Image of a roll of toilet paper on a wall dispenser.

Busting Disabled Toilet Myths

As a person who is blind or has low vision, I’ve never considered it my right to use the designated disabled toilet. I’ve always thought of them as amenities for people who use wheel chairs, walking frames, walking sticks, crutches, or maybe an ambulant adult with children who aren’t yet at an age to be unsupervised in public restrooms, and their isn’t a designated parent’s room around. As a cane user myself, I confess that until recently I hadn’t considered just how essential disabled toilets also are for people who use guide dogs to navigate the environment.

Could you imagine trying to fit thirty kilos of blond Labrador at your feet in one of those tiny, awkward to manage, let alone move in cubicles that are so often found in public areas? It’s not exactly an equitable or dignified prospect. After all, a dog isn’t the same as a white mobility cane. A girl can’t just fold it up and put it in her handbag when it becomes an inconvenience, or is temporarily not needed to perform a task.

I’ve always thought of myself as physically mobile, agile and capable. Therefore, to use a disabled toilet would be taking advantage of the system and utilising an otherwise essential resource that was designed for someone else. I can walk, squeeze my body into tight places and most of the time find the toilet paper, the flush and the door locking mechanism. In other words, I have a choice about where I can go to the toilet, while others do not, so why should I keep them waiting because of my anxiety or adversity? So I try a little harder, push a little further, or avoid it all together.

It almost shocks me when I’m presented with the disabled toilet as a legitimate option. My internal response is always one of confusion and bewilderment. Why are you showing me this, I think. I am not disabled. I can manage in the regular amenities. Why are you giving me this information when it’s of no use and just takes up more valuable space in my head, I wonder as someone describes the particulars or pushes me toward the door. I don’t understand why they’re doing it when usually there’s a perfectly viable option elsewhere.

However, on the occasions I’m forced, or feel obligated to use the disabled toilet as a means to quickly end the exchange that led me there in the first place, I find myself hurrying, worrying, rushing, and afraid that I’m doing the wrong thing and encroaching on the space. I shouldn’t be here, I mutter as my concern that I haven’t locked the door properly blossoms and my embarrassment about potentially being seen blooms. It isn’t like I can block the entrance with my foot the way I would in a regular toilet stall if I feel vulnerable.

The truth is, sometimes the room feels too big. I feel exposed. I forget where I put my cane. I can’t find a hook for my bag. The rubbish bin is nowhere to be found and everything is often all one colour. It stresses me that there’s no tangible lock I can flick over with my fingers to be assured of its closure. Although, the design makes perfect sense. The facilities are meant to be as easy, accessible, roomy and hands free as possible.

And there in is the misidentification. I take it as proof I don’t belong here, because again, I can manage in a regular toilet block just as long as there’s no snaking long line of people waiting to use the facilities. One queue, multiple doorways, and I’m a goner. I’m left flabbergasted and feeling foolish because I simply can’t tell when a cubical is empty or which one has opened up. I’m left dependent on the gestures of others to inform me of my place, my positioning, and my path forward.

Granted, the entire ordeal makes me feel somehow violated, but it is doable. It’s very doable, regardless of the noise, the mirrors, the confusing layout, the obstacles or my cognitive overload. At least if the vicinity is deserted I can fumble my way around and scope out the environment in private. I lightly tap each cubical door with my fingers to see if they give way, thereby indicating they’re empty. I can find the dryer, feel for the soap and figure out the taps, all without judgement or invasion.

Sure, it may not be the ultimate solution, but at least it’s something. The fact is, I have the luxury of access where many do not. That’s why it drives me bananas when able-bodied people see it as their right to use a disabled toilet for their own convenience when they have other alternatives at their disposal. Don’t they know the impact that has on those without choice? Don’t they realise how arrogant, entitled, and inconsiderate they’re being?

At What Cost?

I never realised the cost of my disability denial up until now. Sure, I can do all those things described above and more, but they come at a price. As a person with a disability I’m all too adept at managing, making do, compromising, strategising, storytelling, adapting, escaping and doing without. This is exactly what my using a public toilet experience has been. I’m an expert at stressing, straining and talking myself into or out of finding a public amenities space.

