My Life-Changing Accessible Bathroom

A state rehabilitation program remodeled my bathroom — and my life

A pedestal sink in the author's new bathroom allows her wheelchair to slide neatly underneath. The pedestal also protects her knees from hot water pipes.
Article Highlights:
  • A woman with ALS discovers how important a fully accessible bathroom can be to her quality of life.
  • A state program designed to help people with disabilities stay in their homes and maximize their independence made the remodeling job possible.
  • The challenges of the application process were daunting but worth the effort.
by Bonnie Guzelf on March 31, 2011 - 11:44am

QUEST Vol. 18, No. 2

I never thought I would be so excited about getting a new toilet, sink and shower. But my new fully wheelchair-accessible bathroom has made such a difference in my life, my attitude and my outlook that I can truly say this makeover has been a life-changing event.

More than 10 years ago, I received a diagnosis of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease). Over the years, I’ve gone from using a cane to a walker to a power wheelchair. I can no longer drive, walk or work.

The last few years — even though my husband installed grab bars in the bathroom — I’ve had trouble safely using the shower and toilet. I’ve needed help getting in and out of the shower and up and down from the toilet — very depressing for a formerly active, independent woman. 

Remodeled bathroom featuring an ADA-compliant toilet
The author's remodeled bathroom features a new ADA-compliant toilet with wrap-around grab bars and a bidet.

There was no way my husband, Phil, and I could afford major renovations to our home, so the outlook for my bathroom independence was dismal. Then I heard about a program through the Arizona Rehabilitation Services Administration called Independent Living Rehabilitation Services.

The program (which is available under a similar name in other states as well) is designed to help qualifying individuals with disabilities stay in their homes and maximize their independence. It sounded too good to be true, but I thought I would apply anyway.

A long approval process

In late 2009, my husband and I met with a counselor from the program and spent a few hours discussing my diagnosis and needs, and our financial situation. She thought the program could help me and several weeks later a social worker came out to help us decide what renovations would benefit me the most.

It was decided that modifying the bathroom was the number-one priority, along with some adaptations to our minivan, and an automatic door opener on my front door so I could come in and out of the house myself. But before any of this could become a reality, the economy crashed and the program lost its funding.

To say I was upset is an understatement.

But that was not the end of the story. In April 2010, I received a letter from the agency saying they had received more funding and I was again at top of the list. Joy! They sent another social worker to the house to review my case. The second social worker agreed that the priorities remained making my bathroom wheelchair-accessible and adapting my van so that I could go out into the community.

We had to wait for approval of these adaptations, since the cost would be significant — approximately $17,000 for the bathroom and about $11,000 for the van. Again, I waited and began to get discouraged, wondering if this was ever going to happen.

Finally, about five months later, I received an email from the state saying they had approved the modifications to my van — a new wheelchair lift and a power seat that extends from the van, lowers to the ground and then lifts me back up into the van.

Next, a contractor came to the house and looked at the bathroom so he could make his recommendations. Again, the modifications had to be approved because of the high cost. Again, I waited. The contractor and the agency went back and forth as to how much work would be done and at what cost.

At first I was told that only the shower would be modified. But just before Thanksgiving of 2010 — a full year after I began the process — I was told that all the bathroom modifications were approved and would start shortly. The next thing I knew, there were workmen, noise and dust all over my house.

Bathroom re-do

The tub came out and a flat wheelchair-accessible roll-in shower went in, with a fold-down seat installed on the wall. The vanity cabinet came out and a pedestal-type sink was installed that my wheelchair could fit under. They also installed a cabinet with shelves and drawers so I could use this space as a dressing area.

Bathroom with a roll-in shower and fold-down seat
The new bathroom also has a flat wheelchair-accessible roll-in shower with a fold-down seat installed on the wall.

A new ADA-compliant toilet with wrap-around grab bars was installed, with maybe the best thing of all — a bidet with a self-warming toilet seat! The bidet allows me to conduct my daily personal hygiene with some measure of privacy and dignity. Don’t laugh, it works.

Since this is also our guest bathroom, I wanted it to look really nice, so I bought a new shower curtain and light fixture, some pictures for the walls and new towels.

My new bathroom now looks like something out of House Beautiful magazine. It is functional and safe for me, and beautiful for guests. I could not be happier. Thank you, Arizona!

How things have changed

It’s difficult to put into words what these modifications have meant to my life, my health, my well-being and my happiness.

I used to suffer from very bad lower back pain, mostly due to twisting and turning and struggling to get in and out of the shower, bathroom and van. All the doctors could do was prescribe pain medication that made me drowsy.

Since the bathroom and van modifications have been completed, I’ve noticed that I have only minor and occasional back pain. I have to believe that this is due to the modifications.

Because I feel better and have less pain, I take less medication, and have less drowsiness and more energy. And because I have more energy, I’m able to do a little bit more and feel a little bit stronger. I used to have to take a nap almost every afternoon, but now I find I rarely feel the need to nap. (Our dog Max is not happy about this, since we enjoyed our afternoon naps together.)

Although my husband is still my caregiver and does many things for me, I think these modifications have relieved him of at least a few of the chores he’s had to help me with in the past. I also think he enjoys seeing me be a little more independent.

It’s a great feeling to know that there still are some things I can do for myself. I fully intend to continue to do as much as I can for as long as I can.

I would tell anyone in a similar situation to never give up, never take no for an answer, be patient and persistent, and stay open to all new ideas.

Bonnie Guzelf, 59, lives in Tempe, Ariz., with her husband Phil and their 10-year-old cockapoo, Max. Bonnie’s ALS, which was diagnosed in 1999, is very slow-progressing, and she continued to work until 2002 as an engineering administrator at TRW Vehicle Safety Systems. The Guzelfs love to travel, and Bonnie is in the process of organizing a wheelchair-accessible group tour to Israel for the spring of 2012. Follow her experiences as a wheelchair user at her blog:

Centers for Independent Living (CILs) often can provide information about local financial assistance programs. Independent living specialists and counselors work with people to determine their eligibility for various programs. To learn more, visit the Independent Living Research Utilization Directory of Centers, or call (713) 520-0232.

Also, contact your state vocational rehabilitation agency, which may help pay for home modifications related to a disability (check your local telephone directory). Be sure to check out MDA's list of assistive technology funding resources, including financial assistance with home/bathroom modifications, in InfoQuest Spring 2011.

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