Accessibility and bathrooms

There is much discussion on social media lately about gender identity and bathroom use.

This discussion has been amped up ever since President Obama’s mandate to public schools to allow students to use the bathroom for the gender they identify with, instead of making them use the bathroom for the gender they were born with.

I don’t really have an opinion about that, as Namine is home-schooled and she identifies as the gender she was born with. That’s a discussion for another time and place, and probably never on this blog.

I do want to discuss bathrooms, though. This whole gender identity thing is relatively new, but disabled people — young and old — have been dealing with the same sucky bathroom situation for as long as there have been bathrooms and disabled people.

Handicap bathrooms are not created equal

First off, let’s talk about handicap-accessible bathrooms. There is a wide, wide disparity between how they’re built, from one building to the next. Sometimes they’re wide, but not long. Sometimes they’re long, but not wide. Sometimes you luck out and find one that does have enough room all around, but sometimes the toilet paper roll is placed where you cannot reach it when you’re sitting on the toilet.

So you might be able to get a wheelchair in the handicap stall, but there are plenty of times when you have a caregiver and a wheelchair-bound person (like us). More often than not, good luck getting around the chair (having pushed them in from behind) in order for them to transfer to the toilet (if they have that kind of mobility at all). But what about the caregivers who take care of people who can’t use the toilet? And if there isn’t room for an adult, a small wheelchair, and a child, then how in the world can anyone expect two adults and an adult-sized wheelchair to fit?

For the time being, I can brute force my way through this problem because I can pick Namine up and she’s fortunate enough to not be incontinent. (That’s not something all people with Caudal Regression Syndrome can say.) If there are no handicap stalls — or if the stall is just not big enough for the two of us, or if someone is using it — I can leave her wheelchair outside the stall and carry her inside. So far, I’ve never had to worry about people trying to steal her wheelchair.

But Namine won’t be seven forever. She’s already nearly gotten too tall for both her wheelchair and her walker (and we’ve even had her wheelchair extended to support her longer legs), and there will come a time when Namine is on her own and unable to use the bathroom because they just don’t build all of them with more than a single subset of disabled people in mind.

Unisex bathrooms would be awesome

Now comes the topic that comes up in this whole gender identity thing. What if we had unisex bathrooms? “Oh, the horror! Think of the children!”

No, seriously. I am thinking of children: one in particular, my own daughter Namine. Say, instead of there being a male bathroom and a female bathroom, there are just (imagine for a moment) two bathrooms. Namine goes into one and finds all the stalls in use. So she goes into the other bathroom and finds an open stall. I’m failing to see a downside here.

“But Paul,” I hear you say with disgust. “She’s a girl! What if she sees men” — gasp — “peeing!”

I’ll admit that most dads probably don’t bring their daughters into public bathrooms at age seven. But even though Namine is fully capable of transferring herself onto a toilet from her wheelchair (and vice versa), the unpredictable state of bathroom stalls (as mentioned/ranted above) gives me pause. So most times, I still go into the bathroom with Namine. I, being the adult, can’t go into the women’s bathroom, so Namine and I go into the men’s together.

Namine has seen her fair share of men’s backs as they stand up to urinate. (Sorry for the blunt language and/or spoilers, but this is a post about bathrooms.) We walk past and go into an open stall, or — and this has happened plenty of times, too — we wait for one to open up.

There is much that can be improved when it comes to disability and bathrooms, both in terms of construction and attitude. But with more awareness, I believe we can make a future for our children where everyone feels welcome, and none feel neglected or second-class.

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