Tips on Navigating Public Bathrooms with a Vision Impairment

By Peer Advisors Empish J. Thomas and Lynda Jones

row of stalls in public bath

About a month ago VisionAware received an awkward but important question on the message boards. The person wanted to know about the best ways to access public bathrooms. Of course, going to the bathroom is something that we all must do but trying to figure out where everything is in a bathroom facility can be embarrassing, frustrating, and uncomfortable when you have a vision impairment. In an attempt to respond to the question, the VisionAware peers had a lively conversation about our own challenges when Mother Nature calls. We talked among ourselves about the lack of universal design and strategies we use to best deal with this delicate and sensitive topic sprinkling it with a bit of humor and laughter. During the discussion, I shared about a previous post titled "My Navigational Dance in the Bathroom." In that post, I used song and dance to explain how I navigated public bathrooms. We all agreed it was time to revisit this topic and share this information. We hope that this post will benefit others who are grappling with the same dilemma. Below are comments from some of the peers. In addition, Lynda Jones has written a separate post on universal design and how that relates to public bathrooms.

Take a Moment to Orient Yourself to the Bathroom

By Lynda Jones, Vision Rehabilitation Therapist

public bath with sink and paper towels

There is very little that is predictable about public bathrooms, and places like airports sometimes have 15 or 20 stalls including the "handicap" stalls. As guide dog users know, it’s much easier to get around in public restrooms, but it can still be tricky. Now that I’m back to using a white cane, I usually step aside and stop when I enter the restroom. To get my orientation, I listen for the sound of toilets flushing, water running in the sinks, or the dryers when present. This doesn’t solve all of the problems, but it helps. Often, by the time I’ve gathered my information, some nice lady has asked if I need assistance. At other times, I use my charm (LOL) and humor and ask for assistance. I don’t recommend that a husband or male companion go into a restroom with a female unless it’s a single bathroom. Even then, the man could look in and tell her where everything is located. That’s another good reason for using a cane. Then you can locate the toilet, sink, and trash can. Locating the soap and paper towel dispensers, as we all know, can be an adventure that leads to frustration.

Ask for Help

By Maxwell Ivey

I think this is one of those areas where the solution won’t be found in the kind of bathroom we use; I personally find that this is one of those things where I just have to ask for help and trust the other person to be just as afraid of or disgusted by a dirty toilet seat. I have never been refused when asking these questions in a men’s restroom, and I would assume that women would be even more understanding. I understand the fear is real. I wish someone could come up with a good answer.

By Audrey Demmitt

I think it is worth mentioning that it is very likely there will be someone in the ladies room who will offer help finding the stall door, paper towels, soap dispenser, etc. That is my experience anyway. One time, while I was a cane user, I literally got "lost" in a public bathroom at the airport—notorious for chrome, glare, and all one color decor! I could not find my way out, and a kind woman noticed I was getting frustrated. She came up to me and asked if she could be of help, and she guided me out. Phew! She saved my dignity. This is also a good argument for using a white cane as an "identifier"—people see it and offer help.

Now, as a guide dog user, I can command my dog to find the "door," and she is trained to take me to the large stall that accommodates both of us. Then, she will take me to the sink. I can usually find soap and get the water on…can’t always find the towels though, so I just dry my hands in the air!

Use a Guide Dog

By DeAnna Quietwater Noriega

A lot of the decisions I make depend on whether the public restroom is crowded or empty; whether it is a large room with several stalls or a single accessible bathroom. If I am using a white cane, I use it to explore either type if they are empty. I work to train my guide dog to look for the handicapped accessible stall in multi-stall restrooms. This gives me the room for my dog to stay with me. If that isn’t available, I back him in, and if there is room to get him beside the commode, I can then close the door. If there isn’t sufficient space, I will have him lie down and then close the door while he is low enough to close it over his front end. I also teach him to locate the sink on command. And I teach him to find the trash bins. If I am concerned about cleanliness, I do one of two things. I always carry hand sanitizer in my purse to use once I return to a restaurant. I also use the restaurant employee method if it is a single room accessible restroom. I locate the fixtures first by exploring. If there are paper towels, I roll one down first thing. Then I take care of my needs, wash my hands, dry them on the previously rolled down paper towel, use it to flush toilets, turn off the water, and open door before dropping it in the trash. By using the used paper towel to touch faucet handles, flush buttons or handles, and doorknobs, I keep my hands clean after washing. If the restroom is crowded, I ask for assistance so as not to cut ahead of anyone or miss my turn. If the restroom is large, I step inside, pause, and listen for clues like running water in sinks, toilets flushing, etc. to orient myself.

