The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, The second best time is today.
– Chinese proverb
Volume 75 | Issue 3
May 2007

Campus Restrooms' Role in Universal Design

Elizabeth Beltramini

College union professionals often struggle to teach students that just because something is legal does not mean it is ethical. A similar debate is occurring on campuses throughout the United States, Canada, and Australia—over restrooms. While Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws mandate certain requirements for restroom accessibility, how can college unions meet not only the letter of the law, but also the spirit of the law? The answer is in universal design, planning restrooms that not only are wheelchair accessible, but also are a pleasing solution to other audiences’ challenges.

The transgender community in particular has been vocal in supporting single-stall restrooms on college campuses. Naturally, there have been some who rebut that facilities cannot change for every minority audience with a request. However, as college campuses weigh the pros and cons associated with each argument, many are determining that single-stall restrooms are not just a transgender community issue; rather, they are an example of universal design.

Who might benefit

In describing universal design, Edward Steinfeld, director of the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access at SUNY–Buffalo, says:
Curb ramps are a good example of universal design because they are effective not only for wheelchairs, but also for mothers with strollers and people on skateboards and bicycles.
Family restrooms are also a good example of universal design. Family restrooms address the needs of all ages and all sexes. … They address the needs of parents with children who need assistance, and also adults who assist older adults. (in Zimmerman, 2006, ¶s 7–8)

In a white paper advocating for gender-neutral restrooms, Beemyn (n.d.) said:

These restrooms also help families with children (such as mothers bringing sons, or fathers bringing daughters, to a restroom), and people with disabilities who need the assistance of an attendant of a different gender. Single-stall restrooms also more easily meet the accessibility regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). (¶ 1)

According to the American Restroom Association (2006), a single-stall restroom offers flexibility and privacy, serving “people with shy-bladder and those in the transgendered community.  In addition, people using an ostomy pouch often prefer the additional access space and increased privacy of a unisex restroom” (¶ 1). Because the audiences using these facilities might be doing so because of privacy or mobility issues, the American Restroom Association also recommends the single-stall restroom remains unlocked at all times.

According to Zimmerman (2006), the need for such facilities will only increase as the workforce ages. “The baby boom population, a group now more likely to have or develop mobility, visual, or auditory disabilities, is a demographic that can also be well served by universal design” (Zimmerman,2006, ¶ 10).

And of course, it is always helpful for the general population to have an additional option when other dedicated restrooms are out of service or being cleaned. But what about transgender individuals for who the decision between dedicated restrooms is not so easy?
Mary Ann Case, a law professor at the University of Chicago, called restrooms a “fault line,” saying, “very few spaces in our society remain divided by sex. There’s marriage and there’s toilets, and very little else” (in A Quest for a Restroom that’s Neither Men’s Room nor Women’s Room, 2005, ¶ 6).

Transgender individuals are faced with a dilemma: women’s or men’s? As Curt McKay, co-director for the University of Illinois’ Office for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Concerns, expressed: “The easiest solution to is to have single-use (single-stall), gender-neutral bathrooms that anyone can use—whether or not they identify themselves as male or female”(in SooHoo, 2004, ¶ 6)

On the other side of the University of Illinois campus, David Lawrence, a physician at the McKinley Health Center, agreed: “Gender-neutral restrooms can be more comfortable for transgendered patients to use, especially the person who has not had genital reassignment surgery” (in SooHoo, 2004, ¶ 15). During renovations several years ago, the McKinley Health Center converted most of its gendered restrooms to gender-neutral (SooHoo, 2004).

In 2004, Ana Minian, then a student and GLBT advocate at the University of Chicago, was among those encouraging her campus to offer more gender-neutral restrooms on the basis of safety, saying: “Persons who are not easily legible as male or female often experience various forms of intimidation in these places” (in Glass, 2004, ¶ 11). “Minian cited one example of a person who mistook a woman for a man and called security because the woman used a female bathroom” (Glass, 2004, ¶ 11). The university has since added 15 gender-neutral restrooms.

Beemyn (n.d.) said: “Transgender people often feel uncomfortable and are subject to harassment and violence when using male- or female-specific campus restrooms. ‘Gender-neutral’ bathrooms—typically single-stall, lockable restrooms available to people of all genders—provide a safe facility for transgender people” (¶  1).

