Authors advocate more and better women's restrooms in public facilities

August 31, 2004

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Women have made significant strides in their fight for equal rights, but they're being kept in line by inadequate restroom facilities.

Restroom parity is not a frivolous issue, says Kathryn Anthony, a professor of architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The author of "Designing for Diversity: Gender, Race and Ethnicity in the Architectural Profession" (University of Illinois Press, 2001), Anthony has been exploring problems associated with inadequate public restroom facilities for two years as an outgrowth of her research for that book.

There has been progress in recent years on the parity front, Anthony notes. More than 20 states and a number of municipalities have passed laws requiring the doubling, tripling and even quadrupling of the ratio of women's-to-men's toilets in public buildings. Most legislation, however, applies only to new construction, major places of assembly or major remodeling projects.

Parity isn't the only problem that need to be addressed when considering public-restroom design flaws and inadequacies, according to Anthony.

"Although we are all forced to use them whenever we're away from home, many of today's public restrooms raise a host of problems for women as well as men, adults as well as children," she noted in an article co-written with graduate student Meghan Dufresne and published recently in the journal Licensed Architect. In the article, Anthony and Dufresne argue that "it is now time for architects, facilities managers and building code officials to revisit public restrooms -- and they need a major overhaul."

While the authors advocate the inclusion of more toilets in women's restrooms -- as well as larger stalls that can better accommodate pregnant and obese women -- they note that a wider set of gender-neutral issues involving safety, access, hygiene and public health also must be addressed.

For starters, Anthony said, more public buildings should have family-friendly or companion-care restrooms that allow opposite-gender caregivers to provide assistance to children or to elderly or disabled persons. The need for more of these facilities becomes increasingly obvious, when considering changing demographics in the United States, she said.

"As the baby boomer population reaches retirement age, the numbers of those with Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and other mental and physical disabilities will increase," Anthony said. "Those afflicted by such infirmities are often unable to use a restroom alone -- yet now are often forced do so."

Meanwhile, "an anxious family member of the opposite gender must wait outside," said Anthony, who experienced this situation firsthand when her husband, who has since died, required assistance while confined to a wheelchair. And in a world where child-safety is on the minds of most parents 24/7, family-friendly restrooms meet needs that go beyond simple convenience. Case in point, Anthony says, is the fate of a young California boy killed in 1998 in a public restroom while his aunt waited outside for him.

"Today's restrooms don't bode well for many men, either," said the U. of I. architecture professor. "Although few discuss it publicly, some men question the lack of privacy in the standard men's room lineup of urinals, with users in full view of each other. In fact, a disorder called paruresis, or shy bladder syndrome, making it impossible for someone to urinate in public if others are within site or hearing distance, affects over 1 million Americans." Nine out of 10 of them are men, she noted.

Despite improvements that have surfaced in various locales nationwide, Anthony doesn't expect to see dramatic changes in public-restroom design anytime soon. In part, that's because public-restroom users aren't an organized or politically powerful constituency -- unlike those who lobbied for accommodations through the Americans With Disabilities Act. Before real change can occur, she said, architects need to speak out, and legislators must draft laws. In the meantime, women will likely keep standing in lines and shrugging it off. And people will be grateful when they happen to find family restrooms.

"Like it or not, most of us use public restrooms every day," Anthony said. "Consequently, even the slightest improvements to this part of our built environment can have a tremendous positive impact on all segments of our population."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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