Sunday, June 3, 2012

KEEP OUT: When It's Not OK to Use the Disabled Stall in a Public Restroom

After a week on a road trip, I’m sick of public restrooms. From rest stops to restaurants, you never know what you’re going to find. That goes double if you are disabled.
Very rarely am I pleasantly surprised. It happened on this trip in Scottsdale, Arizona at the Barrio Queen. The women’s restroom there has two stalls and both  (BOTH!) are handicapped accessible.
Hallelujah! Cue the heavenly choir.
The restroom was empty when I entered it. So anyone could have picked either stall, regardless of their abilities.
But I’ve really had it with insensitive people who insist on taking the only accessible stall in the room. I believe a refresher course is needed on when it’s OK to use the handicapped stall if you are not disabled.
Well, not a course. Just a rule: You may do so only when other non-accessible stalls are occupied and only when you haven’t seen a disabled person nearby.
Some handicapped stalls have changing tables in them, so mothers with infants are exempt from this rule. (Although I prefer when the table is outside the stall so moms don’t tie up the disabled toilet for what’s guaranteed to be a long time.)
Before I became disabled, I would occasionally use a handicapped stall. But only when all the other ones were taken and only when there wasn’t a disabled person to be seen.
But now that I am forced to use accessible stalls, I really don’t understand the rude behavior I’ve seen behind ladies’ room doors. 
I am by nature a nice, trusting person. But some gals, albeit a few, are really testing me.
Once, during another road trip across the desert to Phoenix, my husband and I stopped at a rest stop. It was hot and windy that day. And from the disabled parking spot to the ladies room, it was an uphill walk. 
Not a steep incline, but anything other than flat, to me, seems like a mountain climb. 
My husband got my “good” walker out of the trunk -- a triwheeler that performs well on asphalt. I crept my way up the walkway in the wind and the heat. When I was getting close to the entrance,  a woman passed me and walked in the door.
“Hope she’s not taking the handicapped stall,” my husband said. He’d been around me enough to know that this sometimes happens.
No, I told him. Why would she? She was perfectly abled and she could see I was struggling to get to the bathroom.
But when I finally got inside, I found she was in the only accessible stall in the empty room. There were two others, but I couldn‘t get in them.
Here’s the deal: It’s not that we disabled folks just love the spacious stalls with the extra hand railings. Those are the only ones we can fit into with our walkers or wheelchairs. And those are the only ones where are able to get up off the toilets. 
Now I’ve occasionally run across abled women who emerge from the disabled stall and apologize immediately to me when they see me waiting. A couple have said they prefer those stalls because the toilet seats are higher and they like the hand railings.
Others won’t look at me.

I forgive those who offer apologies because I wasn’t there when they entered the restroom.
But I have no patience for those who walk by me or see me and take the accessible stall for themselves.
It happened again last week on our way back across the desert. 
My daughter and I had stopped at a truck stop, trying to avoid the flies we found on the toilet seats at the last rest stop.
We walked a long way into the establishment to find the restrooms around the corner. Inside the women’s room were six empty stalls, one of them accessible. When I paused to get something out of my purse, an able-bodied woman walked in, passed me in my walker and entered the handicapped stall.
I had to wait until she was done. I couldn’t fit into the other five stalls.
When she came out, she avoided looking at me and walked straight ahead to the sink to wash her hands.
When I got inside the stall, I found she hadn't even flushed the toilet.
Since I was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago, I have had plenty of infuriating, embarrassing moments. Most of them involve tests and hospitalizations and my  battle with lymphoma. And while I am always one to put a positive spin on things, I do not appreciate being inconvenienced by rude, inconsiderate people.
We can have all the Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines in the world in place to make life easier for the disabled. But it only takes one ignorant person -- someone who parks in a disabled space when he doesn’t need it or a non-disabled woman who hurries past me to nab that handicapped bathroom stall -- to ruin things.  
Disabled people don’t deserve this. I don’t deserve this. It’s hard enough trying to get through the day with a smile on my face, not cursing the cancer that attacked my brain and left me unable to walk unassisted.
Jennifer Longdon, a brilliant Arizona blogger who advocates for the disabled, wrote that the miracles of disability are found in “those who learn to live average lives in trying circumstances. Those who find grace and courage everyday to face a world that is inadvertently hostile to their existence.”
We don’t need thoughtless people making our lives worse.