Though ADA Compliant, Not All Public Bathrooms are Created Equal

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Adam Flores-Boffa washes his hands in his apartment's bathroom.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Adam Flores-Boffa washes his hands in his apartment's bathroom.

For most human beings, public restrooms are both a basic necessity and a continual source of unpleasantness. Germs abound and around every tiny corner lurks the possibility of horrible things you can’t unsee. We’re all thinking same thing: Get in, get out, wash your hands (hopefully), and do it all without touching anything. Even if you are working with a fully functional set of extremities, this can be a difficult task.

Being disabled, especially in a public space, is all about planning. You have to have a clear idea where you’re going. How are you going to get into the building? How are you going to get out? Can you do it by yourself? What about the bathroom?

The average wheelchair requires 32 inches for comfortable clearance. Most doors are between 28 and 32 inches so you often end up stuck in a door jam. Yes, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates accessibility requirements on public accommodations – but you don’t want to be the guy who goes around quoting ADA standards. Trust me, nobody likes that guy. Planning is definitely key.

If someone were to give out disability proficiency scores, I would flunk. Even after three years in a wheelchair, I still haven’t gotten the the hang of it, learning most every lesson the hard way. So, one afternoon while out shopping, I ignored nature’s call and instead decided to pop into my favorite department store. I’m not sure if it was the ice-cold sparkling water they offered me or perhaps the excitement of a rare sale on my favorite brand of shoe but I suddenly realized time was of the essence.

Now, there is no way to paint a picture of what happened without oversharing, so I beg your forgiveness in advance.

Success in the handicapped stall is all about the toilet-to-grab-bar ratio. A person needs enough space to use the grab bar to stand up and safely clear the wheelchair. This restroom fell dreadfully short. There was just no way to stand up without the risk of falling. So what to do? My mind went back a few years to a time when I was in the hospital, confined to bed. Begrudgingly, I had to learn to use a dreadful device known as a portable urinal – it looked like a half gallon plastic milk jug. This amazing piece of medical engineering makes it easier too pee in a lumbar position, but it’s still harder than you might think.

I started to consider my options. I had to improvise.

It was becoming increasingly obvious that holding it was not an option. I needed a plan. Luckily, for me, the modern-day American consumer can buy almost anything anywhere, especially in this particular store. My salvation was found in $12.95 worth of gum balls, packaged in a plastic cup.

I had my cup – soon to be a makeshift urinal – and I had a plan, so things were looking up as I headed for the men’s room. The only thing I had working against me was time. For somebody with a disability, rushing is not easy.

After a bit of fumbling, I got into position, tore open the package and dumped out the gum balls all over the floor. Undaunted, I completed the task at hand, and was relieved, so to speak, that I had averted disaster. Then the lights went out.

Literally. The lights actually went out. A motion detector, designed to turn off the bathroom lights when no one is moving and standing in the room, was the culprit. I made my way back across the dark room, crushing gum balls as I went.  I reached the door only to find that it was so heavy, I couldn’t get it open. My earnest efforts to avoid an embarrassing situation had clearly going off the rails. Throwing my dignity down the drain, I pressed my face to the crack of the door and called for help. 

I had just about given up hope when a security guard burst into the bathroom. The lights came back on. 

“Is there a problem here?” the security guard asked loudly.

“Not anymore! Thank God you came when you did!” I replied.

“A customer complained someone was up here trying to entice women into the bathroom. Did you see anyone?”

“Really? How creepy. There was a guy in here when I came in. Kind of medium tall…with brown hair.” I replied, heading for the door.

“Were all these gum balls here when you came in?” he asked.

“Gum balls … how strange. You know I really didn’t notice?” I replied, still leaving.

I held the empty plastic cup in my hand, gripping it as hard as I could. It felt like everybody could tell what I had done, just by the look on my face. Or that the security guard was going to ask, “Sir, did you actually pee in that cup?” I didn’t even slow down to check out the rest of the sale before going back to buy my shoes.

“Will there be anything else today?” the friendly sales associate asked.

I glanced around briefly before extending my hand. “Yes, actually I will also take these gum balls.”

I wanted to share this story, because I think illustrates how much and how quickly things can go wrong in a world not built for the disabled. It would be great if we didn’t have to share these public spaces. If I had my druthers, I wouldn’t even share my bathroom at home, but we usually don’t have that luxury.

We absolutely have to humanize public spaces. It’s more than just ADA specs and precise measurements. It’s about making sure that everyone can go out in the world and shop, eat, live and get from point A to point B – all while knowing that if they need to “go,” they can.

8 thoughts on “Though ADA Compliant, Not All Public Bathrooms are Created Equal

  1. Adam
    It is very enlightening to read your column. Great story of the struggles you encounter in everyday life that the non disabled take for granted. I look forward to reading more articles from your perspective.

  2. Adam,
    Well written article & personal story. I have not “wheelchaired” like you, but I do have a lot of responsibility in “public accessibility’ as I am an architect. We typically follow the TDLR and TAS Regulations that the state requires, but occasionally, the accessible restroom space, still is not easy to use. As I travel, I tend to study restrooms more than the historic buildings I visit. I promise to be more considerate in future restroom designs to help the wheelchair user have an equal and accommodating use of these facilities.

  3. Adam, I am proud of your advocacy on behalf of the disabled. Thank you for always sharing your truth, sweet friend.

  4. What irk’s me is non-disabled women using the Handicapped stall. A lot of time’s, there is only one in the restroom. Do they think it’s cleaner than the other stall’s? I wonder how they feel coming out of one and an elderly woman in a wheelchair is waiting. For those in the know…the first or second stall is alway’s the cleanest.

    • I would keep in mind that not all disabilities are visible to the public eye. It’s just better to be considerate than judgmental.

  5. Everyone should know that they can make a complaint to the Dept. Of Justice. They give complaints like this to Keybridge zFoundation which has a panel of mediators across the country who will arrange a session which results in compliance. It is free to all and takes place at the convenience of the parties, most often taking about an hour and one half.

  6. Something not talked about but definitely needs to be addressed: Public bathrooms need changing spaces for adults too! I’m forced to change my 5yo old on the floor in dirty bathrooms right now and dedicate way to much time to contemplating what to do when he’s to heavy to lift from the floor.

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