More than twenty years ago when I was in middle school, I was approached by my school district and asked to participate in a program that provided students with the opportunity to meet and answer questions of students in the district with physical disabilities. During my three year association with the program, the most frequent and memorable question asked was: “How do you go to the bathroom?” I answered the question focusing on logistics; avoiding graphic details, which seemed to work. No matter where I go; every time I travel, I remember the question and think of how difficult it would be to answer it now.

Many things have changed since then, chief among them; I travel a lot more than I did then and I travel alone. Returning readers will remember I have Cerebral Palsy and use a power chair. When I travel whether it is to the National Archives in Washington, DC or to the mall to buy shoes, if I take my chair; I must use Paratransit. The Paratransit systems I have used all have pickup windows. For example, the last time I went to the mall; I wanted to be picked up at 11:00 AM, which meant that Paratransit could pick me up any time between 10:40 AM and 11:20 AM. Thus, my local Paratransit system has a 40 minute pickup window; even going to the mall requires planning and waiting. When I go on a longer trip that requires taking a train, it involves additional planning and more waiting. As a result, even on short trips, I am away from home for a minimum of four hours and on longer trips it has been as much as 24 hours. At some point, regardless of the duration of the trip, I have to use the restroom.

People are very generous with their offers of assistance on my trips. Everywhere I have gone at least one person has asked me if I needed assistance. I am always very appreciative; it is nice to know that help is there when I need it. When I need the assistance, I take it. When I do not, I thank them for their concern. Then, the Good Samaritan and I go our separate ways. For the most part these encounters are enjoyable. There are times and situations, however, when the encounters are more of an impediment to me than what I am trying to accomplish. Visiting the restroom is a prime example.

In general, I, unsuccessfully, try to avoid using restrooms. The process is tedious, tiring, and time consuming. First, I have to get into the stall. My chair is as narrow as power chairs get; it can turn 360 degrees in 18 inches. Most stalls in train stations are barely wide enough to fit my chair and allow the door to close properly; sometimes it does not. Next, I have to get out of the chair in a very confined space, and that takes time. The longest it has taken me is about 10 to 15 minutes. Once out of my chair, I can prepare to answer the call of nature. Lastly, my task complete, I reverse the process and go on my way. At least that is how I would like it to work, and sometimes I get lucky. But, the fact is the process attracts unwanted attention, and at least one person, if not more, asks me if I am okay. I have to stop what I am doing and convince them that I know what I am doing. A simple “I’m okay, thank you,” or “No really, I’m fine, thank you very much,” does not work.

Even when they go on their way, sometimes, they still do not believe me, for moments later one or more police officers will walk into the restroom and ask me if I am okay. The following actually happen on my travels.

August 5, 2006

30th Street Station Philadelphia Pennsylvania

Had to use the men’s room, and after I answered the call of nature; and as I came out of the stall a cop walked in to see if I was okay. I explained what I was doing, and he apologized for bothering me.

Four months later, I had a more intrusive experience. I was at the Amtrak station in Lancaster Pennsylvania, and the stalled door would not lock.

December 15, 2006

I went to the men’s room at Lancaster station. The stall was tiny, but I was able to get the chair in. Then it took some time to get out of it; I finally did. I am propped up preparing to go, and a man asked if I was okay. I said, “Yes, thank you.” A few moments later, I am waiting to go, and the stall door opens. I said “Excuse me!” One of the cops said, “We’re the Police. Are you okay?” I answered, I can see that! I am fine! The cop said that a man was concerned and they had to check. I said, I appreciated their concern and they were on their way.

At least they closed the door on their way out.

It is not the offer of assistance that bothers me; it is the fact that the people offering it do not take no for an answer. I understand that what they are experiencing is unique, distressing maybe even disturbing. Maybe, from their point of view, not even a disabled person would take that long, and I need assistance, but will not ask for it. So they persist, even to the point of involving the police to ensure my safety.

There is nothing wrong with asking a disabled person if they require assistance when people are in a restroom, as long as they take no for an answer. Persistence is intrusive and based on incorrect assumptions, which makes it even more difficult for the disabled person to accomplish what they are trying to do. Furthermore, persistence interferes with a disabled person’s independence. I know what I am doing when I travel. So do other disabled people. Other disabled people and I are responsible for our own safety just like everyone else.

Please, take my word for it.