What Is Universal Bathroom Design?

Paige Bennett
Written by Paige Bennett
Updated December 17, 2021
A universal bathroom with handles on the wall for the toilet
Photo: ake1150 / Adobe Stock


  • Universal bathroom design refers to making bathrooms accessible to everyone.

  • Accessible bathrooms are important for people with disabilities or those who want to age in place.

  • Common universal bathroom design features include grab bars, comfort height toilets, and curbless showers.

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You’ve found your forever home, and now you need to consider how you can comfortably age in place here. By adding universal design features now, you and your family can continue to live in your home without feeling limited by things like a toilet that sits too low to the ground or doorknobs that are tough to turn. Universal design works in bathrooms and around your entire house to make anyone—no matter their age or ability—feel right at home.

What Is Universal Design?

Universal design aims to make spaces accessible to everyone. Bathrooms can be uncomfortable and even hazardous for many reasons, from tight quarters to slippery floors. Bathrooms that embrace universal interior design for safety should be accessible for anyone to use. 

Although universal design is often specified when building homes for people who want to age in place or have disabilities, this design will make everyone feel comfortable. In some cases, universal design increases home resale value, as buyers look for more safety features.

Features in Universal Bathroom Design

If you want to make your bathroom more accessible, you should consider several home modification safety features for seniors. Keep in mind that a universally-designed bathroom should be spacious to accommodate wheelchairs; grab bars in the shower and by the toilet are helpful tools, too.

Shower Seats or Benches

A shower seat or bench offers more support and comfort during a bath or shower. Opt for a built-in option if possible to minimize fall risks that can happen with movable shower seats. If you don’t need the seat just yet, you can use it for holding shampoo bottles and soap in the meantime. Kids can also benefit from a shower bench, as it offers a place for them to sit when you need to rinse their hair or if they just want to take a moment to play with their bath toys.

Grab Bars in Showers and Beside the Toilet

Grab bars offer support and should be easy to grab on to if you begin to slip to prevent a fall. Add handles in your shower, and install grab bars by the toilet for improved safety in your bathroom. Just make sure to mount your grab bars to studs for reinforcement.

  • Shower grab bars: Grab bars in the shower are typically 33 to 36 inches above the shower floor. If you’re designing a bathroom for a child, ADA standards recommend grab bar heights of 18 to 27 inches, depending on the child’s age.

  • Toilet grab bars: For maximum support, install a grab bar on each side of the toilet or one grab bar on one side of the toilet and one at the back of the toilet. These grab bars should also be 33 to 36 inches above the floor.

Comfort Height Toilets

Standard toilet seats are about 15 inches from the floor, but this low height can put added pressure on the knees as the user squats down to sit. Comfort height toilets are taller, usually about 19 inches from the floor, meaning the user has to squat less to sit down. These toilets are also easier for someone using a wheelchair to move from the wheelchair to the toilet seat.

Slip-Resistant Flooring

According to the National Safety Institute, more than 8 million people went to the emergency room for falls in 2019. Falls are a top cause of death for older adults, but slipping is dangerous for anyone regardless of age. Slip-resistant flooring is one way to fall-proof your bathroom, so skip that shiny marble tile for something that is safer, like ceramic or porcelain tiles. Some tiles have ADA certifications to verify their safety.

Wheelchair Accessibility

Universal bathroom design allows enough space for a person using a wheelchair to navigate the room. According to HCD Universal Design, there should be enough clear space for at least a 4- to 5-foot circle diameter so that a person using a wheelchair can spin fully around in the bathroom without being prohibited by walls, cabinets, or bathroom fixtures. To ensure you make your home wheelchair accessible, also plan for doorways at least 32 inches wide.

Curbless Shower

The ledges on showers or bathtubs can be difficult to climb over, posing a tripping hazard. Instead, opt for an open or curbless shower, where the shower floor is flush with the rest of the bathroom floor. This makes it easier to walk or roll a wheelchair into the shower.

Wall-Mounted or Pedestal Sinks

A wall mounted sink in a universal bathroom
Photo: navintar / Adobe Stock

If you or a loved one uses a wheelchair and needs to wash their hands, there must be space beneath the sink to accommodate the wheelchair. Wall-mounted vanities or even pedestal sinks will provide enough clearance for a wheelchair to sit directly in front of the sink. Plan to have 30 to 48 inches of clear space around the base of the sink or vanity.

Multiple Showerheads

Consider incorporating multiple showerheads in your shower for a more user-friendly experience. You might keep your beloved rainfall showerhead, but add one or two additional handheld showerheads for more flexibility. Be sure to install one showerhead low enough that someone can reach it while sitting on the shower bench.

Lever Handles

Knobs tend to be harder to grasp and turn compared to levers, so incorporate lever handles as much as possible throughout the bathroom, from the door to the sink handles to the shower and tub hardware.

How to Incorporate Universal Design in Your Bathroom

If you’re looking to remodel your bathroom to make it more accessible, hire a local bathroom remodeling professional to discuss plans for implementing these features.

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