People with and without disabilities often ask me about bathroom accessibility. They’re curious about how I get around, and how they can make life easier for themselves or their loved ones who use wheelchairs. The bathroom can be a sensitive topic, but in my experience, it’s the most important room to make accessible in terms of safety, independence, and health. So let’s talk about it.
As a person with a disability who has moved several times and traveled extensively, I have seen and used numerous different bathroom configurations. I have experienced both the benefits and limitations of these designs, and I always knew I wanted to come up with something better.
When I moved from Los Angeles to San Diego in 2007 and bought a house that needed a significant bathroom remodel, I decided to try a new idea: the wet bath. It worked so well that when I faced an unexpected move in 2014, I knew that wherever I lived would need the same type of accessibility to meet my needs. So when I renovated the bathroom of my new home, I used a similar design, and it has once again worked out great.
People with physical disabilities are a diverse community with very different needs. However, I believe the wet bath design would benefit people with a wide array of conditions and make life easier for them and their caregivers. I’d like to share photos and explain the benefits and drawbacks of a wet bath remodel for accessibility. Here are some answers to common questions I get about my bathroom.
What is a wet bath?
A wet bath is a bathroom where part or all of the room is designed to accommodate water. These areas are larger than a typical shower and the walls are protected from water damage with tile or fiberglass. The floor is typically tile with concrete underneath, but stamped concrete or metal floors are also an option.
Is this a new idea?
Not really. Wet baths are often used in small RVs, and they are also more common in Europe and Asia where space can be limited. However, they have been very underutilized as an option for disability access.
Is a wheelchair accessible wet bath possible in small bathrooms?
Yes! This remodel is great for smaller bathrooms, because it allows you to roll a wheelchair into the space that would otherwise be occupied by a shower stall.
Why is a wet bath better than a roll-in shower?
If you have ever used a roll-in shower, you probably know that they tend to leak. Even with a curtain, water easily flows over the floor barrier and can flood your bathroom because it has no place to go. With a wet bath, there are multiple drains in the bathroom, so when properly installed, the water just flows out.
Transferring is easier with a wet bath. You can scoot from your wheelchair to the toilet or shower bench and stay where you land, rather than having to slide over into a shower, lift your legs over a tub, or use a shower bench with a sliding seat.
Can I shower on the toilet in a wheelchair accessible wet bath?
If you have a standard toilet, in my experience, yes — I do every day! However, you don’t have to. You could also place a shower bench in the wet bath area. Having a wet bath makes it easier to do quick refreshes or cleanups on the toilet, regardless of whether or not you typically shower there.
How do I shower on the toilet or a bench if it’s far away from the shower head?
A hand-held shower wand will solve this problem easily. If the distance is farther than the length of a typical hose, you can order a longer hose online or connect two of them with low-cost parts available at any hardware store. If you like to have a shower above your head, you can mount multiple attachment points around the bathroom to accommodate your needs and those of others in the household.
Can able-bodied people use a wet bath?
Sure! Since I had to tear out my bathtub, I wanted to make sure that the experience for able-bodied people was still great. I purchased one of those shower panels that has a hand-held shower as well as several adjustable body sprayers. People think these are very expensive, but they are quite reasonable on Amazon and well worth it in terms of adding value to your home. Of course, you can also use them yourself by placing a shower bench in front of the panel!
Where does my wheelchair go when I shower?
The wheelchair should be rolled out of the wet bath area and placed either on the other side of a curtain or outside the bathroom.
Can this design be used with a Hoyer lift / hoist?
My assistants do manual transfers, so I can’t completely answer this, but I certainly think a non-powered Hoyer lift could be rolled in and out of the bathroom with no problems. I have never had water hit the ceiling, so I think a ceiling track hoist would be OK as long as you move it out of the wet bath area while showering.
What about the sink?
There are several options for the sink area. In a very small wet bath, such as those found in RVs, the sink is also designed to withstand water. However, in most bathrooms, a shower curtain is used to protect the sink and vanity. In my current bathroom, the shape of the room naturally protects the sink area. I thought I would need a shower curtain, but I don’t.
Are there any disadvantages to the wet bath?
If designed and installed properly, no. However, it’s essential to get a qualified professional who understands how to create proper slopes for the water to reach the drains. The floor must be sealed from access to any wood.
Unfortunately, in my first wet bath, the contractor did not properly install the drains and tile, so water leaked into the wood subfloor. Even through the tile, we could feel softness and the floor sinking slightly under the weight of a person or wheelchair. I had to hire someone to completely redo the whole floor and replace the subfloor, which had rotted, with concrete. In my current bathroom, the subfloor is concrete, so this isn’t a concern.
If you have any issues with water pooling in the wet bath, it’s important to push it to the drain so it doesn’t stand and lead to mildew or subfloor damage. I keep a squeegee in my bathroom and after each shower my assistant spends 1 to 2 minutes pushing any remaining water to the nearest drain. I also keep my bathroom fan running at all times.
Is a wet bath remodel more expensive than installing a roll-in shower?
It really depends. For new construction, it wouldn’t be more expensive, but it may or may not be for remodeling an existing bathroom. In my last two houses, the bathrooms needed a full remodel including replacing all the floor tile and the sink, so it didn’t really cost more to set it up as a wet bath. I strongly believe that it’s important to create the best access you can to meet your needs.
If you are receiving funding for remodeling, it shouldn’t be difficult to write medical justification as to why you would need the wet bath over other options. If you are employed, remember that home modification costs can be deducted from your countable income for purposes of receiving Medicaid, SSDI and other benefits.
I have another question you haven’t answered.
Feel free to email me. I am not an architect or contractor, but I am always happy to help people design an accessible bathroom that meets their needs.