Should Able-Bodied People Ever Use a Handicapped Bathroom Stall?

Last week, writing for Everyday Feminism, Erin Tatum offered a terrific list of 10 Ways to Avoid Everyday AbleismMy favorite item is #9: Stop Calling Us Inspirational (which implies that the lives of people with disabilities must be so horrible that the mere fact that we get out of bed in the morning is laudable).

But a group of friends, all of whom have significant experience with living with disabilities that affect us or those we love, had some disagreement about #2: Don’t Use Handicapped Restrooms. I don’t agree with this one. Here’s why:

On the surface, never using a handicapped restroom stall if you are able-bodied seems akin to never using a handicapped parking spot without a permit. As I’ve written before, the reasons that able-bodied folk offer for using a handicapped parking space without a permit (“I’m only going to be a few minutes,” or “I sprained my ankle”) don’t hold up logically when one considers the purpose of handicapped spaces, the laws governing their use, and the reasonable expectations that those with legitimate handicapped parking permits have. But I’m not convinced that the same faulty logic applies to able-bodied people using a handicapped restroom stall, for one major reason:

Everyone who uses a public restroom has a reasonable expectation that they may need to wait for a stall.  This is an annoying but commonplace fact of life, especially for women. When you use a public restroom, chances are you’ll have to wait for a short (or not so short) time. If a person who uses a wheelchair or walker and thus needs the extra space and amenities of a handicapped restroom stall finds that stall occupied, he/she will have to wait. But unlike with a parking space, the person occupying the stall will likely vacate it in a few minutes. People with mobility impairments have a right to have accessible bathroom facilities in all public venues. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have the right to find the handicapped stall sitting empty at all times, absent another person with a mobility impairment, so that they do not have to wait.

Finding a handicapped parking spot occupied by a car without a permit is more than an inconvenience. It potentially means the person with a legitimate permit will be unable complete his/her business, whether an errand, a medical appointment, a work obligation, or a dinner date. It potentially compromises that person’s safety, as he/she will have to walk farther from a non-handicapped spot or try to maneuver a wheelchair without benefit of the extra space between cars that is standard for handicapped parking spots. Plus, the jerk parking in a handicapped spot without a permit is breaking the law.

Not so with handicapped restroom stalls. At worst, unless able-bodied folk are using the stall inappropriately (more on that below), the person with a disability might have to wait a few minutes until the stall is free. Does waiting place an undue burden on the person with a disability? I don’t believe it does, even for someone whose condition might lead to particularly urgent bathroom needs.

I know someone with neurological damage from a broken neck; when he needs to go, he needs to go. His body gives him little warning, so he will sometimes stop mid-conversation and rush to the restroom. I assume this is true for others with conditions that cause neurological damage. For someone with such urgent bathroom needs, waiting for a stall to be vacated would certainly be painful. However, accessibility is about ensuring that people with disabilities can access facilities to the same extent and for the same purposes as those without disabilities can. And people who don’t need handicapped restroom stalls can have equally urgent restroom needs, such as sudden illness or a recently potty-trained toddler. When anyone has an urgent need in a public restroom, they can speak up and ask for special consideration, such as cutting in line. But someone with a mobility impairment does not, I believe, have any more right to immediately find a vacant handicapped stall when they are in urgent need than I had to find an available toilet back when I had a three-year-old who would announce, “I gotta go potty….NOW!”

I do believe that those of us who don’t need to use accessible stalls should follow some basic guidelines about when and how to use those stalls, to minimize inconvenience for those who need them.

Don’t use a handicapped stall when you have a choice to use another one, such as when you’re in a public restroom with several open stalls.

Don’t use a handicapped stall if you expect to be in there for a long time, such as if you are feeling ill or need to change clothes.

If there is a line for the restroom, allow someone with a mobility impairment to “cut” in line when an accessible stall opens up. So, for example, if I’m at the head of the line and someone behind me is using a wheelchair, and the next stall to become vacant is an accessible one, I should allow the person in a wheelchair to go ahead and use that stall. If, instead, I go use it, then when the person in a wheelchair gets to the head of the line, she might have to wait longer than others because she has to wait for a particular stall to open.

Finally, a note on parents with young children, who often use the handicapped stall because of the extra room. Young children need help in the bathroom, and it’s often not appropriate or safe to leave them unsupervised while a parent uses the bathroom. It can be physically impossible to fit an adult and one or two (or three!) small children in a regular stall. A large stall can be a necessity for parents of young children, not merely a convenience.

