The bathroom. It’s something we all use, but we don’t often talk about the challenges of public bathrooms when you have a disability. Last month a mother of a child who is blind wrote to me and asked about navigating public bathrooms. She asked me the following:
How do you navigate public bathrooms? Are stalls or single bathrooms easier? Any barriers or things that make it easier or more difficult?
For me personally, I hate public bathrooms, but as I have gotten older I have gotten better about handling them. For those of my readers who are sighted, please keep in mind that every blind person has their own way of doing things. What works for me may not work for someone else who is blind. Public bathrooms can be kind of scary and dangerous when you are blind because not everyone is as clean as you might be. When you are blind, you have to touch everything and if the bathroom is not clean, obviously that’s a problem. My disability allows me to use the bathroom on my own, but I feel much safer if someone is with me who can see.
In some situations, I am brought to the door of the bathroom and am left to figure it out with my cane. Because of the mobility challenges I particularly have, it is harder for me to leave a place than it is for me to find it. If someone drops me at the doorway, it is easier for me to meet them in the hallway than it is in a classroom or office I am working in. I can eventually figure out how to do this but it takes me a little while to learn it. If it is a single bathroom I will use my cane from left to right, figuring out where the toilet and sink are located. Once I have oriented myself to the toilet, felt along the left or right for toilet paper, and found the sink, I search with my hands around feeling for soap, paper towels, and use my cane to let me know where on the floor the trash is located. While we’re on the subject of toilet paper, I’m not sure why, but people online like to ask blind people about using it. Please think before you ask your questions. The answer to this question is that we all use it the same way. The only difference is that you with sight might find it quicker with your eyes than we may with our hands. Not many blind people talk about this, so I hope this finally puts this weird question to rest.
I discussed mobility in another blog, but when I was in school, there was only one mobility teacher in Rhode Island teaching everyone from children through college. My mobility teacher would walk around and tell me where everything in the bathroom was. She might direct me by saying something like, “When you walk in, the toilet is straight ahead, the sink is on your right when you first walk in, and the trash is past the sink on your right.” I have heard that some blind people bring Sanitizer because it is easier than trying to find a sink. I have used both, so do whatever works for you. If I am in a stall I use my cane to find the toilet and find the paper with my hand. Of course just make sure you teach your child to feel for the lock on the door. Of course using the bathroom is easier when it is someone you know, but we have to teach completely blind kids that they must use their hands because that is the only way they are going to get important information.
Do I find single bathrooms or stalls easier? I have a hard time answering this question because I find them both challenging. Space wise, because of the mobility challenges I have, single bathrooms are easier for me. I would say single bathrooms are easier because there are not as many stalls to go through to find one that is clean. I can use smaller stalls as well as ones designed for people in wheelchairs. I find smaller stalls easier because they don’t have as much open space.
Any barriers or things that make it easier or more difficult? One barrier that makes any public bathroom difficult is that you don’t know what you’re walking into. If you have complete blindness like myself, (there are different types of blindness) you don’t know if the bathroom you are walking into is clean or if you should find somewhere else to go. If you are alone, you really take a risk and at least for me, pray to God. I hate to say it, but I feel like people are a barrier sometimes. People can be incredibly mean, but they can also be really nice, too. I think honesty can be a challenge. You hope that people are honest about clean bathrooms, but anything is possible. I didn’t go public with this for a while, but I decided to recently at a talk I gave at URI. I’m saying what I’m saying not to get back at anybody, but if it happened to me it can happen to someone else. One day in college, no one told me I had bled through what I was wearing. As blind women we have ways of figuring this out, but we are human and like you who are sighted, sometimes we miss something. I went the entire day, seeing classmates, professors and readers, and nobody said a word until I got home. My mom and I were really upset. I know that the time of the month is an uncomfortable subject depending on your maturity, but don’t. Ever. Be. That. Mean. Just don’t do it. I laugh at myself now because of how much my life changed for the better my final semester, but for the longest time I was not open to having a male reader because that happened. I say that to say, it’s scary to think that if someone could keep that from you, they could also let you figure out the wrong way if a bathroom is clean or not. For every terrible person in the world, there are more nice people. The key is to find them.
I feel safer and find it easier having someone sighted with me who can be my eyes, but it is challenging going with someone you don’t know. One challenge for me was that I wasn’t taught where every bathroom was so to make it faster, I would sometimes ask a classmate to take me. I had an aid when I was in public school as a child, but I was on my own most of the time in college. The hard thing for me was that not many people in college talked to me. This meant I had to ask someone I didn’t talk to for help, hope they were being honest, and I would have to explain that I would need them to wait for me because I did not know how to get back to our classroom.
My final points are these. Society makes disability a huge deal when it doesn’t need to be. Because of this, I think we as people with disabilities are our own barrier sometimes. Because of situations we’ve been through, we start acting like what we are asking for is a big deal when we know it really isn’t. I know that some people have felt funny about who helps them to the bathroom, including myself, and for good reason. We all deserve respect and privacy. A professor friend reminded me we are all the same. We all have to remember that. I have seen blind women who share their story as well say they were concerned about a guy helping them find the bathroom. I was really worried about this when Phillips was new. The thing to remember is you just have to find those people who don’t make you and your decisions into a big deal. We shouldn’t have to publicly thank people, but right now it is more important than ever that we do. We have to show people doing the right thing if we want to change how people with disabilities are treated. Thankfully I found a handful of students in college who my blindness didn’t faze. If a guy ends up helping a woman who is blind like the situation I was in my final semester of college, respect their choices. If they would rather someone go with them to the bathroom, walk around until you can find someone for them because they deserve it. You would want to be treated like a person if you had a disability. Just because you can do something on your own doesn’t mean you should or have to. I’m sure this might upset some rehab teachers in this field, because the disability field has many people who have a “Do it this way or no way” attitude. I’m at a point in life now where I am comfortable saying these things because if you are in the field, you know they are true. I also say this because we’re all adults and we don’t always have to agree with each other. You absolutely need blindness skills, but if you found a way that works for you, you do you and not what someone says you should.
I took my time with this post because I didn’t want to have this discussion with a “here’s what the books say you should do,” approach. Growing up there was not as much available for parents of blind children as there are today. I’m blessed I can use my life to help people and I hope this is helpful to anyone who is raising a blind child or who may have lost their sight. If you lost your sight, please remember that you only lost your physical sight, and that you are still able to keep your vision for life. I’ll end with this. If you are helping someone who is blind or has other special needs, please be that person who says something when everyone else doesn’t. If you are uncomfortable, please find it within yourself to go there because you would want someone to go there for you. After all, you may lose your sight one day when you get older. Trust me, trust me, trust me.
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