Public toilet etiquette

On my long flight back from California, I whiled away some of the time by watching some episodes of the comedy show Curb Your Enthusiasm that stars Larry David who plays himself as a somewhat cantankerous and annoying busybody who talks all the time, and deals with his life and interactions with other comedy writers and actors in Los Angeles who makes cameo appearances. I had never seen a full episode of the show before but had seen clips and was of course aware of David himself, especially given his many appearances on Saturday Night Live during the 2016 election campaign where his strong physical and vocal resemblance to Bernie Sanders, including his gruff manner, was exploited to the hilt.

Anyway, in one episode, David goes into a bathroom in an office complex and finding all the stalls occupied, uses the one vacant one that is for the disabled. As he comes out, a man in a wheelchair enters the bathroom and seeing him emerge upbraids him for using the stall when he is not disabled. When David replies that it was the only one that was not in use, the man says that that is irrelevant and that he should have waited until one became free. In a later scene at a big reception in a hotel, David again goes to the bathroom and finds a line of men waiting for stalls to become vacant even though the stall for the disabled is unoccupied.

Towards the end of the episode, David goes back into the same office bathroom he went in at the beginning and sees the same man in the wheelchair emerging from one of the other stalls. The irascible David seizes the opportunity to get his revenge by taunting him for using that stall. When the man says that the disabled stall was occupied when he arrived, David triumphantly tells him that that is irrelevant and that he should have waited for one to become vacant.

This made me curious about the proper etiquette. I had assumed that if the only vacant stall was the one reserved for the disabled, then it was acceptable to use it as long as no disabled person was waiting to use it. But if this show is any guideline, it looks like I was wrong and the unwritten rule is that one should never use it unless one is disabled.

How does this compare with parking spaces reserved for the disabled? Reserved parking spaces are backed by law and one can get hefty fines for using one to which one is not entitled. In the middle of the show, David challenges someone who parks his car in such a spot and emerges from it and walks briskly away. The man replies that he is entitled to use the space because he has the required sticker. When asked what his disability is, the man says that he has a severe stutter.

It is clear that one should never use those parking spots if one is not entitled to do so even if that is the only vacant one. But parking is different from bathrooms. For one thing, there is no such legal backing for bathrooms and it is an issue of etiquette and courtesy and consideration. For another thing, parking is usually for long periods of time while bathroom use is brief. A third thing is that there is usually no emergency involved in parking while in the case of bathrooms, the need could be urgent.

Anyway, the episode made me curious if there was a strict etiquette in bathroom stall use that forbids its use by the non-disabled under any circumstances or whether David was exaggerating it for comedic effect. It should be clear that the converse, that a person in a wheelchair should not use the other stalls, is absurd and there is, or should be, no such rule, just as people with the disabled sticker should be able to use any parking spot they like.


  1. anat says

    At my work place non-disabled people definitely do use the disabled-adapted stall, but then over the years I have been working there there have never been at any given time more than one employee who used a wheelchair, and very few with other (usually temporary) mobility limitations.

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    Supermarket checkout lines is a better analogy than parking spaces. It is OK to use the handicapped-accessible checkout lines, but an actual handicapped person would be entitled to go to the front of the line, ahead of people who had not already placed their merchandise on the belt.

  3. says

    The key difference between disabled parking designations and disabled toilet stall designations is that one (parking) is a legal reservation while the other (toilet) is a capability announcement.

    Disabled parking rarely (if ever) exists in isolation. It is almost always surrounded by far more non-designated spaces than there are disabled designated.

    Disabled toilets, however, often exist in isolation. Take the suburban subway stations for BART near where I live. They all have exactly two public restrooms, each designed for use by a single person. One for men, and a second for women. Both are fully accessable per ADA standards and are labeled as such. Assuming compliance with the gender separation, a non-disabled person clearly is expected to use their gender assigned restroom.

    (Note that I’m assuming binary gender -- this is only for the sake of this handicapped/non-handicapped argument.)

    Here’s another reducto ad absurdum case: I book a hotel room. On arrival, I discover that it’s one of the hotel’s designated handicapped rooms. I’m not handicapped. Do I refrain from using the bathroom because I’m not handicapped? Of course not!

