The Etiquette of Using Wheelchair Bathrooms
It’s the question that every American faces when entering a public bathroom. To use the handicapped stall or to not? I imagine the thought process goes something like this: The handi-stall is open. Do I dare use it? It is bigger… and sooo much more comfortable. I deserve comfort even though I’m not disabled. Fuck it. The bigger bathroom it is. But wait, what if a disabled person comes in and needs the larger stall? Fuck it again. She can wait. I’ll only be a second. Yet no one takes one second to use the toilet. So often I’m left, sitting, waiting–waiting to use the toilet but also waiting for the awkward exchange that will happen when the able-bodied person emerges from the handicapped stall. It’s the look of–I’m an adult and I was just caught not following the rules.
“Oh,” says the able-bodied person, surprised, as if seeing a handicapped person for the very first time. “I’m sorry.”
A blatant lie. It’s my consolation prizing for waiting patiently. No woman is truly sorry for using the handicapped bathroom. It’d be like telling a flight attendant, “I’m sorry I took the final seat in first class,” when the flight attendent doesn’t care because he or she is paid the same regardless. Everyone enjoys a better experience, better treatment and a bigger bathroom. The issue at hand, however, is etiquette. When is it okay to use the handi-bathroom and when is it not? And what do the wheelchair people think about it? The answer is simple. Never use the handi-stall. Unless you’re a mom with a stroller or suffering from a case of explosive diarrhea and no other stalls are available. Otherwise you may use the handi-stall, but at your own risk. So go ahead. Push your luck. But here’s a warning–something bad might happen, like you might have to look a handicapped in the eyes and
lie apologize, only to be heckled and horrible embarrassed by said disabled person. True story. It happened once in a bathroom at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville.
It was St. patrick’s Day and the crew from Sea World were meeting at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, the one located in Orlando at Universal Studios City Walk. I had rode out to the bar with two of my best friends, Shan and Deeds. Shan had been a skier at Sea World back during the pirate show days, but now owned her own practice as a speech pathologist. Deeds was still water-skiiing in the Intensity Games Show, the same show I was injured while performing as a gymnast. At the time Deeds was the only woman in the nation that could do a helicopter off the ramp (which was a 360 degree spin performed in the air after leaving the ramp) and thus a bad ass. All the skiers and gymnasts from the show had promised to attend. So I prepared my liver for the shit show that was to soon follow. Anytime a group of performers gather together it becomes a contest of who can outshine the others. This was one of many reasons I loved hanging out with these people—there was always someone who stole the attention away from me, the young girl in a wheelchair that still likes to have fun.
Upon our arrival to the theme park-sized restaurant, our fellow coworkers were bellied up to the bar and in front of the erupting volcano that shook and exploded green lava on a timer every thirty minutes. Shan had been acting out a story, waving her hands and beer all over the place, when most of her Miller Lite sloshed out of her cup and landed all over me, specifically on the front of my clothes. In shock, I looked down to my lap. Beer was pooling itself to the middle of my skirt, a small ale lake right in between my thighs. The cotton material of my skirt didn’t seem to be soaking up the liquid immediately, so with one flailing swoop I used my hand to fling the beer off my skirt and onto the floor. It was a maneuver I had grown accustomed to doing now that I consistently spilled drinks on myself, all thanks to my unmanageable crippled hands.
Embarrassed, Shan grabbed handfuls of cocktail napkins, apologized and committed herself to damage control. Deeds suggested we go to the bathroom and use the hand dryer. Since my skirt was soaking wet and clinging to my thighs, a dryer seemed like a favorable idea. So off we went, but not before asking the bartender for three new beers. The toilets were located on the far opposite side of the restaurant and up a floor, requiring an elevator ride. The journey required roadies. In bottles, no cups. Shannon paid.
The smell of sunscreen and sweat was collectively as offensive as the long line of women standing outside the bathroom. Normally the unspoken wheelchair rule is that I skip to the front of a line, but today since it was a holiday—and we had fresh beers—we went to the back of the line and waited like all the other tourists covered in oil. We didn’t even bother to inquire how long everyone had been waiting. We just stood (I sat), gossiped and drank our beer until we found ourselves towards the front of the line, and peeking in the bathroom foyer.
To my disappointment, there was no hand dryer hanging on the wall, just a box of brown paper towels, which would certainly help the situation but not fix it. Though not one of us had the urge to break the seal, we decided to continue waiting for the bathroom stall anyways. After all, we had come this far, waited in such a long line and were halfway into our roadies.