Downsides of such facilities

But not everyone is keen on the idea, especially if facilities require major renovations to make the switch.
“Posters stoking support for gender-neutral bathrooms at the University of Alberta are getting a lukewarm reception from students walking the halls” (Maudie, 2006, ¶ 1).

One student said: “I don’t think it’s necessarily a misdirected notion. I just don’t know if retrofitting buildings is really an option” (in Maudie, 2006, ¶ 2).

At the University of New Hampshire, some are skeptical of gender-neutral restrooms social implications; psychology professor Robin Nussbaum said: “We also have to be aware that it could impose a norm which those who don’t conform would be forced to go to gender-neutral bathrooms … and that’s not OK” (in Cheng, 2006, ¶ 9).

The University of Arizona has been a champion for gender-neutral restrooms. However, one opinion columnist for the student newspaper, flat-out disagreed with converting restrooms to be gender-neutral. He said:

Some students, of course, are uncomfortable doing their thing in the presence of the opposite sex.Converting to genderless restrooms in the name of better serving the minority is unfair to the majority of students who are not transgender, because many of them would prefer gendered restrooms.

Transgender individuals should be able to use the restroom of their chosen sex, so there’s no need to convert to genderless restrooms at the expense of students. Transgender people are still gendered—why go to great lengths to create genderless restrooms in their name? (Francis, 2006, ¶ 12–14)

The columnist also contemplated the “financial repercussions” of converting current restrooms to gender-neutral ones, opining that students “would likely end up shouldering the cost” (Francis, 2006, ¶ 11).

How much do single-stall restrooms cost? At Indiana University–Bloomington, campus community members are “pushing for a campus-wise policy allowing for gender-neutral restrooms in the future construction on campus” (McEnerney, 2007, ¶ 6). In December 2006, 14 existing residence halls switched to gender-neutral restrooms to include transgender students. One facilities administrator said that depending “on the location and the condition of the restroom,” the cost for an accessible, unisex restroom can range “between $10,000 and $20,000” (McEnerney, 2007, ¶ 9). The funding request for a unisex restroom in a Pueblo Community College administrative building was $85,000 (Colorado Community College System, 2006).

For some college unions, the cost of moving to a gender-neutral restroom may be relatively minor—simply a matter of changing signs. Or if a union is in the early phases of a design project, the planning team may decide to incorporate one or more single-stall restrooms into the layout. However, for others, it may be a more complicated issue, requiring a major renovation to carve out space from existing restrooms, remove existing fixtures, and rework plumbing.

Legal issues

This is the same challenge facilities faced when the ADA was signed into law in 1990; Stein (2003) said when that happened:

It was widely understood that restrooms, along with stairs, either into or out of buildings or from one floor to another, were going to face the most changes. Accessible and usable toilet stalls and sinks required more space than what was available in existing layouts. …
Sometimes, facility executives were lucky enough to be able to remove partitions and convert two existing stalls into one accessible stall and still meet fixture count requirements from plumbing inspectors. Sometimes, facility executives were lucky enough to have adjacent areas where plumbing could be connected to provide an accessible “family toilet room”—a single-user, unisex toilet room. (¶ 4–5)

Yuen (2005) found that “although more attempts are being made for greater accessibility in architecture and interior design, current facilities are still not completely accessible to everyone” (p. 9).
In addition to accessibility laws for those with physical impairments, building codes also are mandating family restrooms for many facilities. 

Many states have adopted the 2003 International Building Code, which requires unisex restrooms for all newly constructed (or renovated, when restrooms are added) assembly and retail spaces, such as malls, theatres, airports, and stadiums. Section 1108.2.1 states that facilities with an aggregate of six or more male and female water closets must provide a unisex restroom. State potty parity requirements [ratio of women’s to men’s toilets] are another factor that can quickly increase the number of toilets needed, thus boosting the need for these types of restrooms. (Renner, 2004, ¶ 2)

As a result of such legislation, “Most newer arenas, shopping malls, and airports have at least a few family restrooms” (Whitacre, 2004, ¶ 25). Family restrooms may be single-stall, gender-neutral restrooms in these places, but the terms are not necessarily interchangeable. According to Renner (2004):

Family restrooms can have multiple unisex toilet rooms within them, but may also have space allocated for other amenities and often share a common hand-washing and diaper-changing area. In addition, upscale family facilities may include family lounges, private nursing rooms, and baby changing areas. (¶ 3)

Some college unions are including these facilities as well, particularly those with child care centers or more continuing education and adult learner populations. To maximize its utility for families, the restroom can have two toilets, one for adults and one for children, and a fold-down changing table. For individuals in wheelchairs or those requiring assistance of others, open floor space is important.

