Solving the Mystery of California’s Restroom signage

Solving the Mystery of California’s Restroom signage

A History of California Restroom Signs

CASI: Certified Access Specialist Institute

An extremely useful article that you can find at,

California requires at least two signs to identify each restroom open to the public. Although this duplication seems unnecessary, there is a story to the rules that features the usual role players of government regulation – good intentions, grand ideas, and enough bureaucratic inertia to keep everything confusing and almost silly. The story starts some years prior to the passage of the ADA, when a man named Sam Genensky (partially blind himself) set out to make restrooms easily identifiable to those with limited vision. His idea was to use large geometric shapes with edges thick enough to be felt by those with no usable vision, and to be easily seen, even from a distance, by those with limited vision and people with cognitive disabilities.

A twelve inch diameter circle identified a girls’ or women’s restroom, and a twelve inch equilateral triangle identified a boys’ or men’s restroom. A triangle placed on a circle was used to identify a single user restroom available to either sex. An important consideration was that the color of the shapes had to contrast with the door on which they were placed.

ISA handicap symbol ISA handicap symbol SEGD handicap symbol


No pictograms or text were required – but many designers thought the signs looked “empty” and added pictograms for men or women, sometimes with text as well. With the passage of accessibility standards, Braille was sometimes added. This simple and clear system of symbols was a successful first stab at making restrooms accessible to everyone. Many people who were legally blind were trained to recognize these symbols, and spared the embarrassment of walking into the “wrong” restroom.
Eventually, early adopters of accessibility like California were followed by other states and later on the Federal Government. In 1990, the ADA came along, mandating federal standards for restrooms to be identifiable by touch. Of course, the federal agency charged with developing the rules didn’t consider using California’s well-established door symbol. They wanted a raised character sign with Braille to be located adjacent to the door, not on the door. Their concern was that if someone was reading the sign up close and the door suddenly opened, that person could get hit in the face and seriously injured. The California signs didn’t usually have that problem, since it took only a quick touch of the fingers to tell if the sign edge was curved (women) or straight (men). No actual reading was necessary. However, the “feds” insisted on the wall sign, and didn’t allow California’s door sign as a substitute. The new regulations had some other requirements as well. When the restroom was accessible, it was required to display the International Symbol of Accessibility (ISA), or “wheelchair pictogram.” If it was not accessible, a sign had to be mounted nearby directing to the nearest accessible restroom. That sign also had to display the ISA.
The code body in California briefly considered eliminating the requirement for the geometric signs. After all, the wall sign now required by the federal guidelines offered the same information in both visual and tactile format. Why have two signs? The disability community responded with anger. They wanted their circles and triangles! They were used to them, they were unique to California, and they spoke of California’s proud history of pioneer effort in the field of disabled access. The signs stayed, and that’s how California came to require multiple signs for each restroom.
California Rules
Now that we know how the “two-sign” requirement came into existence, we can look at what exactly the regulations require in California for the identification of public restrooms and other sanitary facilities such as shower rooms, bathrooms, and locker rooms with lavatories or restrooms inside:
Tactile Wall Sign
As per the ADA, each restroom must be identified with a tactile wall sign. The usual text is Girls or Women, Boys or Men, or Restroom (for a unisex facility). Restrooms intended for families, or for disabled persons accompanied by attendants are often called “Family Restroom.” Other appropriate legends might be “Women’s Locker,” “Shower,” or “Bathroom.” The text might be accompanied by an appropriate pictogram.
ISA handicap symbol ISA handicap symbol SEGD handicap symbol
If it is, the pictogram is placed in a six inch high field located immediately above the tactile text. Contracted (Grade 2) Braille with California spacing is placed between 3/8 inch and 1/2 inch immediately below the tactile text. Text and Braille must be in a horizontal format, and Braille dots must have a domed or rounded shape. If the restroom is accessible, the International Symbol of Accessibility (ISA), or “wheelchair pictogram” may be included on the wall sign adjacent to the gender pictogram, or it may be on a separate sign, or on the geometric door sign.
Geometric Symbol Sign
A geometric symbol sign is centered on the door, with the vertical center of the sign 60 inches above the finish floor. The entire symbol must contrast with the door. Your sign must be light on a dark door, or dark on a light door. The symbol for a facility to be used by females is a 12 inch diameter circle, 1/4 inch thick. For a male facility, the symbol is a 12 inch equilateral triangle, 1/4 inch thick. For a single user or “family” facility (unisex), a 1/4 inch triangle is superimposed on a 1/4 inch thick circle 12 inches in diameter. Although it isn’t stated in the code yet, the triangle should contrast with the circle, which should contrast, in turn, with the door. It is fine to include the International Symbol of Accessibility on the geometric symbol, or even to repeat the appropriate gender pictogram. However, if you do choose to put the gender pictogram on the geometric symbol, you must also include it on the accompanying tactile wall sign. The ISA does not need to be repeated on the wall sign. If text, a pictogram or ISA is included on the geometric symbol sign, it must contrast with the sign background, and the sign and graphics must be non-glare.
Directional Sign
ISA handicap symbolIf the restroom being identified is not accessible, the only change in the sign is that it does not include the International Symbol of Accessibility. You should place an informational or directional sign in the proximity of the restroom to direct persons with disabilities to the nearest accessible restroom. This sign must include the ISA, and the appropriate text and arrow. It does not need to have tactile characters or Braille. The sign must have high dark/light contrast, non-glare surfaces, and use text that is non-decorative and appropriately sized.

CASI Vision:
Influencing positive change in access through awareness and proactive adaptation of the built environment.

CASI Mission:
CASI is the voice of access professionals as well as a resource for both its members and the public.


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