In the foyer of the bathroom, we were forced to encourage others to skip ahead of us to use the available smaller stalls. It was becoming more evident that whoever was hogging the handicapped bathroom was not coming out anytime soon, which made us wonder, Who would do such a thing? We asked around. No one knew. No one could even recall the woman who went into that particular stall. That was how long she had been in there.
Great, she’s taking a dump.
It’s naturally the thought that comes to mind when someone is taking too long in any restroom. With each passing minute came irritation. Until eventually all I could do was focus in on the stall. From what I could see under the door, there was a duffle bag with clothes escaping it, a pair of black heels and what appeared to be either a curling iron or hair dryer cord lying on the sticky, tiled floor. There was no evidence of a wheelchair or stroller or something else justifiable, just a lot of movement where I imagined the sink to be. Shan must have been wondering the same thing as me because she suddenly made a loud noise, as if clearing her throat and then shouted over the door.
“Geez. Sure wish I could get into the handicapped bathroom with my handicapped friend.”
The movement in the stall ceased. I cringed. Shan could remain anonymous but there was no hiding the handicapped friend, me. Quickly, the commotion in the handi-stall resumed again. She had heard Shan. She was packing it up and preparing for her exit, like any decent human would. I thought of all the different ways to handle the situation, and the awkward exchange that would come between us until finally the metal bathroom door squeaked open. Standing before me was a tall, bombshell of lady, wearing a skin-tight mini-dress. She looked like a Julia Roberts from Pretty Woman before she was treated to the luxurious shopping spree. Hanging from the woman’s shoulder was the over-stuffed duffle bag. On her face was make-up, heavy and caked on. I stared at her. She stared at me. I noticed a make-up line at her jaw.
“Oh my gosh! I’m so sorry,” she declared, jumping back and acting surprised. It was as if she didn’t hear my friend Shan’s aggressive statement but just genuinely finished primping herself. Her naivety–whether genuine or not–was annoying.
“It’s okay,” I answered, lying. I looked down to my skirt in attempt to avoid any further confrontation and waited. When I finally looked back up I noticed she was standing in the doorway, staring at my skirt where lied the wet stain. I saw an opportunity and jumped on it. Slowly raising my shoulders up… and then down, I announced sadly, “I mean… I’ve already pissed my pants.”
Like the scene when Julia Roberts walks into the poshy, expensive clothing store in her hooker heels, the bathroom became eerily silent and every surrounding woman in the room was now staring at me. The face of the tall woman standing before me transitioned from concerned to devastated. My plan had worked. In fact it had worked so brilliantly now even I was becoming uncomfortable. And of all the exchanges I had imagined happening just seconds earlier, this had not been one of them. I turned to Deeds and Shan in sheer panic. Their jaws were unhinged and hanging wide-open.
You cannot start laughing, I told myself. She believes me? Really?
I hadn’t expected the reaction to my silly statement to be so intense. But then again I knew that I didn’t pee myself. Any intelligent person knows that urine leaks down with gravity and not upward towards the top of my skirt, but this was no intelligent woman or at least it was a woman with very little common sense. After 20-very-long-seconds of holding her stare, she ultimately bolted. The lady ran out of the bathroom without looking back, elbowing her way through the other women in line. There were tears in her eyes.
“Well.” I turned back to Deeds and Shan. “I don’t think she’ll be using a wheelchair bathroom for a very long time. You guys ready?”
Both Deeds and Shan needed a minute to pull it back together after a fit of uncontrollable laughter.
“How do you even come up with this stuff?” Shan eventually asked with tears in her eyes.
“I just do,” I replied, smiling.
I never spotted the woman in the restaurant once leaving the bathroom. If I had, I might have apologized and explained the joke. People wetting themselves in no laughing matter, especially if disabled and especially when it isn’t true. But that’s the consequence of using a handicapped stall so irresponsibly. It needs to be known that the handicapped bathroom is not a dressing room or a place for touching up make-up. It’s not a phone booth. It’s not a place for drunk girls to gossip while watching each other go to the bathroom. And it most definitely is not a stall made specifically for bowel movements. It’s a special bathroom for special people like me, that can’t fit into any other bathroom. So the next time you opt to use the handi-stall, just remember I cannot opt to not use it. Thus I will be waiting.