The Struggle about the (mis)use of Accessible Restrooms
Accessible Restrooms | A temptation
It is Saturday morning, we have just landed in beautiful Paris. A promising day lies ahead. My husband and I are here for the day to attend a group meeting on muscular dystrophy, organized by the French national association AFM Téléthon.
As soon as we get off the plane we head straight to our usual, most necessary and awaited “stopover”: the closest accessible restroom.
Accessible restrooms at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport
You need to know that at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, accessible restrooms are quite numerous and you can’t miss them thanks to the huge visual icons. The accessible toilets offer plenty of space, they are modern and most of them are way cleaner than the regular restrooms… So of course it is very tempting to use them.
This time, the door is locked. It seems occupied. After waiting for about 5 minutes hearing nothing out of there, I knocked. A voice calmly made answered “Oui, oui*!” (*yes). My husband and I looked at each other, knowing exactly what was going on.
Some more minutes passed by. Finally a man in a uniform (with an official Airport Staff ID) came out, pulling along his cabin-trolley. He looked at me and smiled with some kind of curtesy as if everything was totally fine and ‘normal’.
As I was about to address the man, my husband slightly pushed the door to show him the huge wheelchair icon. He gently asked him if he knew what this sign meant. The man’s expression quickly changed. He obviously was confused as for him it seemed to be okay to use these dedicated accessible restrooms. His first spontaneous and arrogant reply was: “Well listen, I’m working and I needed to change. Where else would I do that?!”.
“Oh no, this this is not how it works!” replied my husband, adding that this toilet was no changing-room. Especially not for a staff member of the Airport.
Understanding how things were shifting and how my husband was starting to get annoyed, the man declared something like “What ever…” and left, or at least he tried to. While he stepped away, my husband walked right after him and grabbed his arm to finish the conversation. I was terribly afraid that the unwilling man would hit him. Luckily he didn’t.
My husband told the man that for many years he had a very similar job to his and during those 17 years he never had to use any toilet dedicated to people with special needs. For the second time, he tried to explain that these spaces are a 100% meant to facilitate the life of people in true need of accessibility… And that accessible restrooms are definitely no changing-rooms, as convenient as they may seem to be.
Lack of awareness or carelessness?
Listening to the man’s arguments, it was obvious that he had absolutely no clue about what was bothering us. For sure he never considered what life could like be as a disabled person…
My husband ended up telling him: “I truly wish that you’ll never have to face a car accident or any other brutal event that will dramatically change your life overnight. A life in which you’d end up being one of these ‘poor disabled’. A life in which you’d finally understand that you no longer have the choice between one out of 10 toilet cabins. Those toilets you were not too long ago still very able to use and access… A life in which you’d have to wait 10 minutes for someone to change in the only toilet accessible for you. The only toilet you could use after retaining yourself for 2 hours or more, because you can’t use the ones on the plane… !”.
The man continued arguing “It is nothing against you, Miss, … I respect you, Miss…”, “What was I supposed to do after you knocked? Open the door in my underwear?”, “Sir, you must understand people…!”.
I instantly thought to myself “Seriously!?“.
As nothing seemed to truly move or shake this person in his beliefs, we finally gave up once again and moved on. Once again? Yes, once again as this situation is far from being isolated.
A commonly known, recurring problem
Without any exaggeration I can easily say that two out of three times if an accessible restroom is occupied, it is because someone with no disability is using it. I definitively have countless allegories like this one. Here are some more experiences:
- Monaco Train Station
Once, at Monaco Train Station, this lady comes up to me and disdainfully declares: “Well, I didn’t know this wheelchair sign meant that these toilets were reserved for you! I thought it only meant that you had priority and that’s all!”
At Monaco train station, the accessible toilet is located on the exit level. The regular toilets are located one level below with only stairs to access them. The paradox was that the lady’s son and husband seemed pretty uncomfortable witnessing our discussion. Those two obviously knew very well what the wheelchair logo meant. They both immediately headed downstairs to the non accessible toilets.
Of course in most countries worldwide and unlike disabled parking areas (way better regulated), her affirmation is certainly true concerning the priority using of the precious, adapted restroom… But brought up like this, come on!
- Nice Côte d’Azur Airport
The other day at Nice Côte d’Azur Airport: A man hurried out of the ladies (!) accessible toilet and aggressively stated “I really don’t care, it was an emergency”… He instantly walked away, not even looking at me. That really hurt.
Even in a country like Japan, where you wouldn’t expect something like this could ever happen, a similar situation occurred. You need to know that Japanese have very elaborated social and cultural codes, which lead to genuine respect for others. They understand that they are part of a whole and at the same time they also have a profond sense of honor.
It happened in Tokyo. In a ‘depato’, a luxury department store like Macy’s in New York, Galeries Lafayette in Paris or Harrods in London.
When misusing accessible toilets becomes the norm
There is nothing more to add about these examples. Besides that these situations are numerous, customary and have unfortunately become almost ‘normal’.
Of course, I would definitely understand if once in a while someone came out of one of these wheelchair accessible toilets showing true empathy. Someone who knew that these accessible restrooms exist for people with disabilities. Someone who genuinely considered our situation and made the effort to see further than the tip of his/her nose.