While legislation and building codes have kept pace with persons with disabilities, family, and women-to-men “potty parity” ratios, there has not been facilities legislation directly pertaining to the transgender community. Recently a transgender woman reached a settlement with the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority after she was arrested three times for using the women’s restroom in Grand Central (Associated Press, 2006).  Transgender individuals can now choose which restroom to use in New York railroad and subway stations (Associated Press, 2006).

This woman had been charged with disorderly conduct; however, many argue that discrimination is at the core of the gender-defined restroom
issue. Some view federal civil rights laws and those prohibiting discrimination in the workplace and on college campuses as applying to the availability of gender-neutral restrooms. Ian Ayres, a Yale law professor even went so far as to say gender-defined restrooms are “both inefficient and, frankly, illegal” (in Luttrull, 2007, ¶ 11).

What campuses are doing

Varying groups, from students to administrators, have led the charge for more gender-neutral restrooms on campuses and aimed to garner support for their cause through various methods. In some instances, campus leaders were convinced, and in others a move to gender-neutral facilities is not currently a viable option.

The strongest verbal commitment is perhaps the University of Arizona’s Statement on Restroom Access. Signed by the university former president, the statement acknowledges the challenges individuals without gender-neutral restrooms face and pledges that the campus will make strive to alleviate those challenges.   

In addition to the University of Arizona, many campuses have begun promoting their gender-neutral restrooms with maps and lists online, typically on their accessibility or GLBT services offices’ Web pages. This issue is reaching far and wide, with institutions such as Vassar College, Michigan State University, New York University, Harvard University, and many more campuses as well as the Australian Government publicizing their gender-neutral restrooms.

Other student groups have held activities to raise awareness about the issue of transgender individuals and gender-specific restrooms. A group at the University of Chicago held a panelist discussion, “The Importance of Gender-Neutral Bathrooms” (Glass, 2004), as part of efforts to encourage the campus to reposition restrooms as gender neutral. Several campus GLBT services offices—from Colorado College to Macalester College to Wesleyan University—have held screenings of the 30-minute documentary “Toilet Training” (Sylvia Rivera Law Project, 2003).

Washington State University campus advocates organized the President’s Commission on Gender Identity/Expression and Sexual Orientation with the goal of assessing “the needs of students, faculty, and staff who fall under this category. The commission has also ensured that gender-neutral restrooms will be available in the renovated [Compton Union Building] and all other new buildings” (LeTourneau, 2006, ¶ 13–14). On other campuses, several activist organizations have collaborated to petition administrators for the availability of such facilities in new
construction and existing buildings.

Is universal design ethically mandated?

Whether gender-neutral restrooms or a similar concept are the right form of universal design is a decision each campus must make.

Although it may be subtle, there is a difference between thinking of accessibility strictly as compliance with the law and seeing it as a way of meeting people’s needs. Compliance with ADA is essential. But, by approaching accessibility as a way of meeting individual needs, facility executives can find the most effective and often most cost-effective ways of complying with the law. (Stein, 2003, ¶ 9)

Even if not legally bound to facilitate gender-neutral restrooms, one might pause to consider the ethical obligations of the college union profession’s creed. According to the Role of the College Union:

… today’s union is the gathering place of the college. The union provides services and conveniences that members of the college community need in their daily lives and creates an environment for getting to know and understand others through formal and informal associations.
The union serves as a unifying force that honors each individual and values diversity. (ACUI, 1996, ¶ 4–5)

This can be read as a statement about universal design—urging college union administrators to create facilities that are welcoming and accessible to all, while fostering opportunities to learn about those with different challenges.

“Although they may not realize it, facility executives are a prime resource for good universal design practices,” says Fletcher. “Facility executives have an appreciation of the user’s needs. They have to deal with the users long term, so they often know before anyone else what will work and what won’t work” (Zimmerman, 2006, ¶ 17).

While currently there is no legal authority compelling building administrators to offer gender-neutral restrooms, there certainly is a crowd of advocates for such facilities. And the movement is perhaps most visible on college campuses. College union facility administrators are perhaps best positioned to be leaders in starting such discussions and building consensus on the appropriate approach to take to meet the needs of the campus community.


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