For a person with little or no sight there are practical and emotional difficulties about using a public restroom. So much of vision loss is about finding things with your hands, and also not being able to find things you need like the flush. You are also afraid of what your hand might touch!
You cannot scan the other people in the restroom and make your own judgment about them. You may feel exposed and vulnerable. Now that being gay is part of society, , some men feel extra anxious wondering if their attempts to find the urinal and touching the butt of the man in front might be perceived as a sexual advance. (I regret that I have not contacted one or two past clients to ask how this social change affects gay men.)
Women feel embarrassed and awkward too, but the problem is not often about their sexual intentions, though it can be. (See the story from Jen.)
Men and women with enough sight to see the layout of the restroom have an advantage, though lighting and bright white walls and floors can be a problem even for those with useful sight. But a white cane, and a relaxed, calm manner are your best friends.
Ed Christopher and Heather Platt, mobility instructors at the Carroll center for the Blind, gave me restroom expertise. At the end of some of the stories, there are suggestions from them, but alas, there is no perfect solution.
Men may be having a tough time, but it’s not easy for women either. .
Diana says: Dealing with public rest rooms is crazy. They are all different. Some have two rooms or they are so large you can’t find the stalls or sinks, the soap and the towels. Sometimes you can’t even find the door out. I do ask at times, but the women look at you funny. I do not use my cane, so I do let them know that I don’t see. Then sometimes I am alone in the restroom and I get mad with myself not being able to find everything. My husband would rather run naked through the street than to go with me inside. No one asked the blind how to set up public rest rooms. They should make them all the same.
Heather and Ed say: Get a pencil thin ID cane and keep it folded in your purse just for this situation. Flip it out as you enter and other women will get the picture instantly and usually be helpful. If the restroom seems quiet chek your return before you get all the way inside so you know your exit. Ask the person behind you in a line to show you to a stall, and if she seems friendly ask about the soap and the towels while you have her. It may be more difficult if noone else is in the bathroom. Then you might want to use that ID cane around the walls and also keep the back of your other hand at hip level against the wall. This is called trailing and helps you find the stalls and sinks at least. Good Luck!
Hannah says: You can buy purse sized packs of products such as Wet ones, which you pull out one by one and use to wipe down the seat, or to cover your hand while you search for the flush, or just to clean your hands. You can also buy small hand sanitizer sprays which do away with the need to locate the sink, the soap, the towel or the trash!
Jen says: I once had a misunderstanding of intention due to not knowing it was an open bathroom. I invited another woman to go first and then entered after her, not knowing it was a one room toilet. The woman was surprised and embarrassed. So was I.
Heather says: Single bathrooms have a handle and a lock; restrooms with more than one stall have a push door.
Me again: Finding how to flush the toilet is my biggest difficulty. Is there an automatic flush? Is it a push button? Is there a lever somewhere? When I find an attendant or a friendly toilet goer, I do ask what kind of flush it is. I do not sit down but back up to the seat so my legs (in pants) are in contact with the two curved points at the front. Then I undo my pants and scooch down a bit, but none of my skin touches the seat.
Kate: My only bathroom issue is when I am out walking. I can never duck behind a bush because I never know what eyes are out there.
Jonathan Gale, a Disabilities law consultant was open about his restroom attitude. He has been blind for 27 years and goes to many teaching and business settings, yet in restrooms he still feels at risk.
Jonathan says: Naturally as a blind person I wish I could see. I know I am never going to see again . Most of the time I find it easy to intellectualize that. Restrooms are one area where I cannot rationalize it, cannot get over it. If my son or my grandson is waiting for me, people assume there is an intellectual deficit as well, because someone is doing something to help me.
The more public, the restroom the more risk people feel; take away the risk and the fear factor and people will be more respectful. It is a whole different thing at a bus station compared with a safe setting like a Starbucks. You have much less knowledge of who might come in after you or who may be loitering. It is a judgment call.
Physiologically for me, my camel bladder kicks in. I go for hours rather than use a public restroom.
Heather says: Men need to find the urinal or the toilet with the cane, and then center themselves using either their knees with a toilet or the cane, or the backs of a hand on the outer edge of the urinal.
Jonathan kindly collected these stories from his guy friends:
One guy went to a large restroom in a large mall. All the urinals were in use. I went into a stall which was not locked. I pulled down my fly, pulled out my you know what. There was a man sitting on the toilet.
A man went into a restroom and found an open stall door and unknown to him a little boy was sitting silently on the toilet. The boy yelled for his Dad, who came running in, slamming open the stall door against the blind guy. The father understood, but the blind man has not gone into a public restroom since.
One man was a corporate attorney representing a large corporation in a federal trial. He was losing his vision. He slipped into the men’s room during a short recess. The urinal was out of order and covered with clear plastic. He had to go back into court and stand in front of the judge covered in his own urine.
Another man, now totally blind, was on a trip with his wife on the New Jersey turnpike, where the restrooms have many rows of urinals and stalls. He was standing in the lobby area of the restroom listening. A man whose voice he did not recognize said, “Hello Bruce, come this way.” The man took his arm. “Here is a urinal. See you later.” The Same man came up to him again: The paper towel is over here, soap over here and so on. Naturally, Bruce was creeped out. Who was this guy who knew him?
When he was out of the restroom, his wife said, “A man saw me leave you at the door. He was concerned that you might need help. He asked me your name.”
Me again: Clients at the Carroll Center also talked about finding not just where the towel was on the wall, but whether it had a lever, dispensed towel if you waved your hand, was a blow dryer with a button, or a dryer you put your hands inside to activate. And then there is the soap dispenser and the faucet! At least the toilet is much the same!
Please post a comment to tell us how you are dealing with public restrooms . Let the rest of us learn from your experience.