The Bathroom and the Gimp: Restrooms As a Reflection of Societal Attitudes Towards Disability

A few years ago, when I used to attend a church that a friend of mine pastored, I wandered into the place as I normally do for a Wednesday night Bible study. But on this particular night, I had to go to the bathroom, so I decided to use the restrooms at the church. I had never used the restrooms there, so my friend accompanied me to the restroom also not knowing how handicap accessible the restrooms would be. As it turned out, the restrooms were not very friendly, and the stalls were retrofitted to barely meet ADA compliant standards, and they were by no means wheelchair friendly. I

English: An icon for Accessibility, since the ...
English: An icon for Accessibility, since the International Symbol of Access is copyrighted (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

ended up leaving my chair outside of the stall, and crawling into the restroom because I cannot walk. As anybody in a wheelchair will tell you, that is a rather humbling experience in that it is rather humiliating. As I finished and moved toward my chair, I remarked to my religious friend, “situations like these are why people in wheelchairs generally are either really humble, or really pissed off.” Now this was just my opinion, but I came to realize that experience backs this up fairly well. This situation made me think. I watched as a passive observer as I made my way around the city of Sacramento, and I realized something; that the attitude of an establishment towards disabled customers can be most often determined by the type of restroom facilities that a place has. What I’m basically saying is, you can tell whether or not a disabled customer will get decent service at a place by looking at the bathroom.
In the case of my friend’s church, it was very easy to see what their attitude was towards disabled people. Although I don’t mean this necessarily in the sense that the congregation held negative attitudes toward disabled people; my experience was quite to the contrary, they were quite welcoming of me. However, what I’m saying is that this particular church was not accustomed to disabled patronage, and it was reflected in the fact that their bathrooms completely lacked any real means of handicap accessibility. And often times, the congregation was not sure how to respond to someone with my physical disposition. What is my physical disposition you ask? I am a 28-year-old mixed-race male of Pacific Islander descent, and I have cerebral palsy; more specifically, a form of cerebral palsy known as spastic diplegia, a form of cerebral palsy which is classified by two limbs being affected in a symmetrical manner. Basically, my legs don’t work very well.
Throughout my life, as I moved my way through and around the city of Sacramento, I visited many popular restaurant chains, coffee shops, bars, clubs (this includes strip clubs), parks and other various kinds of public establishments. And my thesis has been upheld. If I go to a strip club for example, I will most likely be the only person in a wheelchair at the club, and if not, there is only one other person there in a similar condition. As such, as everyone knows, the bathrooms in strip clubs, and for that matter normal clubs are horrendous. No one would mistake any of these types of facilities in the area for being handicap friendly by any stretch of the imagination.
The second most common type of establishment I often visit are coffee shops. If you spend any time in Elk Grove or South Sacramento coffee shops, chances are you have probably seen me. Coffee shops are a peculiar thing, particularly the chain of Starbucks coffee shops that seem to spring up with every new neighborhood development project. Most Starbucks are pretty uniformed in appearance, most of which have a bar, a cash register, places to sit, and identical bathrooms with separate gender labels; though to most people it would be more prudent to make these bathrooms unisex rather than gender specific, but that will never happen. Most of these bathrooms are simply a single toilet and sink, meaning that there is no room for a second occupant to do his or her business. In this case, it is important to look at how clean the bathroom is. If the bathroom is clean, chances are that particular Starbucks coffeehouse has a few regulars with a physical disability, and they are made aware of the fact that from time to time a disabled patron may slip due to a wet floor, or may have to prop themselves up on their knees in order to pull up their pants. And in consideration for such events, the floors are normally clean and dry. And at such establishments, when disabled patrons come in to enjoy their overpriced lattes, most baristas will often automatically bring the drink to the table of the disabled customer without a second thought. In a Starbucks location whose bathroom is not what most would consider close to immaculate, typically the service for disabled customers is poor or otherwise subpar. Often times one will find obstacles that are rather difficult for the disabled consumer; such as displays in the middle of the establishment which a wheelchair is then required to circumnavigate in order to reach their original setting place, and often the employees at such Starbucks locations are inconsiderate of the fact that it is very difficult for disabled person in a manual wheelchair to both hold a cup of coffee, and roll themselves back to their seat.
I would think that aside from strip clubs and Starbucks, the most surprising example would have to be department stores like Macy’s. Macy’s is an interesting case; on the one hand, they have adequate fitting rooms for disabled patrons, but their bathrooms are quite often not very clean. This could be due to the fact that Macy’s locations are typically found in shopping malls, which are known to have a wide variety of customers passing through them for various reasons, but being that Macy’s advertises itself as an establishment that caters toward the middle and upper middle class segment of the population, you would assume that their bathrooms would be cleaner. That is however not the case. And when one walks, or rolls into a Macy’s as the case may be, most of the time I get glaring looks wondering what I may be doing there, as if I have no desire to present myself in a manner befitting of a 20 something-year-old adult male. I often feel the glares of people behind the cosmetics counters and in the men’s section, glaring at me as if I had no need for such clothing. This attitude is clearly reflected in the Macy’s restroom experience.
Before I end this opinion essay, it is worth talking briefly about the title of the piece, as well as the usage of the word gimp to refer to a disabled individual. Let me start off by saying that yes, I am aware that typically it is used to refer to people with physical disabilities in a derogatory manner. But let me also tell you that one of my favorite nicknames happens to be Captain Gimpy, I’m proud of being a disabled American, and I am proud of my intellect and the accomplishments that it is allowed me to achieve. I intend to give that word new meaning, not because I feel as though I need to reclaim some sense of culture, but because disability needs to be talked about in a more frank, and open manner. In order to do that sometimes we need to be shocked into paying attention. And to be quite honest, I think it just sounds awesome. It is a simple word that rolls off the tongue with ease. And I don’t mind being a gimp, after all, everyone is disabled in some way, my impairment just happens to be more obvious than most. With that being said, I hope that this piece has made you think about disability in a different way. And I hope that the next time you consider using a restroom intended for disabled persons, you would think twice. There are some people out there that need the stall more than you do. And if you’re curious as to what kind of service your disabled friend may get when you’re not around, look at the bathroom.

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