For over a decade Mencap have run Changing Places, an amazing campaign to improve toilet provision for disabled people across the UK.
Changing Places toilets are loos that meet a specific set of criteria – they are much bigger than regular accessible toilets, have a height-adjustable changing bed, a tracking hoist, and a centrally placed toilet so that you can transfer onto it from either side. These facilities meet the requirements of disabled people who cannot use standard accessible toilets. They are essential to creating communities where everyone involved feels welcome.
I’m very glad that an increasing number of cultural venues are recognising the importance of providing this type of facility. But it’s not enough just to have a Changing Places loo. It’s crucial that they’re well maintained, clean, and appropriately signposted and, very important, that all staff involved in their operation must take an inclusive approach.
As my pain has increased I’ve needed more help to get on and off the toilet than I used to, so it’s great that I can choose which side to transfer from, depending on how my body’s doing. This means I’m using Changing Places toilets wherever they’re provided.
The other day I was at the Barbican which has a Changing Places loo. It was in the café along with a number of other toilets. It’s kept locked so it stays clean and secure, and the code to get in is kept behind the bar.
I needed the loo so along with my support worker I popped to the café and asked for the code. The first person I asked was friendly but a little confused – she didn’t know where the code was kept so she called her manager.
The manager came along and I repeated my request. Her response was not at all what I expected. She looked me up and down and said, “I think you can use the normal disabled toilet”. I was shocked by this response, and a horrible mix of anger, embarrassment and shame surged through me. I stayed calm and firmly repeated my request saying, “I have asked specifically to use the Changing Places toilet. Please provide me with the code.” She groaned audibly, and grumpily started looking for the code. It took her over five minutes to locate it and during this time I was made to feel like a problem. My need to use the toilet became a lot more urgent too.
Eventually she opened the toilet for me and I was able to use it.
As a wheelchair user I’m all too used to people making snap judgements about my body, and this never stops being upsetting and damaging.
To be so abruptly and publically challenged about my requirements felt awful. With just one statement she both questioned my honesty and drew attention to the intimate physical challenges I’m experiencing. I was made to feel like a nuisance for wanting to use a public toilet unlike non-disabled people who can access theirs at any time with no trouble at all.
Below are three simple points I’d like people to think about in relation to accessible toilets and requests for support or assistance:
1) Do listen to what people require and respond accordingly. Don’t make judgements based on how someone looks or sounds, or on your own assumptions
2) Do remember that not all impairments are visible. Don’t ask someone to disclose personal information to you or justify their need of a specific facility, service, or approach
3) Do make sure you know what facilities are available in your community, school or workplace. Don’t use these facilities unless you need them for access reasons. Accessible loos aren’t just a good place to have a private poo!
These points don’t just relate to toilet provision but are part of a common sense approach to inclusivity.
I’m sure the café manager didn’t mean to upset me, I appreciate that she may have been pushed for time or was under pressure, or having a bad day for any number of reasons, but that doesn’t make her response any more acceptable. These types of interaction happen way too often and can have an adverse cumulative effect on how disabled people feel about themselves, their bodies and their communities.
I’ve been in touch with the venue to raise my concerns and am confident that this has now been addressed.
Good access is never just about the right physical provisions – it’s about having the right attitude and understanding too.
At the moment there’s a big campaign to encourage major supermarket chains to invest in Changing Places loos. This could make a massive difference to many people, so please support this campaign here.