Handicapped parking is a legal matter, with permits required and fines levied (at least theoretically) when someone uses a space without a permit. Handicapped bathroom stalls are more of an etiquette and respect issue, more akin to airline boarding procedures (which accommodate those with disabilities as well as those with young children) or priority seating on public transportation (which is available to people with disabilities as well as pregnant women or parents lugging babies and their stuff) than they are to handicapped parking spaces. In many public restrooms, diaper-changing stations are already located in the handicapped stall, simply because it has the most space. I wonder if it would make more sense to label these stalls as being “priority seating” (ahem…) for those with disabilities and people with young kids in tow.

So, what do you think? Is this reasonable? Or am I doing damage to the cause of greater accessibility? Let me know in the comments! Disagreement is welcome, but good manners are required.

Update: In some of the most useful responses to this post on Facebook and via e-mail, readers have suggested that we need to stop setting the accessibility needs of disabled people off as separate from the needs of others. What’s needed, they argue, is a notion of universal access that will make spaces useable not only by those with mobility impairments, but by pregnant women, parents of young children, and aging citizens experiencing increased pain, compromised balance, and slower response times. Sara Hendren wrote about this notion of “accessibility redefined” here. Another friend suggested that designers consider a whole new approach based on how people actually use public restrooms. For example, why not address the clear gender differences in restroom use by making women’s rooms bigger than men’s rooms, and making all stalls large enough to accommodate people with mobility aids as well as parents with children and others who need the space?



About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Stephanie S. Smith

    Glad to read your thoughts on this. Thank you!

  • Jeannie

    Totally agree with you. The differences you point out between handicapped parking spots and restrooms are logical, as are your guidelines for respectful use of those larger stalls.

  • Spencer Joslin-Montlick

    I totally agree. And as a mom of two young children, I often benefit from the extra room that the accessible stall affords. I’m thinking about the ridiculous situation which could arise if there’s a long wait for the bathrooms, and no one uses the accessible stall in the off chance that someone in a wheelchair might come along and need to go. If there are only 4 or 5 stalls, not using the accessible stall means cutting capacity by 20-25% and lengthens the wait for a stall accordingly.

  • pastordt

    I do not yet have a disability sticker for my car, but think I may well need one in the next few years. I have two bone-on-bone, arthritic knees and manipulating a small toilet stall and a lower toilet are difficult every day and impossible on bad days. So, yes, if there is no one else needing a handicapped stall, I will always choose it, even if smaller ones are available (which does seem to ‘break’ one of your listed rules – sorry about that.) Thanks for lining out the differences between these two situation so clearly, Ellen. This is very helpful.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      The good news is that, unlike with parking spaces, you don’t need to prove you need to use the handicapped stall before using it!

  • bork borkenbork

    I don’t disagree with you, but I don’t think any reasonable person would. The issue is not waiting in line when all the stalls are full, or having someone else in there with a legitimate reason such as having children with them; the issue is people with NO need using the larger stalls as a luxury option, and it’s a very real problem. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve found the bathrooms at my school hogged by some fit twenty-something sitting in there for upwards of ten minutes doing god knows what…

    I do think there could be more done to account for the “wait factor”. No, disabled people don’t have reason to expect any less wait time than anyone else, but on the flip side I would say that everyone should reasonably be able to expect to use the restroom in due time. If there is consistently an issue with long lines and wait times, I think there’s a problem with the facilities.

    Side note: it’s ridiculously easy to get the parking sticker. Given the amount of people going around with bogus disabled cards, I would argue that it’s as much of a courtesy and respect issue as the restrooms.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      “If there is consistently an issue with long lines and wait times, I think there’s a problem with the facilities.” – Exactly. That’s precisely the point of those advocating for a “universal access” perspective that maximizes how people of all abilities are able to use public facilities. Part of that is simply recognizing that, for example, women generally need larger restrooms and more bathroom stalls than men.

  • JoysDivision

    I opened this because I have claustrophobia, and depending how the restroom is configured, the non-handicapped stalls are sometimes too small and confining for me to use comfortably. This, however, is not a “typical” disability (whatever the heck that means!) and I’ve gotten some pretty rotten looks in bathrooms when someone more clearly “disabled” is waiting when I step out. I don’t feel I should have to explain myself in a public situation, and usually just stare at the floor shame-faced and try to skulk out. But it’s unfair to assume that everyone who looks “able-bodied” actually is.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      Good point. Many disability advocates make the point that, if one of our concerns is that people not make assumptions about us (our abilities, our intelligence, etc.) based on outward appearance (use of mobility aids, etc.), we also ought not to make assumptions about whether or not someone has a disability based on whether or not they look able-bodied. It’s never a good idea to assume you know what someone needs based on how they look.

  • Jacob Wadsworth

    I think it means giving priority to handicapped people but doesn’t mean that able-bodied people cannot use them at all. It is stil a public stall after all. –

  • wmdkitty

    “Finally, a note on parents with young children, who often use the handicapped stall because of the extra room. Young children need help in the bathroom, and it’s often not appropriate or safe to leave them unsupervised while a parent uses the bathroom. It can be physically impossible to fit an adult and one or two (or three!) small children in a regular stall. A large stall can be a necessity for parents of young children, not merely a convenience.”