    Handicapped toilet stalls are labeled as such to indicate that handicapped people should find them accomodating. They don’t indicated that non-handicapped people can’t use them.

    To my mind, the etiquette is that non-handicapped people should refrain from using handicapped designated stalls until and unless there are no non-handicapped stalls available. This corresponds to the etiquette for multi-stall bathrooms that include urinals as well as toilets -- if you only need to piss, use a urinal unless none are available, in which case, go ahead and use a toilet.

  4. says

    Define handicapped.
    Diabetics on metformin often have an urgent need to get to a toilet.
    Plus I have trouble getting up from low toilets these days.
    It would be nice if all toilet stalls had support bars.

    Invisible diseases are a real problem as well.

  5. Steve Cameron says

    Curb definitely exaggerates and twists social rules and customs (as we understand them) for plot purposes and comedic effect. It helps that it’s set in Los Angeles where it’s halfway plausible that, in the circles David travels in, people do enforce these rules to the extreme. Often he isn’t trying to break a social rule when he gets into trouble, and even if the rest of the cast is together in their opprobrium, the viewer still identifies with David. This has been taken to such absurd degrees over the years that there was an episode in the most recent season where an investigator looked into many notorious incidents from past seasons and easily vindicated David, blaming essentially the ultra-PC culture of LA.

    Curb is one of my favorite shows, but you have to be able to handle how uncomfortable and cringe-inducing the situations become. If you liked what you saw in the plane, I recommend diving into the series.

  6. cartomancer says

    I was forced to watch two episodes of this programme several years ago. I simply could not understand what was supposed to be funny about it. I am told that the humour was supposed to come from the awkward situations the main character found himself involved in, but I cannot for the life of me see a) why those situations were supposed to be awkward (they mostly seemed like misunderstandings or differences of opinion), or b) how an awkward situation is supposed to be funny in and of itself. I can get that an awkward situation might also be funny -- because it involves some element of the ridiculous or the ironic or the parodic or the burlesque -- but awkwardness is simply not funny.

    Perhaps it’s because I’m English, and in English society awkwardness is both utterly ubiquitous, serious business, and to be studiously avoided whenever possible. Or perhaps it’s just that the programme isn’t actually funny after all.

    As for disabled toilets, I think it varies from place to place. Here the custom is that if someone is in desperate medical need then they should be given priority, but otherwise one queues for the toilet like everybody else and gets one’s turn when it is free. Queuing is very serious business in England. Very serious indeed.

  7. says

    No-one stands between an empty toilet stall and my wife in need of a leak without consequences. And that’s got nothing to do with her gammy knee that earns her a disabled parking permit.

  8. jazzlet says

    I’m of the use the alternatives first, but if there is no disabled person around use the disabled toilet, but don’t hang around. A lot of small places in the UK will have one toilet for everyone so you do get used to using the disabled toilet then.

  9. Holms says

    …Or perhaps it’s just that the programme isn’t actually funny after all.

    Simple solution: to you, it isn’t!

  10. Marshall says

    Part of the reason the show can be irritating (although I freaking love it) is that Larry is actually almost always the correct one, and most of the tussles that Larry finds himself in are due to contrived scenarios in which a layperson becomes upset by something that would never happen in real life.

    The point of handicapped toilets is to make it easier for disabled people to use the toilet, not to give them some super special priority over others when using the restroom. I agree with Larry in this case.

  11. Mano Singham says


    I see your point. I think that allowing anyone to use the wheelchair accessible stall if it is the only one available is a reasonable option.

    But there can be some trickier situations. Let’s consider a situation where all the stalls are occupied (including the wheelchair accessible one) and there is a line for them which includes another person in a wheelchair who is (say) third in line. If the person occupying the disabled stall comes out, who gets to use it next? The person first in line? Or the person in the wheelchair? My response would be for the person in the wheelchair.

  12. says

    Hi, I’m a disabled person in an actual wheelchair.

    If you can wait for another stall to open, please do so.

    If not, all I ask is that you hurry up!

    If it’s single-occupancy, it’s meant for everybody to use, and basic bathroom etiquette applies there same as any other shared toilet. (Don’t blow it up, clean up after yourself, you know.)

    In both situations, it’s inappropriate to use the stall/bathroom as your own personal changing room.

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