Years ago, I had a summer job in a technology firm. The bathrooms in my building had two stalls: one was handicapped-accessible and the other was the standard size, about the width of a coach seat on United, minus the armrests to fight over.
I always chose the handicapped stall. I mean, why wouldn't I? It cost the same as the other one, and it was just so much bigger. There was room to spread out. I could set down my backpack, hang up my coat, really make myself at home. I'd thought about spending my work day in there; it was a lot nicer than my cube. I could have dragged my workstation in with my large monitor, roll in a filing cabinet and drawers, and still have room for a throw rug. If I could have gotten rid of the smell and the noises from the stall next door, I'd have been set. I could even see setting up house in there; it was a lot bigger than my apartment. There was a lock on the door, and some sturdy walls to hang some art. There was a a constant draft, but it wasn’t too bad since the bathroom was kept pretty toasty.
Even the terminology made it obvious: the handicapped stall is "accessible," implying, of course, that the other one is not. Which one sounds like a place you'd like to use: the inaccessible one? It would be like a restaurant offering you a choice of two entrées, one of which was edible.
So I went into the larger stall on that particular day, just like I always did. As I was in there, I heard someone enter the bathroom and open the other stall door, which was then followed by a lot of noise and commotion. I couldn't imagine what was going on that the person had to make such a big deal out of this daily routine.
I completed my task and left my little studio apartment, opening my door to see the empty wheelchair outside the other stall.
I froze in place, guilt-rooted to the spot. To my partial credit, I may occasionally make the wrong ethical decision, but I always feel quite guilty about it when I'm caught.
I finally mobilized into action, making my way over to the sink, washing up, and getting the hell out of the bathroom as soon as I could. The only thing worse than making that person go through that ordeal would be interacting directly with him over the incident. I expect I would have felt much like my dog feels when his nose is forced into his latest pile of Bad Dog.
This situation alone would, I tell myself, have been enough to cure me of my large-stall ways. It's one thing to assert squatter's rights on a room that would otherwise go unused and unloved. It's another to force the people that need the space into some kind of shuttle-astronaut anti-gravity ladder climb just to get into position. I may not be the most saintly person around, but I can at least let guilt guide my actions.
Nevertheless, the lesson didn't end there.
Later that morning, I was walking between wings of that building. As I approached the door to the other wing, the person that had just come out of the door was holding the door open for me. Just to save me the effort of unlocking and opening the door, he was leaning forward, straining to support the heavy door at an awkward angle as he stretched out from his wheelchair.
I figure there were two possible reasons for the guy to go such pains for me. One is that he was just a nice guy, going out of his way for another human being, because we're all in this together and we should always try to help our fellow man. Like not using the facilities designed for others that actually need them.
The other reason is that he recognized my shoes, and was taking the opportunity to rub that lesson in my face.
Either way, I’ve never forgotten, and I have never used a handicapped stall since that day. I've never shared the bathroom with a disabled person since then, but I know that I will one day, and I don't want to suffer that particular guilt again.
Okay, this is not entirely true; I will still use that stall if it's the only one available. I figure that's an allowable clause in the Law of Handicapped Stalls, which goes something like this:
Thou Shalt Stay the Hell Out of the Handicapped Stall at All Times*
*Unless it's the only one available and you really have to go.
But when I am forced to use the handicapped stall, I make sure to do the following:
1) Verify that there's nobody in the bathroom that needs that space more than I do
2) Make a lot of noise and commotion, so it sounds like there's an empty wheelchair in there with me.