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9 Things People Get Wrong About Public Bathrooms and Chronic Illness

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Many people take the ability to run into any public bathroom, do their business and run out for granted. However, for people with chronic illnesses and disabilities, it’s not always so simple. Public bathrooms are often plagued with accessibility issues, and other peoples’ judgment towards those who don’t “look” like they have an illness or need accommodations can make trips to the bathroom particularly unpleasant.

Take, for example, a woman with Crohn’s disease who made headlines this week after a Zara employee wouldn’t allow her to use the staff bathroom, causing her to have to search for one on her own and almost have an accident. The woman, Vicky Prime, told the employee she had Crohn’s disease, but the staff member told her the bathroom was “not for her.” Zara has since apologized and said employees would receive further training. Unfortunately, her experience is not unusual, and this attitude can lead to even more pain, discomfort and embarrassment for people with illnesses and disabilities attempting to use public bathrooms.

We wanted to set the record straight about public bathrooms and what people don’t seem to know (but should) about people with illnesses and disabilities. Below, you’ll find 9 (wrong) things people still believe about public bathrooms — and the truth. With the help of our Mighty community, we break down the misconceptions and stereotypes, so hopefully fewer people will have experiences like the one in Zara.

1. You can tell just by looking who needs the disabled stall and who’s “faking.”

The truth: Not all disabilities are visible, and many people need the grab bars and extra space in the disabled stall even if they aren’t using a wheelchair at that moment. It’s not up to other people in the bathroom to judge or humiliate people using the disabled stall — you don’t know what they’re going through.

“Just because someone doesn’t look like they need the [disabled] stall, doesn’t give you the right to stare, or comment when they enter/exit. Not all disabilities are visible,” said Lillian Riccioli.

“I’ve had dirty looks, people tutt at me, people mutter under their breath and generally be rude. They have no idea that even being out some days is tough for me! These toilets make it easier for me to cope and manage my multiple disabilities. I often use a walking stick now and even then people give funny looks when I use disabled facilities, like I’m less of a priority. I find it happens less often when I show physical weakness and have aids,” said Pandora Patrucci.

2. If you hear someone vomiting in the bathroom stall, she or he must be hungover.

The truth: Illnesses like gastroparesis, cyclic vomiting syndrome and many others cause nausea and vomiting. No matter why a person might be throwing up in a public bathroom, there is no need to make comments or judgments.

“Assuming the girl puking in the stall next to them is either hungover or [has an eating disorder], and making comments about it to whoever they’re with out loud! I’m embarrassed enough as it is to be having a flare-up in public, and it’s not something I can always control,” said Abigail Robertson.

3. Anyone who asks to cut the line because they need to go right now is probably just taking advantage of you.

The truth: A common symptom of diseases like irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis is an urgent need to go. If someone explains to you that they have an illness and really have to go, and waiting a few more minutes wouldn’t really affect you, give them the benefit of the doubt and let them go ahead. You’ll be saving them additional discomfort and embarrassment.

“Please allow people with urgency-related disorders (Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, etc.) to cut in line. I promise we aren’t trying to cheat the system, and I really do need to go ASAP,” said Steph Flinders.

I have used the men’s restroom more than a few times due to urgency with my Crohn’s disease. I don’t have shame anymore but when I was younger the urgency and needing to ask people if I could cut the line, etc. was embarrassing. I wish there was more grace given to those of us that truly can’t wait,” said Samantha Dolloff Martineau.

4. You should save “certain” bathroom activities for home.

The truth: While a healthy person may be able to “hold it” until they get to the privacy of their own home, not everyone can. You should never shame someone for their noises or smells in the bathroom — that’s what the bathroom is there for.

“Crohn’s can strike anytime and anywhere. We can’t always be choosy about where we go — any toilet will do. And when I was a kid, newly diagnosed, I got really sick in a small, crowded public restroom at an airport. It was bad, and I was horrified. As I left the stall, face bright red, the woman that went in after me yelled for all to hear, ‘That smell is disgusting.’ Her comment stuck with me and I carried shame for years after that any time I had to go in a public restroom. Now I accept that if I have to go, I have to go. My Crohn’s is not my fault,” said Becky Mosely.

