,500. It was expensive, but cheaper than moving or forever hiring an attendant for help bathing. There isn’t much elbow room in my new shower, but still it’s a giant improvement.

Stage Three
For the next few years, my bathroom was manageable, but eventually I had to give up my manual chair for a power chair. I could no longer twist sideways to adequately wash my face and hands. A roll-under sink had become a necessity. I knew I’d lose drawer and cupboard space, but I reframed it as an opportunity to de-junk and streamline.

Once again, I planned every tiny detail, measuring everything to one-sixteenth of an inch. If I kept the sink centered in the counter and supported with narrow drawers on either side, I’d still have to maneuver repeatedly to go under it. I wanted a straight shot from the door.

I seriously considered getting a modern “vessel sink,” the type that fits on top of the counter, which could then be any height my knees required. They are available in beautiful styles, colors and prices and would be a great option for many people.

Ultimately, from Lowe’s we ordered a cultured marble countertop poured to our specification with the sink exactly where we wanted it, all for $198. So that my knees would have more clearance, I had them pour the shallowest sink (5 5/8 inches) just 1 inch from the front edge, bringing faucets closer to me than the standard 2-inch lip allowed. I kept a 5-inch margin on the left side for my radio and sundries.

Since I like to wash my hair between showers, I chose a tall kitchen faucet with sprayer that pulls out of the spigot ($108). I could stick my head right under it for an easy daily shampoo.

But moving a drain in our concrete slab foundation would take a jackhammer and a huge amount of money. Ironically, we’d taken in a homeless man who assured me that wasn’t necessary. At a specialty plumbing supply he found ADA-specific pipes that angled back to the wall, then down toward the drain, giving me amazing clearance and no risk of burning my legs. Cost of labor? The best meals I could cook.

I bought a 33-inch high, four-drawer cabinet to support the marble countertop, ($316 from Lowe’s). The cabinet was only 24 inches wide, which left a gap of 9 inches between it and the wall. At the Container Store I found a 6-inch wide roll-out cart ($26) to hold cleaners and lotions formerly housed under the sink.

Concrete now showed where the former cabinet was, but didn’t affect access. A few months later, as budget allowed, a tile-layer beautifully matched the existing floor for $260 (Ouch! Should have gotten a quote first!).

Maximum clearance became my obsession. I bought a 30-inch bi-fold door from Home Depot ($40), offset hinges from Accessible Environments for $11.95 and removed the towel rack from behind the door so it could swing flush to the wall. Now — finally — I love my bathroom.

Cost of remodeling, spread over 12 years — about $3,000. Free labor from son-in-law, friends and homeless angel: priceless.

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