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  In Search of a Unisex Restroom
by Shelley Peterman Schwarz
 
     
     
  I vividly remember the last time I used a public restroom alone. It was in 1985. We were on our way back home to Madison, Wisconsin, after visiting my husband Dave's parents in Benton Harbor, Michigan. We stopped at a shopping mall halfway in between to grab a bite to eat, use the restroom, and give Jamie (ten) and Andy (eight) a chance to walk around. Jamie and I went to check out the girl's department at Lord & Taylor and then decided to visit the women's room.

I followed Jamie in my little three-wheeled scooter. She went into a regular stall and I went into the one designed to accommodate a wheelchair. I had no trouble getting onto the commode, but when I tried to stand up afterwards, I couldn't. I panicked. What was I going to do? Not this problem now! Not another humiliating MS experience. Fighting back the tears, I tried to get a grip on my emotions and face the facts: I simply couldn't get up. I needed help. Dave would rescue me and I'd deal with this new problem later.

Jamie left me in the stall and went to find Dave to tell him what had happened. I sat on the commode waiting for them and trying desperately not to cry hysterically. When Dave and Jamie came back, Jamie checked to be sure the restroom was empty, crawled underneath my stall door and unlocked it. Then she stood guard at the entrance while Dave came inside to help me. In a matter of minutes we were out. No one in the store knew what had happened. But I did.

That night, I cried myself to sleep because I knew I had lost another piece of independence forever. It's been more than 17 years since that incident, and I haven't used a public restroom without help since that day. The challenge of finding a unisex restroom (otherwise known as a single toilet room that can be locked for privacy) is part of my life. Perhaps my experiences can give hope to those who have the same problem or who worry that they might in the future. I recommend three steps first.

  • Cry. Cry until you can't cry anymore. I cried for a week. I had to grieve this new loss. I also cried because I didn't know how I would manage. How would Dave and I leave the house for any length of time? How much worse would I get? Would it ever stop?
  • Assess the situation. When I had no more tears left, I asked myself what I was going to do. Was I going to be confined to short excursions, tethered to my home bathroom, or was I going to figure out a solution? When I finally had the strength, I talked to Dave.
  • Enlist allies. Dave insisted that he didn't want me to stay home all the time. He wanted me to be part of family activities. The kids were young and they needed me to be there at their soccer games, tennis matches, and recitals. Dave said he was willing to help. He had just one request. He didn't want to go into a public woman's restroom unless it was empty and someone was guarding the entrance. Okay ... I felt I could live with that.

From then on, our search began ... and here's what we've learned. First, "building accessibility" and "restroom accessibility" are not synonymous. We both remember a trip to Maryland when we called to see if the restaurant was accessible but didn't ask about the restrooms. As we walked in, we saw a sign indicating that restrooms were in the basement. The manager assured us that we could use the "dumb waiter" to get downstairs. Now when we go to a restaurant we've never been to before, we ask both accessibility questions ahead of time.

Gas stations everywhere, both in the U.S. and abroad, have individual restrooms that are usually accessible. We stopped at one gas station restroom in Germany that had a bathroom rug on the floor, decorative soap in the soap dish, and fingertip towels on the rack. We thought we were in someone's home. Recently, we've discovered that convenience stores that sell gasoline, and many national chains, such as Subway, Starbucks, and Einstein Bros. Bagels, have large accessible restrooms.

At theme parks, zoos, museums, state fairs, and art fairs, we've used the first-aid station or the nursery/mother's room, designed for feeding or changing a baby. Some public facilities have locked first-aid stations that can be opened only by a security guard. Don't be afraid to ask! We've found that guards will open the door even if all you need to do is use the restroom facilities.

At the Kennedy Space Center, we used the employees' restroom, which proved to us that sometimes you have to be creative and push the issue a little. Yes, explaining my problem to the young men and women who were working that day was a bit embarrassing-but I'm willing to do what it takes to be with my family.

At some shopping centers, we've used restrooms that were closed for cleaning. Sometimes we even put up our own sign. We carry one along that reads, "Restroom Temporarily Closed."

At malls with restrooms that are so busy they would be difficult to block off, I'll ask a clerk at one of the stores if they have an employees' restroom I could use. Occasionally they'll say no ... until I explain why. We've found that clerks and managers are willing to allow Dave and me into their backroom areas. Managers often apologize for the behind-the-scenes mess, but I enjoy the sneak-peek at the merchandise.

At office buildings, exposition centers, and auditoriums, we've asked a maintenance worker, security guard, or even a friendly-looking passer-by to stand guard while Dave helps me.

Airports have offered us some of our most interesting experiences.

Before the Baltimore/Washington airport built a state-of-the-art unisex restroom on the C Concourse, we used the police detention center. Of course we had to show identification and submit to being frisked before they would let us enter the bulletproof area.

A few years ago we were at New York City's JFK International, leaving on a midnight flight to Israel, and I needed a restroom before we boarded. There were no unisex facilities. A helpful employee suggested we go into the International Customs Center, which was closed at that hour. Dave and I were all alone at 10:30 p.m. in this large, restricted area. It was dark and sinister. But we found what we needed.

Airports in Milwaukee, Nashville, Detroit, Tampa, Seattle/Tacoma and Madison, Wisconsin, all have unisex facilities that I've used. At Chicago's O'Hare, I've used the Medical Center restroom. The first time we were there, we discovered that the handles on the sink were missing. When we asked why, we were told that people who are being tested for drugs try to dilute their urine samples. Now we always ask for the sink handles before we go in.

We've learned to be creative and patient, because sometimes employees have to look for a facility for us. Sometimes, an isolated part of the building has a public restroom that's rarely used. We found an out-of-the-way restroom on the top floor of a Chicago museum, for example. We've also found that the world is filled with kind people. I try to remember that by asking for help from passers-by, employees, or business owners, we are educating people. Brookfield Square, a favorite shopping mall outside of Milwaukee, recently put in a "Family Restroom"-a large room with a sink, a toilet, and a lockable door.

If those of us who search for a unisex restroom speak up about it, perhaps the next time a building is remodeled, or a building code is up for a vote, more people will remember us.

 
     
     
 
For additional information
 At Home with MS: Adapting Your Environment
 Bowel Problems: The Basic Facts
 Controlling Bladder Problems in Multiple Sclerosis
 Urinary Dysfunction and MS
 
     
  Shelley Peterman Schwarz has made a career of helping people make life easier. This article is excerpted from her book, Blooming Where You're Planted: Stories from the Heart, which is available from http://meetinglifeschallenges.com/. You can also get information on Shelley's Meeting Life's Challenges e-zine.  
     
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Last updated February 2006
 
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