Implementing gender-neutral restrooms shouldn’t be about just checking a box on an accessibility to-do list. These spaces need to be completely functional, operate safely from both a mental and physical standpoint and live up to hygienic standards, especially in a healthcare environment.
Meanwhile, having gender-neutral restrooms will only increase the health and safety of occupants, improve patient outcomes and attract the next generation of workforce to fill the much-needed staffing shortages in hospitals and other healthcare facilities.
“Public restroom access is a health and safety matter for hospitals and healthcare facilities,” says Ali Summerford, interior design director, Oculus Inc. “More healthcare systems are recognizing and offering gender affirming care, which coincides with the rise in demand of mental and behavioral services and the need to provide a welcoming, positive and calming experience for patients, visitors, and staff. Beyond gender preference, these facilities are conscientious of the role of caregivers – friends and family members who are transgender or marginalized, those with disabilities, older adults, parents of small children – and the convenience of having a gender-inclusive public restroom.”
There are only minimal costs associated with converting unisex restrooms to gender neutral spaces. Summerford explains that adding drains in each stall, upgrading smoke/fire detectors and installing floor to ceiling doors and partitions are among more simple and cost-effective changes. However, it will cost more to convert male restrooms into gender neutral restrooms as its often cheaper to add urinals rather than remove them.
The 2021 edition of the International Plumbing Code has two amendments – one to require signage on single-user restrooms that they are open to any user and the other to allow the multi-stall design with individual private toilet compartments and shared sinks in the hallway to help eliminate long lines.
There is no standard for converting single-sex restrooms into gender-neutral ones, so changes depend on the facility’s needs and often its size.
“In smaller clinics, there are more single restrooms versus multi-stalled, which are easier to adjust. Larger facilities traditionally have more same-sex and multi-stalled restrooms,” says Summerford. “Very simple tactics like removing gender-specific signage from product dispensers or adding new, all-gender restroom signage outside each restroom are good steps hospitals and healthcare systems can take.”
There are currently no standards or adopted symbols for gender neutral signage. Summerford suggests that facilities managers should consider phasing out gender specific symbols, instead using symbols with just a toilet and wheelchair symbol to convey accessibility.
Gender neutral restrooms offer more privacy than gendered restrooms. One way to enhance this is by adding floor to ceiling walls to individual stalls. This practice not only addresses privacy, but also the hygiene factor as well by fully separating these stalls.
“Location is incredibly important, too,” says Summerford. “For anyone transitioning or not fitting into one gender, the big thing is making sure that these individuals are not perceived as being treated differently. Gender-neutral restrooms need to be exactly where the other restrooms are located and not off to the side, down a hall, or in an odd area.”
When it comes down to it, facilities managers have to put the patient and their experience within the facility first. Gender-inclusive restrooms make it safer for marginalized communities to use the bathroom in public. These spaces address the mental health of individuals and ensure that they are never put in a situation that is unsafe.
“There will always be opponents of gender-neutral restrooms, but the discussion should be around safety of all occupants,” Summerford says. “This is just going to be the norm moving forward. Some hospitals and teaching universities are ahead of the curve and making it a requirement that gender-neutral restrooms be designed into any new building or facility.”
Mackenna Moralez is the associate editor of the facilities group.