Part of my coping mechanisms include but aren’t limited to:

  • Making sure I go to the bathroom before I leave home, my work place or anywhere I’m familiar with.
  • Walking hundreds of metres, probably passing sixteen different toilet blocks to use one I know and am confident about regarding my navigation skills.
  • Swapping suburbs, rearranging travel routes, or organising situations in order to find and use a public restroom I’m sure of, including location, entrances, cleanliness and other facilities therein.
  • Not drinking enough water and completely dehydrating myself so I don’t have to use the bathroom at all.
  • Holding on for hours and hours on end, all day if need be, because I simply don’t know where the toilets are situated or cannot find them.

Relying on the goodwill and generosity of others to take pity on me if I’m loitering and looking lost near a public toilet is difficult to say the least. It’s a big ask to have a stranger show me where the entrance to the restrooms are, tell me when a cubical is vacant and show me to the door, or instruct me on the quirks of the hand basins, dryer and other such hygiene necessities.

Sometimes I simply don’t feel like asking someone where I need to go or how to get there. Sometimes I want the luxury of discretion rather than a show and dance. Sometimes I would prefer to suffer in my own silence and pretend the physical or emotional discomfort doesn’t bother me, and that this option is in fact more dignified than the intimacy and exposure of having to query another person on the most basic of human functions.

There are times when I haven’t been sure if I’m even going to make it home or somewhere I know, because my bladder is that full and I’m in that much pain that I can barely think straight, walk well or find my way. In fact, I will arrange my life quite literally around the public toilets I can easily locate. No one else would know this of course. Let’s meet here, I suggest. No, let’s meet there, I insist, not letting on it’s all secretly based around a bathroom break.

The only time I deviate from such calculated formulae is if I’m sure I’m going to be with people I know and trust, or whose job it is to be trusted and treat me with courtesy, dignity and respect, preferably without condescension, curiosity and question. But beggars can’t always be choosers and sometimes a girl gets what she gets. Sometimes it’s like being on display for well-meaning, if not nosy onlookers who don’t know how not to be awkward, invasive or rude. This can make going out an unwelcome but necessary ordeal.

I’ve missed out on all manner of outings and opportunities because of my limited knowledge of an area. These include job interviews, meetings, lectures, seminars, conferences, concerts, plays, festivals, drinks, dinners, dancing, day trips, movies, events, activities, leisure, pastimes, pop culture and all sorts of good stuff. Even something as simple as a coffee is not that simple.

Whose Fault Is It?

I know the only person I have to blame for this is me. It’s my fault for not seeking out the assistance, the training, the orientation and the options. Accept that I have and I do, yet still it’s not enough. The problem is things change, venues are refurbished, renovated or ripped down, and the search is relentless.

Every new, uncharted adventure means another unknown toilet, and every unknown toilet is another detail to take under advisement along with a whole host of other elements, ideas and obstacles which need my attention. I justify it by telling myself that if I know at least where one toilet is in a shopping centre, office block, council building, library, university campus or any vicinity I frequent regularly, then everything will be okay. If it’s within a two kilometre walking radius, and I’ll absolutely ask if I have to, maybe if I feel like it, then that is all I need. After all, that is manageable, right?

Sure, my health, my wealth, my dignity and my well-being might be at risk, but it’s better than nothing. Tell me it’s better than nothing, because it’s all I have. It’s a disempowered, disembodied and distilled version of life in comparison to how it could be if I were able to confidently and easily locate a toilet no matter where I was in the world.

However, all of this has had to change since having my beautiful, amazing, clever daughter. Not only have I had to learn where the parent’s rooms are located in our limited selection of adventure destinations, but now she is properly toilet trained I need to know where a toilet is regardless of where we are in our journeying.

Even before I had her I used to fret about how I would manage this particular aspect of our lives. Deep down I knew I wasn’t handling my own situation nearly well enough, but to have it directly impact my child would be unacceptable. As it is, I haven’t taken her to many places by myself due to the limitations of my not knowing how, where or when I would be able to change her.

There are times when I’m sure she’s sat in a wet nappy longer than she should have because I haven’t been able to find an appropriate place. In acts of desperation I’ve freshened her up behind a pot plant, under a tree, on my lap, in a dressing room, in a seating nook of the ladies toilets, on a train and on a blanket in the middle of the floor of a disabled bathroom. I’ve come home early, or worse, not gone somewhere at all because the cognition involved with having to know and find a suitable space to toilet my child or myself on top of everything else I need to factor in when embarking on an outing has proven too much.

