Written in France around 13 May 2001
I am totally convinced that the absolute worst time to be blind is when you need to use a public restroom and you are traveling alone or with a man who can only bring you as far as the door and possibly only the first of many doors. Trust me, bathrooms around the world are full of many surprises. I hardly know where to start.
Well, how about this! To start with, you always wait until you really, really have to go. The whole adventure is so annoying that you put it off as long as you can. Now this is just a plain old American bathroom, maybe in a medium size rest area along some highway with a number for a name. The man I am with takes me as far as the door. Usually you walk in some bizarre circular or z pattern into a vast room where everything is painted the same color so you have no chance of using the tiny little bit of vision you try to muster up for such occasions. The idea of feeling all the walls is not too appealing. I search around with my cane and finally find the stall. On the door of the stall is a sheet of paper prominently taped at the height of my head. I wonder about what it says. It could say there is a fair in town on Sunday or it could say if you flush the toilet water will overflow and flood the entire rest area. I check for other stall doors. If they all have taped messages you know you are probably safe unless you are afraid of fairs. Once I am safely in the stall with the door closed I hear someone at the sink. This person has been standing there the entire time watching me stagger around the bathroom and they never said a word. Now I wish the toilet would flood the entire rest area and wash me quickly away. Why can’t people ask me if they can help? I guess you are not supposed to talk to people in public bathrooms.
Some blind people have an incredible sense of direction and I am not one of them. I can walk straight across a room and immediately forget where I came from and where the door was. I can grope around a bathroom, do what I came there to do and totally forget my way to the door. I honestly try but I am usually not thinking real straight in those situations. I need to learn to stop at the door of the stall and gather my thoughts and remember how I got there. Maybe next time.
Here is another example of how I can keep myself amused in bathrooms. Imagine this. You are in a very fancy hotel or restaurant. You successfully find the stall without much trouble. They had the good sense to paint the doors in contrasting colors from the wall and they have put a little time into planning the acoustics so my hearing can guide me a little. Now I am finished with the stall and I go to wash my hands. I find the sink without any trouble. I even find the soap, but then where are the towels. I start feeling the walls for the towel holder and realize they are all made of mirror. Now I have left a trail of my wet fingerprints all over this clean bathroom. I wonder what people think when they see the evidence. The solution to this one is to find the towels before I wash my hands. See, you can teach an old dog new tricks or at least you can try.
Think about how much fun it is to use a bathroom in the half of the world that uses and prefers to use squat toilets.
I have learned to always carry tissues in my pocket when I travel. This at least takes the searching for toilet paper piece out of the bathroom game. You can’t imagine how many places there are to hide toilet paper. Since I am on the subject of hiding things, how about toilet flushers? Those little devils can find all kinds of great places to hide and who wants to search for those with their hands. If I have found the paper or I have a tissue I can use that to cover my fingers while I search.
I have not yet caught any serious bathroom diseases so I guess I am succeeding in this battle.
Once, a long time ago, when I was traveling in Paris with my family, my younger sister, Rae and I went to use a bathroom in a little out door restaurant on the Left Bank. You had to go inside and pass the bar to get to the toilet. There were several men at the bar and they all turned to watch us go into the bathroom. We thought it was because we were so beautiful. Well, This was a very tiny little room with a very small sink and a squat toilet. The best part of this toilet was that you flushed it with a ball hanging from a chain on the ceiling. The water came down from the ceiling and if you were not standing in the far corner you would get soaked. Then we realized why the men were looking at us. They did not think we were beautiful, just stupid. When we came out, dry, they applauded.
On my second trip to work in Bangladesh, I planned to stay with a family. We had lots of correspondence about this visit. We even discussed plumbing. They told me it was a western style bathroom. This was all I wanted and I was happy to stay with the family. The family seemed amazed that I would stay with them. When I arrived after 32 hours of travel I was picked up by the people I would be working with and brought to my new home for the next two weeks. I was given a tour. I would have a room to myself but it was the room where the family kept their dishes and their television. I had to go through another bedroom and the dining room and kitchen to get to the bathroom. The bathroom was a small square concrete room. There was a squat toilet and a sink but no running water. The family had put up a toilet paper holder just for me and there was a hook with a towel also a new addition for me. I think they borrowed the towel from somewhere. I realized in my exhaustion that I was going to use a squat toilet for the next two weeks and not have a shower. They were so proud of the toilet paper holder that I used every bit of strength I had to not react. I knew I could get through it and I did. I even began to see the virtue of a squat toilet. They had a big bucket of water in the bathroom to use to pour down the hole for flushing and this meant no searching for the flusher. Now I can tell everyone who will listen that I went two weeks without running water and I was not even camping.
Of course there are all the times I have used the men’s room. It used to be funny for people to tell me the men’s room was the lady’s room but when I stopped reacting the joke got boring. However, I can use the men’s room when the lady’s room is full and play dumb. I just don’t react to anything when I am in there and the men are afraid to tell the poor blind woman that she has made a mistake. Who knows, someone may read this and say “I saw that blind woman in a bathroom in Seattle in 1985. I have a surprise for you; I am not the only blind woman who has pulled this trick. I wonder if blind men do it. What a waste of a good trick if the other person in the bathroom is blind.
I do not think I have paid enough attention to toilet flushers. I want you to say, out loud, on which side of the toilet, the one in your house is located. It is not so easy is it? You need to move your arm and let your body tell you where it is and then you are still not sure. I find that most of the toilets I use in my daily life are right side flushers. Well, let me tell you that this is a regional thing. When we were traveling in Scotland I found that the flushers were on the left side and always the left side unless they were in the middle. When we drove to England from Scotland we stopped for lunch just over the border. I used the bathroom and the flusher was on the other side.
Those middle ones are a fun treat. How do you pile stuff on the back of your toilet? Some pull and some push. Recently I used one that must have lost its little knob and you had to put your finger in the hole and find the little pointy thing and push it down. By the time you have figured the entire thing out you may have well just press the button. Vision would be useful here.
Now we have those fancy auto flush things. I wish there was a way to know they were auto flushers right from the start. They could beep twice when you sit down or something. The timing is never quite right. There are the ones that flush whenever you lean forward. Like, this is a good time to see if your shoes are still tied and you get a little shower. The good ones flush when you get up. Then there are the water saver ones. They try their best not to waste a flush. They wait until you touch the door handle. I have started touching the door standing up and touching the door handle before I get too involved in the flusher search.
The next time you go into a stall and start to complain about the toilet not being flushed just flush it and smile.
That brings up another subject almost too disgusting to bring up. I never know if the toilet is broken.