Among U.S. children ages 6 to 14, about one in eight has a disability. To give the 5 million students with disabilities the same access to facilities as others, schools are required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Schools not in compliance invite lawsuits and risk losing federal funding or accreditation.

Any new construction or renovation projects must comply with ADA. Many older public schools are making upgrades, even if it is not legally necessary, because washrooms and other areas in the school are inaccessible for those with disabilities. ADA provides specific height and clearance requirements to ensure that washroom fixtures are within reach and easy to use for those with disabilities.

Manufacturers offer an array of plumbing products to help schools meet accessibility standards. Before selecting products, school administrators should learn more about the latest ADA standards.

New guidelines

In July 2004, the U.S. Access Board proposed a new set of ADA Access Guidelines (ADAAG). The guidelines align with the Architectural Barriers Act, and are more consistent with the International Building Code and other industry standards such as the American National Standards Institute. The latest guidelines are not yet enforceable by the Department of Justice, but because they improve access for all, it makes sense to use the new guidelines now.

In addition to adult guidelines, the ADAAG has specifications for “children's use” facilities. Facilities used primarily by those age 12 or younger must follow the guidelines for spaces and elements tailored to children's dimensions. Schools with younger children must comply with these guidelines for water fountains, water closets, toilet stalls, lavatories, sinks, and fixed or built-in seating and tables.

To ensure accessibility within the “toilet room,” the ADAAG requires an accessible route with adequate floor space for maneuvering wheelchairs, specific reach ranges and no protruding objects. In addition to clear floor space, ADA requirements cover counter surface, rim height, and knee and toe space. In fact, the new guidelines include limited dimensional requirements for fixtures used primarily by children; previous standards were only advisory.

The new guidelines provide a clarified knee and toe clearance requirement that applies across other elements, such as tables and counters. Sinks or lavatories used primarily by children are required to have a counter surface no higher than 31 inches above the floor, and a knee clearance of 24 inches minimum above the finish floor is permitted.

The ADA also provides guidance on the space a child must have to reach forward or to the side. This ensures that children in wheelchairs and students with physical disabilities are able to reach lavatories and hand dryers, as well as lockers, coat hooks and other building elements. Minimum and maximum reach ranges vary by age group (as shown in the Notable chart at right). High schools or other facilities used primarily by children older than 12 would need to comply with the adult standards.