My Navigational Dance in the Bathroom

Empish Thomas reading a braille book

Editor’s note: Leading up to the celebration of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26, Empish Thomas brings us her very special take on navigating public bathrooms with vision loss.

Figuring Out the Layout of a Public Bathroom

One of the most fascinating things that I had never thought about before losing my vision is figuring out the ladies’ bathroom. Trying to find the stall, the sink, the soap, the paper towels and the door are a constant song-and-dance for me each time I venture into a public bathroom.

Since I consider myself a lady, trying to do this necessary ritual with a certain finesse and grace has become very interesting. I’m not sure about you visually impaired guys, but us gals have a lot to deal with when navigating a bathroom!

It reminds me of the Cupid Shuffle song: I move to the right, to the right, to the right to find the soap at the sink; then I move to the left, to the left, to the left to find the paper towels. I don’t do any kicking but I definitely got to walk it by myself to find the door! LOL!

A couple of years ago, I was dating a sighted man and he would graciously lead me to the ladies’ restroom door. Initially, he did not know about my private navigational dance routine and how long it would take for me to come out. He would be so nervous that sometimes he would find a lady walking by and ask her to check on me! Finally, I had to explain my bathroom shuffle and asked him just to give me more time to figure out where everything was.

Sometimes I would enter the bathroom with a female friend and we would do the waltz as she tried to turn me around to the bathroom stall door. I would always be led to the wheelchair accessible stall where I had to literally do “the swing” with my white cane to find the toilet.

Those stalls are so big that I get a little lost and have to really use my navigational skills to locate where everything is, such as the seat covers and toilet tissue. I have resolved to tell people to please not escort me to the wheelchair accessible stall because it is just too big!

Doing the Two-Step

Once out of the stall, I would rejoin my friend as we did the Two-Step to the sink to wash our hands and refresh our makeup and hair. Then it was on to “hand jive” routines as I had to figure out if the sink was a manual or sensor detector model. I would do a jerking hand movement under the water to see if it would sense my hands. If that did not work, then I would find the knob and turn.

It was the same routine for the soap and paper towels. If I just added an up-and-down motion to my shoulders, I would be doing a very bad version of the Shimmy!

Finding the Paper Towel Dispenser

In one bathroom I visited, everything was in its proper place and I did not have to attempt my usual dance routine. I smiled and gave a sigh of relief, only to discover a new kind of challenge: The paper towel dispenser, which was located above the trash can, was empty. I was told by a lady in the bathroom that I needed to come toward the exit door to get the paper towels.

So here I go – with dripping wet hands, purse on shoulder and white cane tucked under my arm – over to the door to find the paper towels, only to have to turn around and go back to where I was standing just to throw them in the trash.

It reminded me of my days living in Texas and doing square dancing: Now find your partner and promenade home! I was able to do this successfully without much difficulty and I think my orientation and mobility teacher would have been very proud of my accomplishment in that bathroom.

Figuring Out the Stall Setup

Some bathrooms have the most convoluted stall setups that would drive even the best of us crazy. About a month ago, I was at a restaurant that had the smallest bathroom I had ever been in. The stall was so tiny that I had to straddle the toilet in order to close the door. Once I sat down my knees were literally bumping up against the door.

Or what about bathrooms that have the toilet tissue dispenser so low to the ground that you have to lean all the way back – almost lying down – to get to the tissue?

There are times when, as women, we need three hands instead of two when dealing with a bathroom stall. I am referring to the stalls in which the door lock does not work and the door keeps swinging open. So I have to hold the stall door closed while trying to do umm … well, you know what I mean. The only solution I have come up with for that one is to get another person to hold the door for me so that my hands are free.

Advice for Architects and Designers

As I enter into a slow dance and wind down sharing about my bathroom ventures, I have one wish: I would love to have a talk with all the male construction workers, architects and building designers. I would love to give them some advice on how to create and design women’s bathrooms. I would love to talk to them about universal design and how important it is to keep everything in a uniform layout. I would share with them all the challenges I have had throughout the years when trying to navigate a bathroom.

Without going into all of the intimate details, I would stress how complicated just responding to Mother Nature can be. But until that day, I will just keep doing my navigational dance. Now give me a beat!

Editor’s note: VisionAware offers some organizational tips for home bathrooms and a video on preventing falls in the bathroom.