Components such as stress, tiredness, the weather, the million other social interactions and micro-decisions I’ve already had to take, or will have to make, all play a part in the process. Quite often staying home or very near to home is the gentler, hassle free option, at least in the immediacy. Never mind what it does for my short-term confidence or long-term aspirations. I try not to think about it too deeply, because if I do, the guilt, the shame and the blame of my limited capacity to deal with the clutter and calamity of a sight-orientated world can leave me defeated, inadequate and questioning my parenting worth. In other words, it’s a slippery slope of self-loathing which is best left avoided.

This isn’t to say I haven’t ever taken her to a parenting room. However, I find them fraught with hidden difficulties. For starters, they are often tucked away in obscure corners, not well signed, dimly lit and with little to no contrast between built elements. Each one is configured differently, from where the push button is to enter and exit, to the change tables, nappy bins, bucket chairs and private toileting area. It’s a lot to absorb on top of responding to the very valid and immediate needs of a distressed baby, squirmy toddler or growing three-year-old who is just learning how to control her body.

One of the advantages of allowing her to find her own way to toilet training was the convenience of nappies. It meant I had a safety net in terms of her toileting options. To be honest, I wasn’t in any hurry and in fact was dreading this new phase of her development. I worried I would fail her. With every outing as she grew, the thought would flit through my mind as to how we were going to manage when the inevitable happened and she declared that as a big girl she no longer wanted nappies.

Braille Solves Everything

When braille, large print, high contrast, raised lettering and alternative signage for public amenities became more mainstream, I thought it would make my life easier. This didn’t stop me teaching my sixteen month old how to visually identify the triangle representing the women’s toilets as well as the circle and wheel chair symbol indicating the disabled toilet just in case. The disabled symbol is often a clue to where the parent’s room might be found, as they’re often grouped side by side or very close to one another.

I didn’t want to burden her with this and have her effectively responsible for her future toileting needs so soon, but what other option did I have? At least if she could use her eyes to scan a space and point us in the vague direction of the shapes, then maybe, just maybe we would have half a chance of her receiving a positive toileting experience.

I don’t believe my child should be my guide. It goes against every fibre of my being and parenting philosophy, but I have little choice. So I reluctantly wrapped up our wayfinding strategy as a game and showed her what to look for. Every time we found a toilet, whether we were using it or not, we would stop and I would explain the symbols. I’d draw pictures on the blackboard at home which I hope emulated those we saw in our travels. I showed her pictures on the computer as a way of reinforcing the concept and asked her to point out the lady for us, all in a bid to hopefully avoid her suffering the indignity and humiliation of wetting her pants in public. Even though she’s such an easy-going, innocent kid, I just know that one day there’s going to be times where if she has an accident it’s going to hurt her.

Sighted people don’t have to think twice about finding the toilet. They might wonder about where it might be, but nothing a quick flick on a conspicuously silent electronic map, a billboard, scan of their surroundings or glance toward the ceiling and following a couple of high contrast arrows can’t alleviate. However, imagine trying to find a toilet without signage. That’s the equivalent of my experience most of the time. I either know where it is, or I don’t. There’s no in between. It’s either part of my consciously learned and memorised mental map, orientation skills, mobility training, my cobbled together wayfinding arsenal of coping, questioning and quick thinking or it isn’t.

Sure, one can question the point of braille, large print, high contrast, raised lettering and alternative signage on something blind or low vision people can’t find in the first place. Additionally, not everyone reads braille. But let me say, having a sign that is braille, large print, high contrast, has raised lettering, alternatively formatted and consistently located is absolutely essential. At least if I know it’s there I have a chance of identifying it if I fondle the wall long enough. It will tell me I’m either in the right or the wrong location. It will allow me to read it and follow instructions.

The relief of being able to read something for myself is invaluable, not only for me and countless others, but for the little person I’m raising. She’s not my carer. She’s my child, and like any child, she deserves to be one. Her job is to be enchanted, distracted, fascinated and fun loving. My job is to encourage and enable her to grow, flourish and be herself. Sure, we can work as a team, but all of that should be a choice, not a chore. She shouldn’t have to learn to read out of necessity because the infrastructure isn’t in place for her mummy to do so. How is that fare for anyone?

