Before and After: A Wheelchair User’s Bathroom Gets a Dreamy and Functional Redo

published Aug 16, 2023
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When it comes to creating accessible bathrooms, one size does not fit all. A physically disabled person may struggle with high ledges or slick surfaces, but an invisibly disabled person may not. The disability community is big — we’re talking around 61 million in America alone, according to the CDC — so there’s no singular way to make a home more inclusive

Take homeowner Jenny Panighetti’s California house, for example. When she and her husband bought this mid-century property, they liked how a 2018 renovation provided some features, like a partially curbless shower. “The previous owner was a part-time, manual-wheelchair user, but it was not quite accessible enough for me as a full-time, power-wheelchair user,” Jenny says.  Case in point: It had a standard double-vanity and a narrow doorway that betrayed the home’s 1964 roots. Yep, not so great.

“We had to widen the doorway for me to even get into the bathroom, so for months, our bathroom had no door,” Jenny says. “I could never use the sink, and the shower entrance was modified very gently but not waterproof enough.” Those issues aside, Jenny wasn’t exactly a fan of how the room looked, either. “It was neutral, but not terribly exciting.”

The couple made do for months as they waited for their old home to sell, and once it did, they set about renovating this bathroom with help from a professional contractor at Bertet Builders. The entire rectangular space was demolished, and an accessible floor plan was laid out. A shower would go in the far corner, with a pair of mounted showerheads and another pair of handheld ones inside. There would be three niches for storage on the shower’s widest wall, and a curtain instead of a door opposite it. The bathroom’s entire floor would be waterproofed, and a new vanity would allow Jenny’ wheelchair to slide under it. Oh, and perhaps most importantly, a door at the entrance would make everything private.

“It’s all permitted, so the process really started there,” Jenny says, noting that the budget was $30,000, permits and pros included. “We had to demo, frame a new wall, install plumbing, and slant the wall to an appropriate angle for drainage.” After that, the rebuilding began — think drywall, tiling, constructing the vanity, and paint.

“The most important parts were all the measurements, like making sure my chair and I could get in the door and ensuring I could use the sink at the proper height,” she adds. “The other most important aspect was communicating those measurements down the line.”

Jenny notes that she and her husband had experience constructing an accessible bathroom in their last home, so at least they had lessons to implement from past mistakes. “The white subway tile we had there stained easily and required bleaching to get clean, so we went with a darker motif this time,” she says. “We knew we wanted two showerheads, but we adjusted their placement and added rain showers as well. And interestingly, the biggest change from our previous bathroom was the additional shower boxes — one was not enough for the two of us!”

Renovations are never easy, and even though Jenny and her husband took obstacles in stride, they were still a challenge. A mistake in measurements led to too few wall tiles at first, and code compliance didn’t always equate to accessibility. “But the biggest setback was the inspector needing us to hot-mop the entire bathroom instead of just the shower space to make it waterproof, and that resulted in two weeks of delays,” she added. Then there were minor compromises on finishing touches like hardware, which all couples can relate to.

The entire renovation was worthwhile, though, given that Jenny feels much more capable in this bathroom. “I can brush my teeth, scrub my face, and wash my hands on my own,” she says. “I don’t feel as worried about water spraying around the curtain in the shower, because it’s all waterproofed correctly.”

For others who may be planning more accessible bathrooms in the future, Jenny recommends placing the sink as far forward on the vanity as possible and double-checking that you like where the light switches are placed — these are two small adjustments she would make in her own home.

And in general, something to keep in mind: Everyone deserves a comfortable bathroom that suits their body, and this space doesn’t look all that remarkably different from a “non-accessible” one. But even small shifts can make a huge difference. 

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