“I have heard on numerous occasions that certain bodily functions should be saved for your bathroom at home. It’s ridiculous because we all do it even if we want to pretend that we don’t. I have had anxiety-inducing experiences when my UC is acting up in a public multi-stall bathroom thinking I am going to embarrass myself for something that is a natural part of life. Initially I put myself at risk for being ashamed, now I understand that my health comes first and if someone doesn’t like it, I can send them to my gastroenterologist and have them take it up with him!” said Jacky Rodriguez.

5. The disabled stall is meant for anyone who  wants extra space.

The truth: Unlike disabled parking, it is not illegal to use a disabled stall if you aren’t disabled or assisting someone who is. However, it’s important to keep in mind that disabled stalls are specifically designed to be accessible for people with disabilities (and parents utilizing the changing table if it’s in the disabled stall) and disabled people may not be able to just pick another stall the way you can. The stall isn’t there for able-bodied people to change clothes or hang out or just as an option if they “feel like” having more space. Be mindful of when and how you’re using it, so you don’t inadvertently force someone who really does need it to wait just for you.

As Lauren Berglund wrote on The Mighty, “Before you walk into the ADA accessible stall again, please think about those who may come into the bathroom after you. Imagine finally finding an accessible bathroom, only to get there and have to wait even longer because someone is in the only stall you can use.”

6. All you need in order to make a bathroom accessible is a large stall.

The truth: There are actually many requirements a bathroom must adhere to in order for it to be ADA accessible. Toilets, sinks, faucets and soap dispensers must be a certain height, doors must be able to be opened with minimal force, and mirrors must be not be higher than a certain distance off the floor, among other requirements (click here for the full list). If you are disabled and a public restroom is not accessible to you, you can file an ADA complaint.

“Businesses are required to provide both an accessible way to enter their facility, as well as a bathroom with one stall a wheelchair-user can use. This can be an expensive renovation, since many small details are required to make it accessible, but it must be done,” said Tiffany Carlson on HuffPost.

7. A janitor or bathroom attendant will come along soon, so you don’t need to clean up after yourself.

The truth: This really should be pretty obvious, but you should take a quick glance at the stall before you leave and make sure it’s ready for the next person. You never know how long it will be before an employee cleans it, and a messy bathroom can be unsafe for the next person to use, especially if they are dealing with an illness or disability.

“I would just love if people would use common courtesy and flush the toilet and clean up after themselves and their children. There is nothing worse than having to wait for a stall and getting the looks when you have seconds before you’re going to throw up on yourself and then running in to a toilet filled with waste and a seat covered in pee or anything else,” said Jamie Mitchell.

8. People who have illnesses that cause issues in the bathroom just need to eat healthier, and they’d be all better.

The truth: If someone is sick in the bathroom, that doesn’t mean they “ate too much” or need to “eat healthier.” Illnesses that cause digestion, bladder and bowel issues, like inflammatory bowel diseases and gastroparesis, among others, require complex care, and people dealing with them should never be made to feel like they caused their health issues.

“[People should know] that what’s healthy for people with a functioning gut usually isn’t good for for people with gastroparesis. Not everything can be remedied by eating ‘healthy.’ In fact it can be made worse. Not everyone is sick because they have eaten wrong,” said Sherry Merrihew.

9. Rules are rules: If someone is asking to use a bathroom they technically aren’t supposed to use, they should never be allowed to use it.

The truth: Of course, there are certain circumstances when a person really might not be allowed to use a bathroom. However, as Vicky Prime and Zara show, sometimes, a bit of compassion goes a long way. If you’re in a position to decide who gets to use a bathroom located in a public place and someone asks if they can use your bathroom due to their illness, consider showing kindness. You may be helping them more than you realize.

Originally published: May 4, 2018
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