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Designing Restrooms for Inclusive Playgrounds

Mon, 05/04/2015 - 9:50am
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1 year ago
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Designing Restrooms for Inclusive Playgrounds

Recently, I received an email from a mom that really made me think. It wasn’t the typical type of question I receive: “Where can we purchase an accessible merry-go-round,” “What can you send me to help our community get started in planning?” No, this was about hand-dryers in restrooms.  

“We are seeing a rise of very, very loud hand-dryers in these restrooms, which is a real problem. Many children find them too loud, and if they have an ear condition, they can cause physical pain or pressure on the ears. Many children just don't want to go near the hand-dryers - some of them even panic. This means they can't use these toilets, and when there are no other restrooms anywhere near a great new "accessible" playground, the parents cannot take them to the playground. 

This is especially a problem for young children aged around 2 or 3 who are potty-training and have come out of nappies/diapers. They suddenly have to go into these noisy, scary environments that with dryers that they can't control. 

It is crazy that these playgrounds are being built with ramps, large swings and all sorts of features to enable all children, including those with wheelchairs and other needs, to play, but then a whole sector of children cannot use the playground (or are scared to do so) because these dryers in the restrooms dedicated to the playground are too loud, or physically painful.” 

My first thought was, “Wow, it is so difficult to accommodate every person’s needs. What do you do when the needs contradict each other?” I know exactly what type of hand-dryer she is talking about. You put your hands underneath and automatically a very strong burst of air comes out and dries your hands. Yes, they can be noisy.

I can imagine the architect who was designing the restrooms, thinking that she was making a great universal design decision. Not only do dryers meet ADA—they probably go beyond it in some ways. The hand-dryers work automatically. It does not require any strength to pull off or pull down the paper. Reach range isn’t an issue as there are no buttons to push or paper to reach for. They are good for the environment as they work very quickly and don’t waste paper. They are good for the parks department because the bathrooms don’t need as much maintenance. So most likely, these dryers are a good solution for almost everyone—just not this mom.

She asked me if there was any legislation or guidance about accessibility that would help her. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is. I have encouraged her to meet with the Park Department to advocate for them to select quieter hand-dryers in the future. I also have suggested that she invest in a pair of noise-reducing headphones. Many parents I know have had success going to public places with children with noise sensitivities when they use these types of headphones.

Her email also made me think: “Wow, why have I never gotten an email about restrooms before and why have I never seen a newly opened inclusive playground brag about their restroom?” As this mom so rightly put it, it is crazy to spend tons of money and time to create an amazing inclusive playground if there are no restrooms or worse they built them without considering all the different design components of the restroom, so that their primary constituents aren’t able to use them. As any parent knows, when their child has to go, they have to go now! All of the great layout, landscaping, and equipment doesn’t matter at all, if parents decide they can’t go there because they can’t use the restrooms.

There is so much to an ADA compliant restroom. The designer needs to consider: turning radius, grab bars, height and reach ranges, handles on the sinks, door hardware, maneuverability room, pipe exposure, choosing the right type of toilet, toilet paper dispensers, mirrors, sinks, hand-dryers, trash cans, circulation paths, clear widths, how the toilets will flush, and more.

For all of this, it is important to hire an architect that is an expert in restrooms and really understands the issues of accessibility.

I believe that there are even more decisions that need to be made to fully accommodate families coming to an inclusive playground.

Where is the restroom located—outside the fenced area or inside the fenced area? If it is inside the fenced area, it is much easier to get the child to agree to go, because they are not actually leaving the playground. The parent may be able to leave their other children playing while he takes the other one. It is also faster to get there, which as I mentioned before is important.

Is there a family restroom? Family restrooms make it so much easier for a caregiver to assist a person with a disability. It also makes it easier for the mom to take their son or father to take their daughter to the restroom.

If we have spent so much energy making sure the child can reach everything on the playground, shouldn’t we also make sure the child can reach the toilet and sink? The means adding sinks and toilets at the right reach ranges for specific ages.

Child-sized sink and toilet

What about changing tables? For some of us, changing tables are a huge issue. My 21 year old son uses adult diapers. He obviously can’t use a vast majority of the plastic on the wall changing tables that are typically found in public restrooms.

There is an organization in the UK and Australia called Changing Places. Changing Places works on behalf of people who cannot use standard accessible toilets. This includes people with profound and multiple learning disabilities and their caregivers, as well as people with disabilities such as motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis, and cerebral palsy.

Changing Places bathroom

They need Changing Places toilets which are publicly accessible with enough space and the right equipment, including a height adjustable changing bench and a hoist in order for them to get out and about and enjoy the day-to-day activities many of us take for granted.

To me this is so amazing. To have a restroom with a height adjustable changing table would be so wonderful. You would not believe some of the places we have had to change Samuel while traveling: the back of our van in the parking lot of a rest stop and on the floor in a partially secluded corner of the airport are just two of places that I still cringe about. There is no dignity in these decisions.

Touched by Olivia is a supporter of Changing Places in Australia and has height adjustable changing tables at the playgrounds they build. So it is possible to do it at playgrounds. I encourage you to visit their websites and learn more about their campaigns. If you are traveling to either of these countries, there are maps on the sites of where you can find Changing Places Restrooms.

Not all playgrounds are going to get restrooms and not all inclusive playgrounds are going to get restrooms that way beyond ADA, but when we build million dollar destination playgrounds, there should be some expectation that some of the money will be spent on needed family amenities—like restrooms. Planning committees should spend time discussing the selection of restroom equipment along with playground equipment and should work with their architect to make sure their community’s needs are being met with good design decisions.

I want to thank this mother for reaching out to me. I hope she can find a solution so that her family can enjoy the newly opened accessible destination playground in her community.

For more information about ADA Restrooms:




Journey to Inclusion

Mara Kaplan is the driving force behind Let Kids Play, a consulting firm working to ensure that all children have excellent play opportunities. She is an educator, a parent of...

There is 1 Comment
Kent Callison's picture

Thank you for an excellent article about the need to consider the whole child when designing destinations for children with special needs. I hope this will initiate discussions between architects, restroom amenity manufacturers and purchasing/procurement agencies to identify products that go beyond accessibility guidelines and create a 360° inclusive experience at public playgrounds.

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