Making Restrooms more Inclusive

Desegregating restrooms by gender is the new normal in student unions and throughout campuses as part of a strategy to create positive, inclusive environments that meet the needs of different races, genders, and disabilities. 

Planners and administrators are finding that the most efficient way to create gender-inclusive restrooms is to simply convert existing single-occupancy restrooms by doing two things: Changing the sign on the door and adding a receptacle for feminine hygiene products. That’s what happened in New York City in 2016 when the City Council passed a bill mandating that gender identification signs be removed from all single-stall restrooms throughout the city. 

BidetBut many unions and campuses today are taking more progressive steps in their strategies to meet the needs of students, faculty, staff, and the public. That has included the renovation to and new construction of multistall all-gender restrooms, making menstrual products available for free in restrooms, and installing foot-washing stations, and in some cases, bidets. 

The process usually begins with the creation of an inclusive restroom taskforce charged with delivering a strategy for surveying locations and conditions, prioritizing integration to non-gender-segregated restrooms that meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, and finally, a plan for education, outreach, and professional development. 

The University of Vermont did just that in 2016 by starting with an audit that found 284 buildings with 1,473 restrooms, of which 380 were nongender-segregated. The university is now converting gender-specific restrooms into gender-inclusive ones, building projects like a new athletic center and a new arts center will have multistall gender-inclusive restrooms, a public map of gender-inclusive restrooms is being created, and new restroom signage will designate accessibility and baby-changing facilities. 

Within the past few years, several schools have created all-gender bathroom maps. Georgetown University and Illinois State University created maps last year, and development of a gender-neutral restroom strategy at the University of Minnesota–Duluth not only led to the creation of an interactive map, but also to the addition of gender-neutral restrooms on the third floor of the Kirby Student Center and a mandate that all new construction and remodeling projects include at least one gender-neutral restroom in a building. 

The installation of foot-washing stations in unions has led to some criticisms that it gives preferential treatment to one religious group, Muslims, who use them for the act of ablution, or purification, before prayer. 

Student centers at Eastern Michigan University, Wichita State University, and George Mason University have foot-washing stations, and the current major renovation of the University of Michigan union will add all-gender bathrooms and foot-washing stations on each floor. Criticism about the installation of foot-washing stations has been avoided as long as the policies are clear that foot-washing stations can be used by anyone and for a variety of uses, such as cleaning up after a workout, washing out a cooler, or filling up a flower vase. 

While bidets have become increasingly popular in the United States with the ageing community and people with disabilities, they’ve yet to reach the standards of use seen in European countries like Italy and Portugal, where bidet installation has been mandatory in households in both countries since 1975. Also popular in France, Spain, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, Thailand, and Japan, bidets have been deemed to be both hygienic and environmentally sound, using about one-eighth gallon of water compared to the 37 gallons of water needed to make a single roll of toilet paper. 

Marcia Gerwig, director of Cohon University Center at Carnegie Mellon University, said students have asked for bidets in the union there. 

“We’ve had some requests, and I wish we did have them,” she said. “It takes time to get projects like that through and many times the students who are raising this issue and making these requests are gone before anything gets done.” 

There are bidets located in every bathroom at Ball State University’s Studebaker East residence hall, home to an international living and learning community. “We have them in just this one housing unit, and they are located in every restroom,” said Chris Wilkie, director of housing and residence life for marketing, communications, and technology. 

Adding foot-washing stations and bidets can also increase safety, as many facilities professionals routinely comment about hazardous puddles on the floor or half-empty water bottles left in restrooms as users improvise.

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