Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

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Poaching The Only Accessible Toilet

Yesterday, I waited several minutes before being able to get into the only accessible toilet in the building. Someone was already in there. The person was getting changed – she did not have a disability.

In fact, she was changing from her work clothes to her cycling outfit just before going home. Obviously she thought the larger, wheelchair accessible cubicle was a better option to get changed than the other cubicles. She said “it’ll only be a minute”.

It wasn’t only a minute. It was more like 5 minutes. And when your bladder is full, time seems to drag on forever.

The problem is, I had no option to go elsewhere. Where she could have opted to change in an empty office, or in another toilet cubicle, I don’t fit in other cubicles, and I don’t think people would appreciate if I used the potted plants in the empty office…

Perhaps people don’t realise that a lot of wheelchair users have bladder and/or bowel issues. For many, the “I have to go” reflex isn’t working well and when we have to go, we have to go NOW. For many others, using in-dwelling catheters, if the legbag is full, it must be emptied. This is more than a simple matter of convenience – it’s a matter of health.

This reminded me of another time I had to wait for someone without a disability to be done in the only accessible cubicle. I knocked on the door, and was told “just a minute”. I heard a bit of rustling sound once in a while. When eventually the person walked out, they were folding up a newspaper. They didn’t even have the courtesy of looking embarassed.

Another time still, there were a couple “kids” that looked embarassed when they came out of the accessible toilet. This was at the mall. I could hear some interesting noises coming out of the accessible toilet. I knocked on the door. Heard some noises, and grumbling, and giggling. The door opened, and two teenagers, clothes in disarray, came out. I’ll never know for sure what was going on in that cubicle, but I have a fair idea. The girl, at least, looked bright red and wouldn’t meet my eyes when they came out.

It’s one thing to use the wheelchair friendly cubicle if all the other ones are used. But don’t use it only because it’s more convenient for you. Some people just don’t have a choice.

If you’re a wheelchair user, what’s your most memorable incident of an accessible toilet being used by someone who didn’t have accessibility needs?

5 thoughts on “Poaching The Only Accessible Toilet

  1. I maybe saw your link to this on twitter. I saw “changing” and thought you meant someone changing a baby. Having been in the position of having nowhere but the disabled toilet to safely change my baby in the past, I had some sympathy. (Luckily in my case, there was no-one waiting to use the actual toilet.)

    But now I’ve read this I have no sympathy it all. What’s so hard about getting changed in a normal cubicle? And if for some reason I was using the disabled toilet, I’d be getting out right smart and feeling embarrassed about it if/when a legitimate user turned up.

    (Which is all a fairly pointless comment really, but I thought it was interesting how our own experiences can alter how we respond to the short version of something until we see the long and detailed one.)

  2. @Kerry, there are a lot of places where baby changing tables are in the accessible toilets. I can understand that – needing to utilise premium space. But that’s *quite* different indeed from changing your own clothes, or reading newspapers, or doing other things of dubious ilk… Thank you for your comment :)

  3. I saw the link to this on Twitter too, and I do wonder what is the “correct” protocol. EG: if I’m at an event with a HUGE lineup, and the accessible toilet is just sitting there, empty, is it appropriate to use it or not? (And I’m not talking about with a newspaper or doing my hair or whatever)
    Also, I have two primary school aged boys, and as a single Mum, when they have to go to the toilet, I just don’t feel safe letting them go to the Men’s by themselves, and they’re starting to arc up about using the ladies – so the compromise has been to use the accessible toilet. Is that a no no? (they do both have disabilities, but do not have mobility impairments)

  4. @Sam, I think it’s reasonable to use the accessible cubicle when all others are in use – as long as you do your business and move on.

    As for your boys – I understand you not wanting them to go in the men’s loo by themselves.

  5. I had similar experience a few times. The other person would never apologise even though the other stalls were empty.
    In the USA, with obesity rate so high, I don’t understand why they still make the stalls so small. The door always opens into the stall, making the prime space even smaller. If the regular stalls were a little bit bigger, perhaps people would stay more often away from the accessible ones?
    People don’t understand at all that when a wheelchair user needs to go, he/she really needs to go. That is something we need to point out to others so they realise that they might slip in a pool of urine on their way out of the bigger stall.

    @Sam: it’s OK to use an accessible bathroom if no other is available. It is not OK to use accessible parking spot without a placard, ever, not even for a minute.

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