A number of years ago, I wrote an article about a pervasive problem in the design of public facilities that directly discriminates against men with vision impairments. This paper contained footnotes, statements from human subjects, statistical analysis of the distribution of the offending design problems and a number of case studies describing real world problems. I sent this work off to many different publications involved in blindness issues, universal design, architecture and construction. None of these publications saw fit to run my item and few even provided me with the courtesy of a response. As I said, this problem effects men with vision impairments, there may be an analogue among blind women but I have not studied such so, to my female readers, if you have encountered problems similar to those I describe for men below, please write to me so we can expose that discrimination as well.
This blog entry will contain a shorter and less scholarly description of the problem and how it affects blind men. I will not include citations, footnotes or other aspects of academic publications as this will not be peer reviewed and doesn’t need such.
Description of the problem:
There exists a rarely discussed area of discrimination against blind men resulting from the lack of standardization of urinals and other bathroom fixtures. The outcome is that men with profound vision impairments often end up with their own bodily fluids and that of others on their bodies and clothing. This is disgusting, unsanitary and unhealthy. It is also degrading in the worst possible way.
The manifestation of the problem:
When a blind man enters a public restroom, a place of public accommodation and, therefore, subject to the ADA requirement for reasonable accommodations, for the first time, he knows either the layout of the room or the type of fixtures he may encounter. If he is in the public restroom alone, he cannot ask anyone where the urinals, sinks or toilets are located. So, the independent man with profound vision impairment must start swinging his stick around in hopes of hitting porcelain.
When he finally locates the type of fixture he needs, he must then figure out which design of said fixture he has found and adjust him to use it appropriately. Herein lies the problem, many, if not most, public restrooms are cleaned far less often than one would think necessary to maintain truly sanitary conditions. Even the most meticulously cleaned restrooms may have encountered a biological disaster shortly before the blind man enters so one must assume that even these might contain hazardous fluids.
Thus, how should a man with profound vision impairment approach the situation? When the blind man walks toward the urinal he has located with his cane, one of his legs may bump into part of the urinal that extends far beyond the portion that his cane has touched. This, if a previous user missed the target a bit, may result in a stain on the blind man’s clothing and there is no one who will pay the dry cleaning bill for something that was clearly the fault of others.
Surely, he should not start feeling his way around until he determines the shape of a urinal and the location of the target as this would require his hands to touch potentially dangerous fluids. I know of no blind men who travel with dispensable rubber gloves and I don’t think that it is right to expect them to do so. The blind must, in lieu of using his hands, must poke around with his cane to determine the shape of a urinal and then make a best guess as to the target.
With the presumed location of the target in his mind, the blind man must then find a place to lean his cane and then open his pants, take aim and fire away. Here resides the second problem, the different shapes, heights and sizes of urinals create different splash back patterns and, those that locate their target on the floor, can easily be missed, resulting in peeing on one’s own shoes. Variants on splash back also arise from different water levels in the urinals, those with a lot of water will have fewer splashes than those that are mostly damp but not filled with fluid. Thus, if the man with profound vision impairment misses the target (also known as the sweet spot in the lexicon of plumbing) the splash back can be fierce and result in the gentleman ruining a pair of pants.
Once the man with profound vision impairment has finished using the urinal, he must now find the flusher. This problem also curses toilets. Groping around in an unsanitary place to find a handle, knob or, in some cases, push button results in acquiring any and all kinds of fluids on one’s hands. The blind man must then pick up his cane to go off to find the sinks. Thus, transferring some of the hazardous fluids onto the handle of his cane.
Once he finds the sinks, he must grope around to find the soap and then wash his hands. He should probably also wash the handle of his cane as it has also been exposed to this bio-hazard.
Finally, the blind man must find the paper towels. This often results in more groping in an unsanitary place which effectively defeats the purpose of having washed his hands in the first place.
So, the lack of uniformity in the design of public restrooms and the fixtures installed therein result in one of the most deplorable hidden discriminations against men with profound vision impairments. A longer exploration of this matter will include non-standard toilet paper dispensers and those racket ball court sized toilet stalls designed for our friends in wheel chairs.