I travelled to Wellington recently to meet with a few academics. I’m starting a PhD next year, so I needed to discuss my topic, my proposal and other logistics. It was very exciting for me and I always enjoy being in Wellington. It was my home for 10 years after I finished school and in many ways, it still feels like home so many years later. It was a very successful trip and I enjoyed myself, for the most part.
There was one issue that really took the shine off it though; every time I needed to use an accessible bathroom while I was out and about, it was occupied and on no occasion was the bathroom taken by a disabled person.
Of course there are instances where a disabled person might need to use an accessible bathroom who might not appear to have a disability at first glance, which is why it is important not to jump to conclusions about whether someone has a genuine need to use an accessible bathroom. Much like people who use accessible carparks when they are displaying a legitimate permit, people can be unfairly judged. There are many able bodied people though who reveal the information themselves, in their demeanour and their response, without any provocation, that they do not need to use a wheelchair accessible bathroom.
There is no law saying that if you are not disabled you cannot use an accessible bathroom. Indeed, some able bodied people believe they are as entitled as we are to use these facilities. Well, I am here to tell you, you are absolutely not. This matter is unequivocal in my mind. If you don’t have a disability, do not use an accessible bathroom.
There are two exceptions, of course: If it is a shared “parents’ room”/accessible facility, which is not ideal but not your fault, or if it is the ONLY bathroom available. In these cases, use the facility without guilt but be mindful of the time you are taking and whether or not you really need to use this space. I don’t mean to say you should ‘hold it’ until you find somewhere else, that’s not healthy. When you gotta go, you gotta go.
But if you are using the bathroom to freshen up your makeup, alone or with friends, or if you are using the bathroom for sex, alone or with friends, or if you are using the bathroom, alone or with friends, as a backdrop for a photoshoot for social media – Seriously, WHY do people do this?? – or for any other reason that doesn’t require a toilet or sanitary disposal method, GTFO of our damn bathrooms, already!
If you are using accessible bathrooms and you don’t need to be using accessible bathrooms, if you are sheepishly apologising, or worse, justifying using an accessible bathroom when you are not disabled, you should expect at the very least to be glared at. AT THE VERY LEAST. You know what? I’m all for diplomacy and cutting people a break when it comes to understanding disability. It… is… exhausting but I see it as the best strategy. On bathrooms though, nope. You do not get a pass.
If you are using an accessible bathroom and there are stalls available, or if you can wait for a stall to become available, it is a moral failing for you to use an accessible bathroom. You are saying to disabled people that you do not care about us and our most basic needs. You are saying to us that it is more important to you to get in earlier, or to have more space than you actually require, or to take more time in a space that is specifically meant for us as disabled people, than it is for us to be able to perform the most basic of functions.
There is no delicate way to say this: Stop using our bathrooms to take long and stinking shits. IDGAF that you’re trying not to stink out the stalls, or that you feel entitled to more privacy than the stalls allow. If you are taking a shit, it’s probably going to take a long time, in which case I might be waiting on the other side of the door for a long time. Frankly, the ‘courtesy’ that you have extended to stall users means that disabled people like me, who don’t have a choice about where we go to the bathroom, have to feel like we are suffocating in your stench. It’s not fair.
Accessible bathrooms provide more than features such as grip rails and extra space for mobility aids. Bathrooms that are usable by disabled people are essential so that we can be out of the house and living independent lives that don’t require us to travel home, or wherever we are staying, every time we need to use a bathroom.
You are saying to those of us who don’t have the luxury of being able to ‘hold on’ if an accessible bathroom is being used by you, a person who does not NEED this facility, that it is ok with you that we might piss ourselves, or worse, waiting. Many of us do not have bodies that work like yours. We have to plan so that we can avoid embarrassing situations that can actually ruin our day. The non-essential activities that able bodied people often use accessible bathrooms for take so much time that we have to weigh up whether we need to go in search of another bathroom in another building, which might be next door or blocks away, or if we should risk waiting, with no idea of how long you are going to take.
Lastly, businesses and public owned buildings REALLY need to stop locking accessible bathrooms, especially if it is not explicitly clear where we might find a key. Who are you keeping that bathroom pristine for? By the time we figure out who to talk to and how to unlock your impenetrable fortress, our day might well be ruined. I understand that such bathrooms are often used by homeless people and the state that the bathrooms might be left in could make them unusable for us anyway. I understand this because this is a problem I encountered a couple of times in my trip to Wellington.
It makes me angry, not because homeless people are using our accessible facilities but because there is clearly a need that is not being met by our communities, that is having a negative impact on both groups. It’s heartbreaking. When you lock homeless people out of accessible bathrooms without another solution available to them, they are going to find the next accessible bathroom that isn’t locked. Accessible bathrooms are not set up properly for the needs of homeless people who don’t have proper access to facilities needed for privacy and basic hygiene. This is a problem that needs to be addressed by our government and communities for the good of both populations.
If you are still in any doubt, be aware that every time a disabled person is waiting to use an accessible bathroom, and you’ve taken forever, and you open the door with some sheepish excuse as to why you are using our accessible bathroom that does not involve disability, that even if we don’t say anything to you out of politeness, or out of fear of confrontation, or just because we are exhausted at having to deal with this crap, we are all thinking the same thing: “Arsehole”.