When Imperatives Collide: Handicap Bathrooms
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.
This week, with New York Times Magazine ethicist Randy Cohen, we're dealing with a really urgent issue.
Hi, Randy. Thanks for joining us.
Mr. RANDY COHEN (Ethicist, New York Times Magazine): Hi, Debbie.
ELLIOTT: Our question comes from listener Betsy Gosnell in Amesville, Ohio. Hello, Betsy.
Ms. BETSY GOSNELL (Caller): Hi.
ELLIOTT: Tell us about your dilemma.
Ms. GOSNELL: Well, recently, my husband and I were driving across Ohio and stopped at a rest area just after a very large bus full of women had stopped to use the facilities as well. Being familiar with this particular rest area, I knew there were only three stalls, and I really didn't want to wait for all of the women to use those three stalls. As I was standing in line, I saw that there was a handicapped/family restroom in the lobby. No one was taking advantage of it, so I decided that I would go ahead and use it. Normally, I won't even use the handicapped stall in a public facility but will wait for one of the regular stalls. But in this instance, I was pretty tired. I really needed to use the facilities, and quite honestly, I didn't want to wait. I didn't see any handicapped people or any families, so I didn't think that there would be a problem. But I began to feel guilty, and so I was wondering if this was inappropriate.
ELLIOTT: Now I have to ask you. Did you ever consider, instead of taking that handicapped bathroom, to maybe ask your husband to stand guard and actually use the men's room?
Ms. GOSNELL: I actually kind of thought of that, but we were traveling with our dog, and my husband was with the dog in the car, and seeing there was a man in the bathroom, and I just thought, I'm just gonna duck in here and use the handicapped/family stall here. But I have been known, however, to takeover the men's bathroom when necessary.
ELLIOTT: So, Randy, can you offer any sanitary, fresh-scent pearls of wisdom here?
Mr. COHEN: Well, there are a couple things that strike me about this. One, is that Betsy is so familiar with the rest stops that she knows in advance how many stalls there are. I'm thinkin' get out of the car, Betsy...
ELLIOTT: I was pretty impressed with that, too.
Mr. COHEN: You're spending too much time in the car. Get out of the car. The other thing is what I found, I have to confess, a bit frightening is the phrase family restroom. Of all the places I don't want to be with my family, I think we've now hit the number one. I think we're looking at years of therapy here, but, you know, enough about me.
ELLIOTT: Oh, Randy, it just means that there's a changing table in there.
Ms. GOSNELL: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
Mr. COHEN: I think we need another word for it. I don't even want to… Now I've got the phrase family restroom in my head, there could be some legal action between me and you, Betsy, for what you've just done to me, but…
Ms. GOSNELL: Sorry about that.
Mr. COHEN: And if we can kind of skip over, very briefly, the nomenclature question--I'm not sure that handicapped is perhaps the optimum word we should be using here, but skipping over that for a second. Here's the guideline I use. If you actually see a handicapped person, then you should defer to them. You've got multiple stalls or multiple restrooms, but they've just got one, and so you should wait. But if there's nobody in evidence, you should go ahead.
And I think the distinction here is between the restrooms and the parking lot. In the parking lot, you may park your car, you may be gone a really long time, right? Or an unknown amount of time. But no matter what you're doing, even in the family restroom where, I don't know, you're gathered around, you know, singing carols. I don't know what you do, you and the family are doing. But you're not gonna be in there all that long, so that even if someone has to wait, they have to wait momentarily. And the other thing is, in a parking lot, the right to use a handicapped space, that's an official designation.
Ms. GOSNELL: Oh, definitely.
Mr. COHEN: The law is explicit about who can and who can't use it. So that space is for a handicapped person only. But in the stall, I think it's for handicapped also, that it's a looser concept, that no one is explicitly forbidden to use it. And you know, even if you are a person that uses a wheelchair, you can often wait a moment or two, too.
Ms. GOSNELL: OK, so it's first come, first serve as far as the restrooms go.
Mr. COHEN: Unless you actually see...
Ms. GOSNELL: Right.
Mr. COHEN: ...someone in a wheelchair waiting to use it. Yeah, that's the line I take.
Ms. GOSNELL: OK.
Mr. COHEN: Debbie, you? You'll go with that?
ELLIOTT: I go with that.
Ms. GOSNELL: Then it's fair enough for me.
ELLIOTT: Betsy Gosnell, thanks for writing to the ethicist.
Ms. GOSNELL: Thank you.
ELLIOTT: And if you have an urgent need for advice from Randy Cohen, drop us a line. Go to our website, npr.org. Click on Contact Us, and select WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Please put the word Ethics in the subject line, and be sure to include a phone number where we can reach you. Thank you, Randy.
Mr. COHEN: Thank you, Debbie, and I think we should try to work the word urgent into the piece a few more times. I don't think we've done it nearly enough.
(Soundbite of laughter)