The Truth about “Accessible” Public Bathrooms

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Erin Vallely

The season of warm weather (in the Northern hemisphere) and outdoor activities is rapidly approaching.  As a wheelchair user, it is easier to go out in good weather, and I am excited to do more things.  In addition to thinking about the accessibility of my destination, and ensuring I have everything I need for the day, I must schedule my outings such that I have time to return home, or to my hotel, to use the bathroom.  I cannot use “accessible” public bathrooms because they are all inaccessible to me, often in multiple ways.  The lack of fully accessible bathrooms has prevented me from attending and participating in countless things, and I am not the only one.  From rest stops in small towns, malls and outdoor festivals to doctor’s offices, hospitals, and trips to major metropolitan cities, I have NEVER found a bathroom facility I could safely use.  The lack of accessible facilities not only limits my social life but also threatens my health.  The few times I have dared to try and use an “accessible” public bathroom have been adventures, and dangerous for all involved. 

Problems with “Accessible” Public Bathrooms

The first step to using an “accessible” public bathroom is being able to get to the door.  Many public bathrooms are either not on the first floor, require a step up into it or the pathway to the door is so crowded anyone with a mobility device has no hope of reaching it.  A prime example of this issue my parents and I encountered was at a gas station on vacation when I was younger.  The actual bathroom was recently remodeled and looked lovely, except for the fact I could not get to it.  There were too many displays and boxes of things in the path to the bathroom, so I could not get my chair anywhere near the door.  People I know have repeatedly been told the accessible bathroom is “right upstairs” with no way other than a flight of stairs to get there.  If you can’t do stairs, you automatically can’t use an upstairs bathroom even if it would have been good otherwise.

Assuming we can get to the door, the next challenge is to get inside.  Many doors to public bathrooms are very heavy and difficult to open, particularly if you have limited mobility.  Once inside a typical multi-stall bathroom, there is usually only one “accessible” stall, if any.  Despite the fact, the Americans with Disabilities Act has guidelines for accessible public bathrooms, although wholly inadequate, the stalls often do not meet the minimum criteria.  Numerous people have recounted experiences of not being able to get into the stall because it was far too small or of having to leave the door open because they did not have room to close it.  Toilets are often too low, or too high, and sinks frequently cannot be reached either, making it impossible to wash our hands in public bathrooms.   

As a quadriplegic myself, I need help going to the bathroom.  I can’t stand at all and therefore need to be lifted, laid down to pull my pants up and down and moved from my chair to the toilet and back again.  No public bathroom I have ever been in has had someplace meant for someone my size to do that.  Although many public bathrooms have the wall mounted baby changing tables, they only safely hold about 30 to 40 pounds, many say no more than 20 pounds.  They are also sized for babies, not for teens and certainly not for fully grown adults.  I have been known to break that rule in desperate situations, but it was not a safe situation for myself or the individual helping me. 

Many accessible stalls get trashed by those who like the slightly larger space but do not need it.  The toilets often get clogged (because people especially prefer to poop in the accessible stall), and toilet paper is frequently strewn about.  If anyone makes a mess or clogs a public bathroom toilet or sink, they need to tell an employee immediately, so that it can be taken care of as quickly as possible.  Unless you genuinely NEED the accessible stall, please do not use it. 

What are Other Places Doing?

In the United Kingdom, two organizations are working to improve bathroom accessibility.  Mobiloo is a nonprofit service that has retrofitted medium-sized delivery trucks into portable, accessible bathrooms.  Each Mobiloo has a lift for wheelchairs, a Hoyer lift (used to lift individuals with disabilities), an adult-sized changing table and a toilet with grab bars, sink, gloves, wipes and toilet paper.  Venues and individuals can rent the units to ensure all people with disabilities have access to a bathroom, so they can participate in events and trips which would otherwise be off limits.  Mobiloo plans to expand to the United States this summer with their first unit set to be in the Los Angeles area, with hopes to have them around the country as soon as possible.  Similarly, Changing Places, also in the United Kingdom, provides a Hoyer lift, an adult-sized changing table, a toilet with grab bars, a sink and, sometimes, even an accessible shower.  These units are meant to be more permanent, but they also have some mobile units.  Both organizations also have maps and lists of where the facilities are located so people can be assured they can attend events and venues.

How Can You Support Better Accessible Public Bathrooms?

If you struggle with finding an accessible bathroom, do not be embarrassed to tell people about it.  We should shout it from the rooftops!  Public sanitation and hygiene are rights we have as citizens.  The World Toilet Organization even created a toolkit to help people start the conversation about bathroom access and hygiene.  I urge you to write to your government representatives and recount what you have experienced, seen and heard about the inadequacy of accessible public bathrooms.  We must pressure the government to change the ADA bathroom regulations to be more inclusive, so everyone can access basic sanitation and hygiene in public spaces.  You can also write to Mobiloo and Changing Places in the United Kingdom to express your support of their services and find out how to advocate for these services in your area.



Erin Vallely lives with a rare form of muscular dystrophy and is a proud wheelchair user. Having graduated with a B.A. in Sociology and Anthropology with a Spanish minor from Wells College in Aurora, NY, she plans to pursue a career in disability rights advocacy and public policy.  In her spare time, Erin enjoys reading about other people’s experiences, supporting other minority groups, and traveling.