I’m extremely grateful to Anne Wafula Strike for speaking out about her recent humiliating experience on the train. A culmination of various things, a broken toilet, lack of independent access to and from the train, lack of assistance when needed…. lots of layers of accessibility fail.
The fact that her experience has been covered by the mainstream press is very welcome news to me and fellow campaigners, as so many of us live similar problems every day, and perhaps 2017 is the start of a more accessibility aware world?
Toilets are not the most glamourous aspect of building design but, of course, they are pretty fundamental to access. If you go anywhere to work, eat, drink, watch a show or a movie, a museum or exhibition, it probably wouldn’t even cross your mind to wonder if there will be somewhere to go to the loo.
I can remember once being told when we arrived at a small restaurant in London that their loos were out of order, but they had made an arrangement with the pub, just a few doors down, for customers to use the toilet there. This seemed like a satisfactory, short term, solution but it did feel very odd to leave the restaurant, and your friends, mid meal and go out onto the street! I remember silly things going through my head, like should I put my coat back on? Take my bag and/or phone?
I also wonder now, would I have gone if I had known that would be the arrangement? Would I return somewhere if it was?
Fast forward 10 years and this is now our everyday scenario.
My daughter EJ is 6, and my son EW is 3. EJ has developmental & sensory disabilities which mean that she is a wheelchair user and also has continence issues, so wears pads (nappies).
Every day is a broken toilet day for her. Which means that, if we are out together, then every day is a broken toilet day for all of our family.
Anne Wafula Strike’s experience tells us that there are not enough accessible toilets in general, or sometimes the route to them is blocked by circumstance or lack of assistance. However, in our case, even when there is an accessible toilet available it’s extremely unlikely that we’ll be able to access it.
The typical ‘unisex accessible WC’ is designed with a whole host of different disabilities in mind, but the position of the fittings is predominantly to enable independent wheelchair users, those who can stand, weight bear or have the upper body strength to transfer from their chair to the loo.
But what if you can’t transfer on your own to the loo or what if (like EJ) you need a pad changed and cannot stand up to have it done?
At 6 years old, EJ hasn’t fitted on a baby changing table for some time, and even if there was a bench large enough to lay her on, she’s getting to the stage where she’ll be too heavy to transfer without a ceiling hoist. Indeed for school staff, or paid carers, who are not insured to lift her she is already at that stage, a stage that many many other children and adults are too.
It’s estimated that most toilets, including the ‘unisex accessible wc’, are inaccessible to at least 1 in 260 people.
There is only one toilet in our home city, Cambridge, that we can use. It is a changing places toilet and has a changing bench and ceiling hoist as well as a WC with space either side for carers to help. Fantastic as it is to have this facility available to us, it is not in a location we would go. The only way to get to it is to leave the place you are visiting/eating/shopping and to walk to the shopmobility office in a multi-storey car park attached to the shopping centre. I do not know of a single place we could go in the city (and Cambridge is by no means alone in this) where the toilet is accessible to us.
I’m really keen to understand why there’s not a greater range of facilities in more places that people go to visit and to spend time. As an industry, I think we are in a unique position to reassess and innovate what accessibility actually means!
I’d be really grateful if you would complete and share my survey to help me gather views on the accessible toilet guidance available, and any improvements that could be made in design and legislation. I’m looking for feedback from people in all sectors of the design and construction industry, whether you have specific experience or expertise in accessibility or not (in fact the wider the range of experiences the better!).
Vaila Morrison RIBA