Instead, I feel that those who use these toilets probably make no difference between a regular and a wheelchair accessible one. People consciously and without any hesitation take advantage of these nice, large, clean facilities. They simply take them for granted. With this state of mind it seems no wonder that many of them become arrogant, dishonest, aggressive, rude and insensitive when being verbally confronted.
The problem is that when something is done not by ignorance, but very consciously with a ‘could not care less attitude’ nothing can change for the better. As humans we naturally expect others to respect and acknowledge us. But often when it comes to us respecting others, we seem to be pretty selective.
A sure need for change
Organizations, administrations and officials work quite hard to address accessibility matters. In order to help those in need or with disabilities, they often try their best to find and develop solutions to avoid exclusion. Solutions to reduce the multiple struggles disabled people regularly face in a physical reality which isn’t technically adapted for them.
All of these efforts should not be ruined or spoiled by individuals who are more concerned about their reputation on social media than about their gift to have a fully functional body.
My intention in writing about this subject is not to complain about an illusionary ‘unfair’ world. The world may at times seem unfair to every single one of us, disabled or not. No, my only intention is to address the matter in order to make things change! Especially as the problem is very well identified and happens repeatedly over and over again. I am convinced that who ever rightfully uses accessible restrooms has more than once faced similar situations. We can’t change people, but we can change the rules.
Some great and most noteworthy solutions already do exist…
The Eurokey System | 12.000 accessible restrooms across Germany, Austria, Switzerland and other countries in Europe
Take for example the Eurokey System. The German association ‘CBF Darmstadt’ introduced the Eurokey back in 1986. It is a locking system for accessible restrooms that protects against misuse.
You can open the toilets with a special universal key. It guarantees accessibility to public facilities with specific room and hygiene requirements for people with a disability.
Where can you find accessible toilets?
Who can use the Eurokey?
People who depend on the use of special facilities (wheelchair users, ostomy wearers, people with a visual or a walking disability as well as people with chronic incontinency problems). You need to present a proof of your disability.
Can tourists also get the Eurokey?
Tourists have to contact Coordination Eurokey.ch to order a key.
Where can you get the Eurokey? How much does it cost?
Germany: CBF Darmstadt – 20 EUR deposit
Austria: Österreichischer Behindertenrat – free of charge (for Austrains only)
Switzerland: Eurokey.ch | Pro infirmis – from 25 to 35 CHF (21.5 to 30 EUR)
The Radar Key System | More than 9.000 accessible restrooms in the United Kingdom
A similar system exists in the United Kingdom, the Radar Key System. The National Key Scheme (NKS) offers disabled people access to locked public toilets around the country. You can find accessible Radar Key toilets in shopping centers, pubs, cafés, department stores, bus and train stations and many other listed locations throughout the UK.
You can purchase the Genuine Radar Key for £4.50 (~ 5 EUR) in the shop of Disability Rights UK. Of course they only sell the Genuine Radar NKS Key to people who require accessible toilets due to their disability or health condition.
Still, I’d like to point out that even with these brillant systems ‘awkward’ situations can happen!
Once in Germany in a huge shopping mall I came out of an accessible Eurokey restroom. Two young women rudely asked me to keep the door unlocked. Fortunately that day, a good friend of mine (the “badass” type) was with me. She straightforwardly denied and off we went.
About educational and awareness initiatives
For countries unfortunately not yet willing to introduce solutions similar to the Eurokey and Radar Key System, other alternatives could be developed.
Consider some airports such as the one in Nice. There is a sound system for each handicap-parking space. The system plays a message when you park your car. It indicates that you stopped on a restricted area. We could easily imagine a similar system in accessible toilets dedicated to disabled users. At least people could no longer continue, in good conscience, to pretend they had no clue. But education and raising awareness alone cannot fully prevent the misuse of accessible restrooms.
This makes me think of Greek philosopher Aristotle’s quote:
“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
Conclusion | You can make a difference
Airport VIP lounges are privileged areas. They are a sophisticated promise of comfort, luxury and serenity, made for fortunate customers in a position to afford them. Whereas accessible restrooms are a collective and social initiative provided to include those with physical disabilities to facilitate their everyday life. They are the promise to help the ones in need to make things work out.
I feel almost sorry for the need to mention that most of the time in my experience, when someone valid wrongly uses the disabled restrooms it is consciously and shamelessly. Of course I’m not saying that shame, guilt or pity should be felt regarding a person with a disability. I really don’t! What I am saying though, is that apathy is harsh and surly difficult to deal with.
Think of it this way, imagine you are on your way home after a long and exhausting day. As you are approaching, you acknowledge someone you don’t know has just arrived and parked his car on your driveway. This person gets out of the car and looks at you. You lower your window and gently explain that this is your parking spot. The stranger loosely replies: “I’ll just be there for 5 minutes, I just need to grab something from the grocery store!”
So, to those not really concerned by the necessity for me (and so many others) to easily access these specific toilets, please try to consider this:
Where you have a choice, I don’t.
What about you, have you ever experienced any similar or opposite situations? If so, I’d love to read about them! Share your stories, tips and ideas in the comment section below! Moreover, please don’t forget to share the article with your friends or with someone who could benefit from it if you find it useful!