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Bogged Down with the Eternal Fight for the Perfect Convenience

Why is it still not widely understood that disabled people have the right to decent toilet facilities just like anyone else? asks Penny Pepper

Campaigners from Muscular Dystrophy UK and other charities representing disabled people raise awareness of poor facilities for the disabled. Photo: Mark Kerrison/Alamy

Bogged Down The Eternal Fight for the Perfect Convenience

Why is it still not widely understood that disabled people have the right to decent toilet facilities just like anyone else? asks Penny Pepper

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Who knew that there’s no legislation to make local authorities provide public toilets? Something of a shocker for me before I even delve into the particular bête noir of disabled people: the accessible toilet.

One recent ‘accessible’ toilet (the correct term), was on the end of the cubicles – miniscule and, I realised, it didn’t smell great either. But then, immediately behind me, hung the men’s urinals. Not only was the accessible loo at the back of the men’s toilets, but to use the facility you had to let the bar staff know. My storytelling brain went into overdrive, but not too far from the realms of possibility. ‘Fred! One of the handicapped wants to use the toilet! Can you get all the men out?’ The idea of this being yelled across the venue, which was rather old and traditional, made my toes curl.

The added irony was that the women’s toilets were upstairs. Even elderly and frail family members usually prefer using an accessible toilet… not likely in this case. There was also the not-so-small matter of my wheelchair not fitting through the first door. 

The staff were helpful and polite, but it doesn’t cancel out this particular inequality.

The problem with outdated, incomprehensible, and often unusable ‘accessible loos’, does not only affect wheelchair users. A visually impaired friend remembers using such a loo on a train, finding the Braille panel within instructions, and one line said ‘locked when light flashes’. My friend has some sight but we all wonder how useful that information is to a blind person. Another blind friend with a bowel condition had to wrestle the baby changer – often in the accessible loo – and ended up having an accident.

I remember a phase of toilets having all sorts of automation. There was one hateful contraption at a London station that gave you a set amount of time to go in the loo, use the loo and leave the loo before the seat withdrew and the floor did something strange like wash itself. I remember you could press a button for more time, but these were rarely accessible.

Equally scary, if for different reasons, are the toilets with automatic opening and closing. Fortunately, I’ve never been caught with my knickers down but I have been sat there clothed on the throne revealed to all as a panicked PA pressed all the buttons.

There’s a veritable roll-call of toilet fails that stretches the realms of believability. Bear with me. 

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When asking around, many people remarked on the metal toilets. One of my lowest experiences occurred in Epping. I even made a film about it in 2009 where you can see some of the metal and signage, as obscene as the unflushed turds. Above the doorway, in huge lettering: ‘INVALID’. What started as a casual way to vent frustration, led to others reporting this toilet and changes being made.

Accessible toilets are often too high or too low. The doors swing in and not out – unless they are hall-sized, a wheelchair cannot fit in to allow a door to shut. The space itself is often ridiculously small when you have a PA or family care-giver. There’s a multiplication of bins which stops side transfers, and a particular favourite with a variety of outlets – the accessible loo as storage cupboard.

I’ve often asked why an accessible loo appeals as the place to pile your spare cleaning gear, baby high chairs and boxes of kitchen roll, and responses are inevitably circular. ‘No disabled customers use this loo.’ Why is that? I wonder, gazing around at the mountains of bleach bottles and mop buckets.

More dismally is the drug-taking paraphernalia often found in accessible toilets and sometimes even in the bowl. I am told this is rare in standard toilets. Even with the use of the RADAR National Key Scheme this is unavoidable, particularly because although this scheme has been around for some time – and “offers disabled people independent access to locked public toilets around the country” – the keys are highly copied and available online. I also despair at the loss of toilet attendants who can not only remove the unpleasant and dangerous materials, but also maintain hygiene.

Hope lies in the Changing Places Campaign “so that everyone, regardless of their access needs or disability or reliance on the assistance of carers or specialist equipment, can use a toilet facility with dignity and hygienically”. There are 1,754 registered Changing Places toilets in operation, and the Great British Toilet Map suggests 4,149 standard accessible lavs in the UK. But how many are working at this moment?

There are other signs of improvement, including the realisation that not all impairments are visible, a sign often placed on accessible loos. Even train operators have made efforts to understand that toilets are universal and therefore need to be accessible – albeit work is needed on the flashing lights.

While understanding grows that disabled people have the right to decent toilet facilities just like anyone else, the gruelling weight of Conservative funding cuts continues, and public loos are already clearly in decline. I fear any optimism is likely to flush into the sea with the infamous sewage.

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