The ability to access and navigate a public restroom is an afterthought for many. Yet the average public restroom comes with a litany of physical, cognitive, economic and social barriers. The sink may be too high, the lighting too dim; it may lack universal signage or space for a caregiver. For arguably one of the smallest spaces in a building, restrooms can reveal issues of equity unlike any other public space.
“Potty parity” is an issue that has occupied much of the last year for Jonathan Katz, a first-year planning student at the University of Maryland. A New York native, Katz gravitated to accessibility in urban planning after a job with the New York City government opened his eyes to the challenges that aging and disabled individuals—like himself—face when navigating a predominantly able-bodied world. “I started seeing barriers everywhere,” said Katz, who is on the autism spectrum. “At the same time, I also found myself fascinated by how planning often feels like an endless puzzle, and how this work is so very iterative. Accessibility is an everyday thing.”
When Katz decided to return to graduate school, it was Maryland’s emphasis on social planning that made the school his first choice. His interest in public restrooms was a slow burn ignited by his work in the public sector—and frequent hunts for bathrooms in New York—and fanned by reading up on the subject prior to his arrival at UMD. Katz explored restroom equity for a class project last fall, later leveraging it with classmates for an initiative to improve public restroom access at UMD as part of the university’s advisory council on disability issues. He has since floated the idea of a public restroom index assessment tool, which has gained traction among campus administrators and facility planners. His work was presented virtually this month at the Society for Disability Studies national conference.
Among friends, Katz has become the resident restroom expert. “It’s been really funny how people ask me oddly specific questions about bathrooms,” he says. “My friends have started sending me toilet memes, and it’s giving me life right now during the pandemic.” Below, Katz talks about the biggest barriers in the average public restroom, what’s next for his restroom index and the hobby that has anointed him “digestive tract planner”:
What is the most common accessibility barrier you see in public restrooms today?
There are so many candidates! Many bathrooms are simply impossible to use for anyone in a wheelchair. Even if there are bars, the toilet might not be the right height, the door hard to open or a flight of stairs may be needed to enter it. A lot of “accessible” restrooms are also impossibly narrow.
Another candidate: badly designed sinks. Even in many “accessible” restrooms, the sinks are positioned in ways where wheelchair users cannot use them, anyone not within a certain range of height has difficulty reaching them, the faucets require grips impossible for some people and the placement is difficult for blind or low-vision people to find. On average, one-third of a person’s visits to a restroom is to wash hands only—and we’re doing that more now—and of course, after elimination, it’s so important!
At the heart of your research and work is an index assessment. How does it work?
This is in development. The plan is for [the index] to be a comprehensive tool to see “the status of public restroom infrastructure, how usable it is, where there are deficiencies in facilities, the funding or staffing for them or the stocking for supplies.” Different places will have different restroom needs; for example, a place with a lot of children will need more attention to that. Different cultural norms exist around using the restroom too—there are certain rules in Islamic practice about what you have to do, and in many countries, men don’t stand to pee—and so different things will get different assessments. I’m starting broad with questions that widely apply, which can be made narrower for specific contexts.
The idea of this index is based on the specific technical indices that are often used in ADA compliance, where I have some more experience and background. In developing the assessment for UMD, I’ve been going very technical, using this background index as a basis.
Some of the questions in the assessment might surprise people, in that they not only address common associations of accessibility—such as stall size and sink height—but how easy they are to clean, the flooring material and whether they offer special accommodations, such as a sharps container or requirements for religious practices. How did you develop the questions?
A lot of these ideas came from the reading I did for research; many folks have written about the different things that impact their bathroom access. As I read, I took a lot of notes and began to sort them, first by the axes that mediate our bathroom use, but then by the different kinds of interventions we might need. Some of these things are very technical–surfaces, for example, are not always safe or easy for a sanitary worker to clean or a user to clean if, say, there’s a spill of menstrual blood. Some are things many people take for granted but others don’t–a lot of blind folks use changes in flooring material to tell when they’ve entered the restroom. And many are things that I had not really thought about. I had seen sharps containers as a social justice issue to help people experiencing addiction dispose of needles, but I had not realized that people with diabetes or administering medicines might need them too.
Has the UMD restroom assessment begun? What do you hope it will accomplish?
In a way, yes. I’ve rectified the draft index a few times after input from students and facilities staff, and I also provided a review of some of the construction standards on bathrooms. Right now, the goal is to use the index as something that can be incorporated into design review and standards for restrooms on campus, and to identify, in the short run, priority bathrooms for renovation and accessibility checks. In the long run, I hope it serves as a basis for improving and ensuring restroom access at UMD. We have tens of thousands of people on campus, all of whom need to use restrooms, but not everyone can do that right now.
How can government agencies and other organizations use this as a tool?
Eventually I hope that organizations can use this as a starting point to assess the adequacy and accessibility of public restrooms for their populations and visitors. Because each place has their own specific bathroom needs, and each jurisdiction has specific plumbing codes that will dictate some requirements, the index is only a starting point–ultimately a final product for assessment will be specific to each city or campus. Right now, it’s obviously still a work in progress!
What’s next for this project? What other topics do you hope to explore during your time at UMD?
I’m planning to continue working on both the broader index and the UMD-specific index. The latter one is sort of on hold while we’re away from campus during the pandemic, but the former one I’m continuing to revise, especially after all the helpful input from the [Society for Disability Studies] conference. I’ve already written two articles for Greater Greater Washington on restrooms and another one on accessible signage, and I’ll turn some of my future work into public writing as well. I’m still working out in my head what a “final product” will look like–coronavirus brings up so many questions about hand-washing and hygiene that I have all sorts of as-yet-unworded questions swimming through my head.
There are a number of other topics I’m interested in that I’m hoping to explore. One is walkability and sidewalk infrastructure. I’ve been looking at that for a class paper in the context of aging and it’s been really fascinating. I’ve also been really interested in paratransit and how it intersects with how folks who use it perceive cities; that’s been back burner in my brain for a long time, but my friend at another planning school started an online transportation and disability group and now it’s back in my mind. And I’m still really interested in government communications and wayfinding, and how that intersects with the built environment and navigation.
In addition to your work and research, you are a prolific writer, including a Jewish food blog called Flavors of Diaspora. In it, you adeptly explore Jewish culture, tradition and memory through food and family recipes. Many people consider food the ultimate comfort—what is your go-to recipe “salve” for stressful times like today’s pandemic climate?
As simple as it sounds, maple cookies! It’s not particularly “Jewish” but I’m of the opinion that Jewish cuisine is an ever-evolving thing. The cookies are fairly simple to make and very tasty and warming. I actually tested two iterations of this recipe on my classmates at UMD, with good feedback.
The other one is really simple – pickled herring on toast. Herring is a big thing in Ashkenazi Jewish communities, and I grew up with it around, especially when my grandparents visited or at Jewish events. I really love herring, and it makes me feel a lot better whenever I eat it.
Like with restrooms and the other side of the digestive tract, I think there’s no one-size-fits-all salve for recipes, and when folks ask me what I’ve been eating, I also point out that different foods work for different people. My partner is from Ohio and has been eating tons of Cincinnati chili, for example. It’s also been really amazing to see what different folks at UMD have been eating in these times, and it’s really helpful to find out as a result what I should consider baking for folks when we’re back on campus.