Shower and tub details for universal design

Occupational therapists are pros at helping people to take care of their bathing tasks safely. It’s a science and we look at how the person’s abilities compare with the built environment and how that effects the tasks being performed.

OT helping in bathroom

Many think that designing a big shower with a seat it the corner is the answer to universal design. There are many variables that go into planning a safe bathing experience. This is a two part post. Today I’m chatting about showers and tubs. Tomorrow I’m chatting about seats.

walk in shower no step1. Showers should not have a step to enter. Not even a small one.

No step! There’s no point, not even for one that’s a couple inches tall. A flush entry will allow individuals to walk in safely without any chance of tripping on a ledge. Those using a wheelchair will have greater ease in positioning a chair to access a seat. Trench drains can be installed to eliminate the fear of water pouring into your bathroom floor. Collapsible rubber dams also serve a similar function.

2. Shower and tub/shower types:

Small walk-in showers

Typically square, 36” wide x 36” deep. They’re more useful for universal design than one might think. Temporary and permanent seats and benches will generally fit, and the minimal space can greatly reduce the risk of falling, if balance is an issue.

Large walk-in or roll-in showers

30” wide x 60” deep; roll in showers have requirements by the ADA to be 36” wide x 60” deep. As the name implies, “roll-in” offers flexibility for wheeled seats to enter/exit with ease, but as one can imagine, increased floor space over smaller showers offers room for anyone to move around comfortably.

The Tub/Shower combo

A tub/shower is best used by people who can either (1) step over a ledge or (2) use a bench seat that eliminates the need to step into a tub. If a seat is built-in, it needs to provide back support and be close enough to the controls so the individual can change the water temperature and reach the adjustable hand held shower head while seated.


Jacuzzi tubs are not ideal for universal design, but there are some [costly] lifts that will lower individuals in and out if so desired. These tubs take up tons of floor space and there are better options when planning for current or future needs.

Walk-In Tub

A new(ish) product has made its way into the market that advertises an option to take a bath while walking into the tub through a small door. Realistically, this only works for individuals that can walk – unless the door opens adjacent to the seat. The doors are typically rather small to walk through and may necessitate a sideways entry.

We are not a fan of walk-in tubs because you have to wait for all the water to drain out before exiting the tub. While they may have their place, they are certainly not universal and do not meet everyone’s functional needs. A well-thought-out shower will be more functional for a wide range of users.

Here is a great rundown of walk-in tubs from Rhonda Bonecutter, a fellow OT out in California.

3. Blocking around the shower ensures ability to install seat or grab bars in the future.

Not using a seat now? Reinforcing the wall space around the shower to allow easy installation of a shower seat/bench in any location will decrease the need for costly modifications at a later time. Blocking a large piece of the wall during the framing stage of building allows the space to be adapted easily in the future. This is also helpful for grab bar installation too. If grab bars are not needed right now, that’s great – but the blocking allows the grab bars to be mounted in a location that’s best for the individual using the space.

4. Shower curtain or door?

This depends on the client’s specific needs and the setup of the bathroom. A universally-designed space should be barrier-free. Curtains provide flexibility and ease for a user to reach the inside of a shower and a seat without having to negotiate through a door. Nix the doors unless you’re sure they’ll be out of the way when opened or closed.

5. Faucet hardware: easy to use and easy to reach.

Faucet hardware should not require one to pinch, twist, or grasp with their hands to turn the water on/off. Hardware operated with lever actions work well. Placing hardware close to the seat is so important. Some individuals are unable to stand once they sit down in the shower need to be able to reach the controls.

6. Adjustable handheld shower heads are user-friendly for all.

Adjustable-height handheld shower heads provide lots of flexibility. No matter whether someone is standing or sitting, we want users to be able to adjust and reach the shower head without difficulty. This also helps with cleaning otherwise hard-to-reach places, or even for cleaning the shower and washing the dog. Consider even installing multiple shower heads to make the shower flexible for a variety of users.

7. Install a heat lamp for increased warmth.

It gets cold in the shower area, and sometimes it’s nice to have a warm room waiting for you. Some people have trouble regulating their temperature and extra help with an overhead lamp is a nice feature.

Stay tuned for my discussion on seats for the shower in my next post!

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April is Occupational Therapy (OT) Month!

I’m blogging about important universal design tips for the home and community to increase the awareness and importance OT has in environmental modifications.

(Sketch credit: Dustin Harrell)

Published by

Sarah Pruett

Sarah is a registered/licensed Occupational Therapist (OTR/L) and a Certified Aging In Place Specialist (CAPS), with a background in physical rehabilitation.