No, Wait, Technology Solves Everything

I understand the increasing reliance on smart devices and wireless technologies to provide an alternative wayfinding and sign reading experience, but these should not and cannot be considered the only option. Sure, they may seem progressive, streamlined and suitable, but nothing will ever replace the sense of certainty, safety and security of being able to identify and understand a physical sign for oneself.

If anything, electronic signage or specific vision impaired apps are more complex, more difficult to maintain and more of an overload than anything. Calling something accessible doesn’t make it so, and this is nowhere more obvious than in the electronic wayfinding space. Simply put, there can be no replacement for the instantaneous feedback of vision, and much of the time these location based apps and maps don’t deliver on what they promise. Therefore, they ought not be seen as the easy, lazy way out for access, accessibility and the world of wayfinding.

Let me put it this way. My daughter once locked herself in a parenting room while my attention was elsewhere in trying to take a photo of our location so my phone could supposedly recognise what was in the viewfinder and then relay it back to me through a text to speech format. Sure, at least she was inside the parents room and hadn’t run off somewhere, but this made it no less traumatic for either of us. I was unable to find which button I needed to push to enable her release due to nothing being labelled with braille, large print, high contrast, raised lettering or alternative formatting. She was too panicked to hear my instructions or reassurances. We had to wait for a passerby to intervene. How is that equitable, inclusive or dignified?

If there had been a braille, large print, high contrast, raised lettering or alternatively formatted sign in a contextually consistent location, none of this would have happened. The advantage of braille, large print, high contrast, raised lettering and alternative formatted signage for those who need it is that it only takes one hand. You can still hold the pram, the guide dog or the toddler while reading.

Using a smart phone or device, particularly when text to speech is activated, requires two hands. You need one to hold the phone and the other to double-tap, three-finger swipe, twist or scroll. This not only takes more physical effort and attention, but having to absorb or supply the auditory information over other noise means that your capacity for paying attention to multiple stimuli is significantly lowered.

I don’t mind feeling self-conscious and a little silly about brushing my fingers along a wall as I walk if I know I’ll eventually find a braille, large print, high contrast, raised lettering and alternatively formatted sign. It’s better than embodying and explaining the shame and humiliation about being excluded from equitably participating in society on an often easily remedied footing if only we valued and embraced diversity, difference and disability.

Instead, I am left defeated, disillusioned and distraught that I can’t take my daughter to the toilet as a matter of course. I have to plot, plan and pray to God that I remember how to find it, knowing that if I fail, I have failed her. How am I supposed to be comfortable with that when there’s a solution readily available? Unfortunately, the powers that be deem it too expensive, too resource or time intensive, or too unimportant to prioritise an inclusive built environment, thus stripping me and by association my three-year-old of our right to have access to a safe, clean and private toileting facility.

Where Was I?

Which brings me back to the disabled toilet. Recently I’ve discovered the liberation of a single door, a single toilet, a single basin and a single space to navigate, and it’s all due to my three-year-old. She’s shown me how it fits in our lives and why it’s perfectly okay for me to utilise the amenities without guilt, intimidation or shame.

The parent’s rooms are great, but the cognitive bulk that comes with them makes the experience more difficult than it has to be. The disabled toilet with its one set of elements to orientate ourselves within, and not having to go through the rigmarole of a regular toileting facility is comparatively simpler. It means I can spend my time and attention on what really matters, which is supplying me and my three-year-old a positive, streamlined toileting experience.

Unless of course, there’s no braille, large print, high contrast, raised lettering or alternatively formatted signage to identify which button does what. Without that, I’m happy enough to allow my daughter to go to the toilet as I can shield her with my body from the potential prying eyes of others if the door is inadvertently unlocked, but I’m not nearly comfortable enough to go myself. What if I haven’t pressed the correct button? How am I supposed to distinguish between them without an equivalent signage option to the print version? So I’m left to hold on and hope I can wait until we get home rather than risk the public humiliation and persecution of someone walking in on me.

While I’ve come to realise the validity of my using a disabled toilet, I often find myself unable to do so due to a simple lack of braille, large print, high contrast, raised lettering and alternatively formatted signage for people who are blind or have low vision.

Therefore, if there’s anything we can take away from my experience, it is that access to the built environment and facilities is more than just a wheel chair symbol plastered on a surface. It is about considering the needs of everyone and including elements that will service, function and provide for a diverse set of needs, circumstances and situations.

Posted in Wayfinding Is The New Lost and tagged , , .