It All Comes Down to the Bathroom

Twice in the last month or so, I've been in a situation where when investigating the accessibility of a place I was going to, I was told that absolutely, it's completely accessible! Well, except for the bathrooms, that is…


It's not new, this creative approach to accessibility, happens all the time and it makes me wonder if I'm missing something about using a wheelchair. Does that weird asexual, sort of non-person thing that's imposed upon us by the able-bodied world include not eliminating bodily waste? Does the fact that I still need to pee somehow make me a defect cripple? Am I doing this all wrong???

Every couple of years, I'm asked to do some training for new members of the Board of Directors for the agency that provides attendant care for me and a number of other people in the neighbourhood, training that illustrates what the agency does, sort of putting a human face on the theory. After talking for a while, I give them homework. For 24 hours, arrange your life as if you receive regular bookings every 4-5 hours or so of staff who come in to help you shower, get dressed, go to the bathroom, make lunch, make dinner, go to bed, etc. And it's always the bathroom thing that has the most impact. Telling someone that they can only go to the bathroom at select times during the day and therefore have to carefully monitor their fluid intake gets people's attention more effectively than any other awareness day exercise I've ever seen. This is the moment their expression changes from alert and compassionate interest to where you can see the oh, shit realization washing over their faces. You can see the paradigm shift happening in their brain, complete with an almost audible click.

In general, as much fun as it is for those of us who live the life every day to watch the able-bodied go through an awareness day simulation, I'm pretty disenchanted about them. I don't think they work, certainly not in terms of creating lasting attitude change or improvements in accessibility. Mostly, they don't seem to do much more than create pity and/or the kind of awestricken admiration that does no one any favours - "ohmiGAWD, you do this every day? Let me give you a standing ovation for getting up in the morning!!" (pardon me while I barf) - usually coupled at some level with the "thank god it isn't me" and that just serves to further cement the us/them division, doesn't it? Besides, to have any significant impact, you need to live like this for longer than a few hours or a day - get back to me when you're done this for a month, preferably without knowing when the simulation will be over. Of course, knowing that it will be over gives you an out that I don't have. Anyway! That said, one of the better exercises in living life with RA I've seen is this one - of course, had I run that thing, I would've added little lead weights to the various contraptions to add aches and fatigue for more verisimilitude. Still, it's a good one. And it would make it very difficult to go to the bathroom.

Bathrooms are the litmus test of accessibility. If I can get in the front door, travel freely everywhere within the building, but the washrooms aren't accessible, your building isn't truly usable by all. Bathrooms bring home the reality of living with a disability - whether you need assistance in transferring to the toilet, help to change a diaper or use an in-and-out catheter and you don't have that help away from your home, you don't have the ability to participate equally in society. And bathrooms are the best shortcut to give able-bodied people an idea of what this is like.

Try it. For the next 24 hours, you can only go to the bathroom at specific times, every 4-5 hours or so. And no getting up at night to pee, either.