DC Metro Moms: Potty Parity Not Just a Gender Thing

J0399550[1] I originally wrote this post May 12, 2010 for the now-defunct DC Metro Moms Blog, part of the Silicon Valley Moms Blog Group.  This has been reposted here with their permission.

There’s a whole lot of potty talk going on at the federal government level.  The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a legislative hearing Wednesday regarding H.R. 4869, the Restroom Gender Parity in Federal Buildings Act which addresses the fact that most older federal buildings have far more bathrooms for men than for women.

When many of these buildings were created, women were not considered equal or primary users of the building (gasp, who could imagine women in Congress or the Supreme Court?)  According to the hearings, as recently as the ’90s, there were no restrooms near the Senate floor for female Senators, instead they had to seek relief further away and stand in line at a ladies room with the tourists.

Despite all the jokes about women going to ladies rooms in pairs and the secrecy of “what goes on in there,” access to restrooms is actually a health issue.  Women who fear that they will not have access will often try to consume fewer liquids and “hold it” which can lead to urinary tract issues, abdominal pains, cystitis and similar issues.  For pregnant women and older women who deal with incontinence, there are also the issues of stress and anxiety.

There are indeed differences in how men and women use restrooms and this leads to longer lines for women’s restrooms than men’s restrooms.  They should be constructed differently and often there should be a different ratio of toilets needed for each gender’s restroom.

As a mother of young children, I have spent far more time in public restrooms than I ever would like to.  And I’d like to throw in a few other factors to consider to anyone building new restrooms, whether in a federal building or elsewhere.

  • Women have knees.  I have no idea who designs these stalls that are so short that when you sit down you bang your knees against the door, but we do have legs and knees.  And women SIT when we use the facilities.  It surprises me that there seems to be no standard for depth of bathroom stalls.
  • If you are determined to design the stall with an inward-pushing door, consider this: we have to be able to walk into the stall, usually hang up a purse, put down a seat protector, and shut the door, remove some articles of clothing and then sit down — try it out!  Sometimes the stalls are so short it’s almost impossible to perform all the necessary acts.  Keep in mind that women are also the ones who usually bring small children into the restroom, it would be nice if we could both fit.
  • Women have elbows.  Don’t put the toilet paper dispenser so close to the toilet seat that we bang our elbow or have to hold one arm in our lap or some other contortion to prevent injury due to the placement of the toilet paper dispenser.  Also, don’t make the dispenser so low that it is impossible to get paper unfurled without it hitting the ground.  I don’t want to wipe myself with paper that’s touched the floor — do you?
  • Women have elbows on BOTH sides of our body.  Please don’t put a feminine products waste can on the other side right where our elbows will be.
  • There is a special place in heaven for designers who create sinks/soap dispensers/paper towel dispensers/blow dryers that are accessible to children.  Often these are dual purpose handicapped-accessible and child-height appropriate.  Where do you think these children are going to the bathroom?  There is no separate children’s restroom.  At the very least, could you provide some sort of step stool?  Mothers are tired of lifting heavy children up to often very wet and dirty counter tops to wash their hands.
  • Try this out — wash your hands.  Now reach for the paper towels or hand dryer.  Is water running down your wrists to your elbow?  Doesn’t that feel unpleasant? Consider changing the height of the towel dispenser or hand dryer!
  • Automatic flushers, soap dispensers, faucets, paper towel dispensers, etc. are great, but please make sure they do the job.  Many of the automatic flushers flush mid-way through the job and frighten small children so much that they will refuse to use a toilet with them.  Soap dispensers that are too difficult to “trip” are frustrating and unsanitary.  Automatic faucets that only deposit ice cold water or mere dribbles of water onto our hands aren’t hygienic.  And I hate playing the “trick the paper towel dispenser game” when it will only give me a tiny piece of paper that is not big enough or absorbent enough to dry my hand, but is set to wait a certain number of seconds before dispensing another sheet, particularly when I have two kids with me in the restroom.  Restroom designers, ask yourself — would you want to eat food prepared by someone who washed their hands in this environment?  If not, design it better!
  • There are so many more things that can be done to keep the youngest ones in mind from changing stations to the “toddler seats” that keep wriggling little ones safe in the stall while Mommy is using the facilities, and nursing sofas that provide a clean, private area for mothers to nurse their babies.  A lot of public restrooms (particularly in malls) have made great strides in these areas.

I certainly do not hold the answers for funding and finding space for more restrooms in federal buildings, but I do see the need. I hope that the decision makers on the Hill do take the issue seriously as the lack of “potty parity” has societal, health and emotional impacts.  When they construct new bathrooms, I also hope the designers will take some of my recommendations to heart.

This is an original DC Metro Moms post.  When her kids aren’t forcing her to check out public restrooms, J.J. Newby is blogging at Caffeine And A Prayer.

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