Use a Family Bathroom

By Empish J. Thomas

sign saying companion care and with symbols of woman and man and arrow pointing toward bath

I am out and about often and have learned a thing or two about public bathrooms. First of all, I try to make sure to never wait until the last minute to go. Being in a tight is never a pleasant situation and then on top of that trying to figure out an unfamiliar bathroom can be a set up for a very bad situation. I always look for a "family" bathroom first. This type of bathroom is an individual bathroom with everything you need in one room, and you can lock yourself inside. It is typically one perfect square, so I find that I can navigate it very easily. If that is not available, then I will trail my white cane into a regular bathroom. Usually, stalls are either on the left or right. I go for the smaller stall as it is easier for me to find everything that I need. Before locking the door, I double check for toilet tissue. Most of the time sinks are right outside the stall, but if they are not, I listen for running water or the hand dryers blowing. I will feel around to see if the sink is manual or electronic. I also feel around to see if the soap is on the mirror or next to the sink. The challenge is always finding the paper towels. They never seem to be in the same or most obvious place! Then, the next challenge is retracing my steps to the door. Sometimes I can remember, but if I am having a "senior moment," I might have to trail my cane around or ask a person who might be in the bathroom with me.

public family bath showing toilet, sink, grab bar

Avoid Germs by Coming Prepared

By Steven J. Wilson

The stress can be such that fears may prevent one from even touching anything public facility related, let alone touch a flushing handle or button. Sit on a toilet? Reprehensible! Yeah, yeah…liners or even lining with toilet paper are not enough protection for some. The fear is very real.

I only use a restroom that is well maintained when and if at all possible. I am such a germaphobe. Here is what I mean by this. In the past, I used my foot to flush the toilets and my elbow for the stand-up urinals. I especially appreciate the sinks with the long, protruding paddle handles I can turn on and off with an elbow. Today, for the planned trips, I bring along antibacterial towelettes. For the unplanned or unexpected trips and I must use a public facility, I go straight to the paper towel dispenser, grab half a dozen sheets, and use as a barrier. I use these for everything, from touching toilet handles to the faucet sink. Of course, I use soap and water most liberally when done and towel dry before exiting. I even use these for the door handle on the way out. There are usually trash receptacles nearby to dispose of my paper barrier. If not, I’ll simply fold that last paper towel I used for the door handle I exited from and place into my back pocket until I can find a wastebasket.

Oh, by the way, the trash receptacles make a distinctive sound when tapping with a cane. I also try tapping the walls near the sinks for those receptacles that are built in flush with the walls. Some might consider me a noisy restroom user with all my tapping while others present will notice and ask me if I’m looking for the waste bin. They are usually kind enough to inform me where it is.

Learn Orientation and Mobility Skills

By Shannon Carollo, Orientation and Mobility Specialist and Program Manager of FamilyConnect

Picture of older man learning to use cane from orientation and mobility instructor

From an orientation and mobility specialist’s point of view, the best friend of blind/visually impaired people in a public restroom is the white cane. The individual should work with an orientation and mobility specialist to learn to utilize the cane to locate the precise location of the toilet, toilet paper, general sink area, and bathroom door to exit. The person would likely hold the cane upright, tip on the ground, and use it in a motion similar to a windshield wiper.

The person can also grab a little extra toilet paper to use when searching for the handle and grab a little extra paper towel when searching for the opening of the bathroom door. The person may even want to bring their own little towel for drying hands/opening the door with minimal contact to germs. This was the norm when I lived in Japan, and I think it is a useful tip for an individual who is blind or visually impaired. I also suggest carrying hand sanitizer or wipes.

Additional Information

Bathroom Home Modification

Bathroom Safety Tips

Orientation and Mobility Skills

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