‘Do blind men sit down to pee?’ The trials and tribulations of using public toilets with a visual impairment

Following our video from earlier this year, “Do blind men sit down to pee?”, blogger ‘Cane and Able’ has written a great response piece which explores the topic of public toilets in more depth.

Our original video featured Dave and Mike chatting to Mark about how they’ve found sitting down to pee easier and cleaner since losing their sight. It was all about opening discussion, trying to break down the ‘awkwardness’ barrier, and let people know that it’s alright to talk about it – so we’re really pleased for the conversation to have been opened up even wider!

Cane and Able’s full post is available to read on his blog here, and we’ve condensed some of his key insights into the trials and tribulations of using public restrooms with a visual impairment – covering everything from Radar keys to confusing signage – below:

‘Do blind men sit down to pee?’

Do some visually impaired men sit down to urinate? Absolutely. Is it because we were trained to do that or because of our VI? Well it could be either, but I suspect that it’s not trained or a talked about thing. It’s a trial and error “oh my goodness” sort of thing. Is it most of us? No idea. Do we talk about it? Ah, now there’s the rub. No, we do not.

I suspect that many men (and boys) whether born with VIs or acquiring them later just stand up at public urinals and don’t give what happens next a second thought. That may be just as well but in all seriousness, it may simply not be an issue for some VIs or for those who are simply not fortunate enough to have someone tell them that there are issues.

I’m sure younger visually impaired people are super-confident this is not a thing but sooner or later someone tells you that, actually, it really can be an issue. Just be grateful if they do it with discretion and one to one. Coming back to your seat in the pub or at the football is not the place you want to be told that there’s urine on your trousers or on your shoes.

The perils of urinals

There’s the whole thing of fumbling to undo, and especially refasten, trousers whilst stood up in a crowd slowly moving towards or away from the urinal and, yes, let’s admit it, often competing with subtle aggression to do so. Buttons? Bah.

Add in those VIs which involve an unusual head position. I’m fairly confident several people with specific conditions will be able to relate stories about how they learnt that the gentleman next to them didn’t take too kindly to them apparently staring. It’s not a great look and if you add alcohol into the mix, yours and/or theirs, as is often the case at public events, then it can be dangerous to boot. You might well ask, in your blissful ignorance, how hard can it be to just whip it out and aim straight. You’d be surprised. Possibly unpleasantly so. If you don’t have fully functioning three-dimensional vision or you struggle with the more than occasional lack of contrast, or colour, between the urinal and the floor then what seems relatively straightforward often isn’t.

And the (sometimes worse) perils of cubicles

That brings us neatly to the question of how exactly some of us do avoid the standing issue. The answer might seem to be about just using a cubicle but it isn’t really. Sometimes they’re clean, well lit, reasonably large, well-stocked and almost a pleasure to use. The problem is that the frequency with which that is actually the case is surprisingly low when you have a life reliant on public transport and enjoy things that inevitably take you to a wide range of public venues of all shapes, sizes and inept signage. It’s barely tolerable for someone without a VI but for the rest of us it’s unnerving and a potential deal-breaker.

Tricky signage

Signage in an unfamiliar place is often some kind of test. First you can see it then you can’t. Then it appears to be taking you somewhere the toilet isn’t. Then all signage disappears. Then you ask for help and someone unintentionally makes it sound so obvious, and it often is, that you beat yourself up over having made insufficient effort before asking.

Don’t go looking for consistency. By and large it doesn’t exist. Theatres, railway stations, coffee shops and pubs. Basically they’re a law unto themselves and if you find a cracking example you’ll do well to find it replicated.

A confusing toilet signs where the ladies' sign says 'But don't go in here MEN this is the ladies room' and the men's sign says 'Don't go in here LADIES this is the men's room'.

Large toilets and the dreaded queueing system

The problem with large toilets that you occasionally find at service stations or large shopping centres. Maybe 10 or more cubicles in a row all the same colour (usually white) with 1 purporting to be an accessible toilet just by or inside the entrance.

I’ve no idea how this strange cult of the end of cubicle queue started but it doesn’t really work for visual impairment. Even when I’m finally at the front of the queue I’m not quite sure which door just opened and let that bloke out who’s now struggling to get past me and the badly positioned queue. There’s no time to explain that this was because it takes me a tad longer to figure out whether such gents are entering or exiting cubicles but no matter.

What then is the solution to such conundrums? In part, it’s a symbol cane. I say “in part” because the real answer is that it’s an accessible toilet.

Accessible toilets and the added advantages of using a cane

Accessible toilets fall into many categories such as the ones which are poorly maintained; the ones which are inaccessibly located; poorly signed and so on. Mostly though they fall into those with an NKS (National Key Scheme) or Radar key, which gives you gives you theoretical access to around 9000 accessible toilets, and those without.

Using accessible toilets can be a soul destroying, inconsistent, barrier ridden experience. Go to the toilet. Find it’s not in use but locked anyway. Go to the counter to ask for access only to find you needed to either be followed by a member of staff who would open it for you; be questioned as to why you need it; be given a key code that didn’t seem to work; be given a key code on a piece of paper that was so small or worn I couldn’t read it; find that it needed a Radar key but no-one knew where it was and, best of all, the new Radar operated toilet which was locked because the key was “on order”. Fine if you have a key of your own. I didn’t. Enough already. A Radar key was purchased. Problem solved? Well, no.

I have lost count of the precise number of times I have been “corrected” or “explained to” by various people for using a Radar operated toilet. The issue? I didn’t “look” disabled.

Close-up of a toilet sign with the symbols for woman, man and disabled user.

My accessible toilet experiences before and after my symbol cane are clearly different. They are only my experiences. Your mileage may vary. Literally no-one has asked me why I need an accessible toilet when I have my cane and people have gone out of their way to assist me in finding and using the things. It’s amazing what a little visibility can do.

It’s a fine example of the protection my symbol cane affords and there’s an extra confidence which comes with that when travelling. I may struggle to locate the gents. I can almost always locate an accessible toilet. It is perhaps the fact I’m now so much more relaxed about using an accessible toilet that has enabled me to talk about the whole using a toilet with a visual impairment thing.

So yeah, some of us do sit down to pee but there’s a little bit more to it than that. If you’ve got this far you’ll know that already.”

A huge thank you to ‘Cane and Able’ for allowing us to share his blog, and to Mike and Dave for getting the conversation started in our original video! If you have any comments or experience you’d like to share, please get in touch on 0300 222 5555 or email stories@henshaws.org.uk.

For more stories, info and advice on daily living with a visual impairment, visit our Knowledge Village at henshaws.org.uk/knowledge-village.

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Sarah
Sarah is the Marketing Manager with responsibility for Community Services across Greater Manchester, and the Knowledge Village.
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