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When I'm 'Stalled' by Someone Without a Disability in the Accessible Bathroom

We need to talk about the bathroom and what it’s like to go the bathroom when you’re disabled. I’ll start:  my name is Katherine, and I’m a mobility-impaired woman who has rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Thanks to RA, it’s been about six years since I could comfortably use a bathroom stall that doesn’t have metal handrails attached to its inside walls. A stall without handrails scares me. I have no problem swinging a bathroom stall open. But an accessible bathroom isn’t just one I can get into — it’s also one I can get out of.  And I can’t get off a toilet and out of a bathroom unless there are handrails within my reach.

Bathrooms aren’t easy places to navigate. Do you, able-bodied person, use the accessible stall in an airport or movie theater if there’s a long line behind you and the accessible stall empties up? Not necessarily. Let me tell you my story about why that open, accessible stall should give you pause.

In the building I work in, there are only two bathrooms equipped for disabled use on my floor. They have doors that open at the push of a button, sinks at a height you can reach if you’re in a wheelchair, and plenty of room to move around in, as well as, you guessed it, handrails. But these bathrooms aren’t designated for disabled use only, which means anyone can use them. And during the busiest hours, when the non-accessible stalls on the other side of the building are full, the overflow lines up outside the accessible bathrooms. The line is often three or four people deep.

The people in line may need an accessible bathroom, or they just may need a bathroom, period. No sign signals that disabled people get first dibs on the accessible bathrooms, so I stand in line with everyone else. Even if, in theory, disabled people should be able to cut that line, who wants to share their intimate bathroom needs out loud?

A few months ago, I waited and waited in line for an accessible bathroom, but finally couldn’t wait anymore. My knees were going to buckle underneath me. I limped slowly to the other side of the building, where a women’s restroom with three stalls, each without handrails, was now my only option.

I reluctantly plunked myself down in a bathroom stall without handrails.

I’ll leave what happened next to your fertile imaginations.

Business completed, I put my hands on the toilet and tried to push myself off it.  I wasn’t strong enough. I could lift myself up a few inches but my knees were still too weak and my legs too bent to be able to get me vertical. I have a bad left elbow, and pushing my body weight into my hands was hurting it.

I released my hands and fell back on to the toilet. Ouch. It was a rough, uncushioned fall. I was literally butthurt.

Over the next ten minutes, I tried again and again to push myself up.  My wrists began to ache.  I was putting too much strain on them too.

I tried one last maneuver.  I spread my legs as wide as I could, pivoted my body to the right, grabbed hold of the plastic toilet paper dispenser, took a deep breath, and pulled.  Hearing the soothing voice of my Pilates instructor in my head, I tried to engage my core.  Hallelujah, it worked.  I propelled myself high enough to (sort of) straighten my legs out underneath me.

When I emerged from the stall, I was sweating and tired and my arms and legs were sore.  I was late to my next appointment.

What was going on? Well, when RA flares my knees, which happens about twice a month, they become swollen and inflexible. I lose full range of motion and can’t straighten my legs out all the way. It’s painful to put weight on my knees, which means it’s hard to stand, walk, and raise myself up from a seated position without anything to pull myself up with.

When my knees are flared, I don’t sit down in public unless I know I can comfortably get back up.  If I’m with a friend, that friend knows to reach out his or her hand when I’m ready to get up.

And then there’s the bathroom.  When my knees are in bad shape, I cannot raise myself off a toilet seat unless I can use my arms to pull myself up.  To do so, I need to be able to reach for and pull on some kind of sturdy support that won’t buckle under my weight.

Those metal handrails you see in accessible bathrooms are the difference between me getting out of a bathroom and getting stuck inside. The handrails help people in wheelchairs maneuver their way from their chair to the toilet. They help others who need support — people who use canes and can’t balance themselves without having something to hold on to, and people like me who have bad knees. Accessible bathrooms have handrails because disabled people need them.

With handrails, I can employ my get-out-of-the-bathroom dance. I rock myself forward and back to create some momentum and then I yank at the handrails with all my might in order to propel my body weight off the toilet. Without them, it’s a porcelain prison.

Sometimes I pull so hard that I fall forward onto the metal stall door. If you hear a loud clang in the stall next to you, a clang followed by a muffled “f***,” it might be me. Yes, disabled people swear.

I’d like to kiss the person who first put handrails inside a bathroom stall. These simple, structural additions allow me to hold on to a scintilla of dignity in that most undignified of human spaces.

So should you use an accessible stall if you don’t need to?

My two cents? Don’t do it. That strange feeling you get in your gut when you enter the accessible stall?  What you’re feeling is hesitation. Trust that instinct — even if there’s no line and the bathroom’s empty.

You never know when a disabled person who needs that stall may enter the bathroom. I’ve found myself waiting for the accessible stall when every other stall is empty. I’d entered the bathroom after someone decided it was safe to use the accessible stall. I’m sneaky like that — you never know when my disabled ass is going to show up.

In a movie theater or airport line, you have no way of knowing who needs that stall more than you do.  Many disabilities are invisible. So if you don’t need that accessible stall, glance back at the line, and shout out a friendly “does anyone need this stall?” before you take it over. This will take about three seconds, and you’ll look super thoughtful.  If no one speaks up, you can enter the accessible stall knowing you haven’t taken it away from someone who needs it. Someone like me.

Please, above all else, don’t use the accessible stall just because it’s more comfortable. Can’t poop unless you’re in the secluded stall at the end of the row? Not my problem.

Accessible stalls equipped with sinks cause people to make really bad choices. I’ve waited to use one while people inside did everything from brush their teeth, gargle, clip their nails, and even use a curling iron. I guess it was date night. All of this activity would go down while I waited outside, propped up against the bathroom wall, one hand on a cane, gritting my teeth and praying that the fool inside would hurry up.

Sometimes I get an apology when a person emerges and sees that I’m waiting for the accessible stall. “I didn’t know you were there!” “The bathroom was empty when I came in!”

Once, a woman emerged, saw me waiting with my cane, and decided to inform me that despite her use of the accessible stall, she was “still a good person.” But the price of her convenience is me stuck in an inaccessible stall without handrails.

Perhaps you’ve used an accessible stall before without thinking, or like her, you thought it was OK because no one was waiting. Well, now you know. You’ve been bathroom educated. So please don’t sneak into that accessible stall unless you have a very, very good reason to take it away from someone like me.

Otherwise, next time you’re occupying that handrail-equipped stall and you hear someone banging around in the inaccessible stall next to yours, muttering one f*** after another, it just might be me swearing at you.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a moment where you experienced intolerance or inaccessibility. What needs to happen to change this? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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