    Ha ha ha NO.

    Women managed just fine with normal sized stalls before the ADA. There is no reason that a mother “needs” the large stall, as I clearly remember, as a child, seeing mothers of small children standing in the regular stall helping their children, and it wasn’t a big inconvenience.

  • Williwaw

    It doesn’t make sense to make all stalls big enough to accommodate strollers, wheelchairs, etc. I am 100% behind disabled stalls, and I think if there is a disabled person waiting, they should get that stall next. But large stalls are not a necessity for women with kids, unless they put the changing table in there (which is exactly why I think it should not be in there, at least not if the restroom is in a place that has a high throughput of women with kids). Furthermore, by making fewer giant stalls rather than many normal stalls and one giant stall, you just make everyone wait longer for a stall. If I need to pee and the only stall available is small, I will bring my kid in with me, and if I had to, I could bring a couple kids in. It’s not that tiny. At times when my kid has been in a stroller, I’ve just pulled it up to the stall door and left the door ajar so I could see him. It doesn’t kill me to think that a woman I don’t know might catch a glimpse of me peeing. I have also put down a mat and changed my kid on the floor when I was in a hurry and the stall with the changing table was occupied. No big deal.

    I think the reference to “clear gender differences in how women use restrooms” is sexist. Not all of us go in there to socialize, use a curling iron, spend ten minutes putting on eye makeup, etc., and I’m not sure I know any woman that does. At work, I just go in, do what’s necessary, and get out. When I’m out for a special occasion I might spend slightly more time making sure my hair isn’t standing on end or whatever, but I don’t think I’m entitled to a bigger bathroom than the men. Even if I am in the bathroom with a friend and we’re chatting, we won’t stand there, chatting and using up space if there is someone else waiting for a sink or toilet – we’ll take our conversation elsewhere. And these days, lots of dads take their kids to the washroom (and lots more male bathrooms have changing tables, too, happily), so you can’t argue that child care is the reason women need a larger restroom. Does the person who suggested larger bathrooms for women think that women need to spend more time making sure they look pretty?

    • Fluffy_1

      And what about fathers bringing their sons into the public loo, eh? That happens a lot.

      • Williwaw

        Definitely. I know every family is different, but my husband and I are equally likely to change a diaper. It is very annoying that many men’s restrooms don’t have a changing table, and there isn’t always a family restroom (which I know is sometimes an issue with fathers who are out with young daughters and feel awkward taking a little girl into a men’s room where they have to walk past urinating men to get to a stall). I reiterate: women do not need a larger rest room, and I am really uncomfortable with the entitled sexist attitude that is behind that suggestion. I expect to be treated the same way men are treated, so I think it’s ridiculous to expect a bigger restroom so that I have more time to (a) change a baby or help small children use the restroom (which could as easily be done by a man), (b) sit/stand around the restroom chatting/waiting for a friend (which, if you are blocking someone else from getting to the sink/toilet, is bad manners no matter what your sex is), or (c) put on lipstick/preen (a personal choice that does not give you the right to monopolize the sink/mirror area while another person waits to wash their hands).

        • Ellen Painter Dollar

          The gender differences in how people use restrooms have nothing to do with all of these things you mention. They have to do with physiology. Women sit and wipe. Men spray and go. There is a reason that women’s restroom lines are far longer than men’s (sitting and wiping takes a little bit longer) and many designers of new buildings are wisely building restrooms that reflect that fact.

          • Williwaw

            I concede that it is possible, based on the different mechanics of men and women peeing, that the average time each uses is different, but I would be interested to know whether this has actually been studied in a controlled double-blind experiment or whether the evidence is entirely anecdotal. (From personal experience, I know that I can actually pee faster than my husband.) One factor you would have to control for would be the fact that women have to walk into a stall and close the door (as opposed to just standing at the urinal), and that has nothing to do with physiology. Another factor that would affect the experiment would be bladder size – men are on average larger, so I suspect that their bladders are also, on average, larger, which would mean peeing should take longer for them. A third factor that would make women take longer would be dealing with that inconvenient business of menstruation.

            Regardless of whether women take a few seconds longer to pee (because pulling down pants and wiping afterwards take so long [and I doubt it's much more than that, if there is any statistically significant difference at all]), I still think that the real time sink in restroom use is changing a baby or assisting a young child, and restroom facilities should reflect that. I don’t think making women’s restrooms bigger are going to solve that problem – it will just emphasize that child care is a “woman’s job”. Put changing tables in men’s rooms, and get more family restrooms – that will make all public washrooms more efficient.

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