Published: 7 May 2022
I'll start with a confession: I have a bit of a thing about toilets. It might be bordering on obsessive, but it's because toilets pretty much rule my world.
I can't go anywhere unless I know there will be an accessible toilet. My bladder capacity is on average around 45 mins to an hour... better in the afternoon, worse in the morning. I can't hold it. When I need to go, I go, regardless of whether there's a toilet. And for a middle-aged woman, toilet accidents can be extremely distressing and humiliating, even if nobody else knows it's happened. Being a wheelchair user makes no difference to the emotional impact of not getting to the toilet in time.
What is an accessible toilet?
A few weeks ago, I phoned a pub and asked if they were wheelchair accessible and had an accessible toilet. The conversation that followed was utterly surreal! He started off by saying
Yes there are no steps in to the pub or toilets. I followed up with further questions about whether there are grab rails and enough room for a wheelchair, etc. The upshot was, they didn't have accessible toilets but the fact that he went to the trouble of measuring them and sending me photos, made me think that he genuinely didn't know what it meant.
So, at the risk of stating the obvious, an accessible toilet must have sufficient space for a wheelchair user to wheel in, turn around and close the door. It must have grab rails on both sides, usually the type that raise and lower. For me though, that is the absolute minimum.
Features of an accessible toilet
Here is a list of things to think about when putting in an accessible toilet:
- Getting in - is there a change of surface? Chances are, the person will be simultaneously opening the door (possibly holding it open), wheeling in, avoiding obstacles and in my case, manoevering an assistance dog who is attached to my chair. At this stage, wheelies are not really possible. So any change in surface must be smooth.
- Shutting the door - the door needs to open outwards unless the room is massive. So there needs to be a way of shutting it from the inside and from a wheelchair. That probably means a long horizontal grab bar on the door at wheelchair height.
- Locking the door - the door should be lockable. I prefer RADAR locks as this prevents non-disabled people from using it. Unless it is the only toilet, it should be kept for those who need it. Remember, this might not be a wheelchair user. There are many people with hidden disabilities who need an accessible toilet too. The RADAR scheme is national. I have a couple of RADAR keys and they give me immediate access to all toilets that use their locks.
- Getting from wheelchair onto the toilet - grab rails should be easy enough to lower from a wheelchair. This is usually the point where I hurt my back, fighting with them! The emergency cord should be hanging freely, not wrapped around the grab rails, so that lowering them triggers the alarm.
- Changing sanitary/incontinence items - Okay, you might not want to think about this but disabled people might still have periods and they certainly might wear incontinence pads or adult nappies. They need to be able to change them and dispose of them whilst sitting on the toilet. So the relevant bins need to be close enough to reach. Also not everyone has use of their feet, so bins that are foot pedal operated are not very sensible.
- Wiping clean - Toilet paper needs to be accessed whilst sitting on the toilet. Disabled people don't have a magical arm coming out of their back. Hang the toilet roll where it can be reached without performing gymnastics! Also, make sure the paper flows freely and is not so flimsy that it tears as soon as you pull it. Getting a few pieces of toilet paper should not be stressful or involve a full-scale workout!
- Washing hands - If possible, ensure that the sink and hand dryer or paper towels are close enough to be reached in sequence, without moving a wheelchair. It should be obvious, but once I have washed my hands, they are wet. If I then have to move across the room to dry them, it means touching my wheels with wet hands. That makes my hands dirty again and the pushrims wet. If the hand dryer is broken or barely usable, please provide towels. Many wheelchair users wear gloves and trying to put tight gloves on wet hands is not much fun!
Not all disabled people go to the toilet to sit on it and have a wee/poo. There are many people who use various types of catheters. Some catheters are inserted and stay in for most of the time and the wee goes into a bag. Some people (like me) self catheterise so they pop it in, empty the bladder and then take it out and put it in a bin. Of those, some do it on the toilet, whereas others do it in their wheelchair (the catheter has a bag). Especially in the early days of learning to catheterise, it is helpful to be able to see where you are putting it. Add in a tremor and that is even more important. So a big low mirror can make that whole process much easier. And don't forget the bin.
Some people need lots of space for a carer to change and clean a disabled adult. Doing this on a dirty floor is difficult and disgusting! If you have space, please consider a Changing Places facility. These have proper equipment for changing. They have a bed, hoist, privacy curtains... sometimes even a shower.
I thought it might be fun to share some examples of accessible toilet fails. At some point, I might add in some appropriate photos too.
I recently visited a restaurant in Scarborough where the accessible toilet was a really good size AND very clean. However, everything was laid out in the most illogical manner.
The toilet was in the back right corner. The sanitary bin was in the back left corner (underneath the baby changing station) and the normal bin was in the front right corner (diagonally opposite the changing table). From the toilet, you couldn't reach any bin. If you were changing a baby's nappy, you would have had to leave baby unattended on a raised table to put their dirty nappy in a bin.
The sink was next to the toilet (very convenient) but the hand dryer was on the opposite wall. I don't think the hand dryer was working though, as somebody had brought in an ornate but quite large coffee table, upon which was a solitary pile of paper towels.
On the plus side, there was plenty of room to swing a cat!
Inward Opening Door
A few years ago, I visited a college to attend a work meeting. I had rung in advance to double check that they had an accessible toilet, and had been assured they had. On arrival, after a long drive, I asked where the accessible toilet was. Two male builders were instructed to escort me there. They opened the door into the ladies toilets and told me the accessible toilet was at the back.
It was tight but I wheeled myself through, commanding my assistance dog to walk backwards in front of me. It was only as I entered the cubicle, I realised the door opened inwards and it wasn't a very big space. In fact, it was so small, it wasn't possible to close the door. To make it worse, sitting on the toilet gave a prime view of the door into the corridor. That meant that if someone walked in, they would have a prime view of me, and so might any passers-by.
I was a little taken aback and initially assumed they'd brought me to the wrong place, so I quickly went outside and called them back. I showed them the situation and asked to be taken to the real accessible toilet. They radioed reception to check but the upshot was that this was the only accessible toilet (only it really wasn't). So eventually, they agreed to guard the door for me, to prevent anyone walking in. To be fair, they were really nice chaps and were as baffled as I was, as to who thought this was an acceptable situation.
Later, I asked if they had any students who were wheelchair users. Apparently they often get enquiries and people looking round but they never end up studying there. I wonder why?!!
Finally, I just want to say a massive thank you to all businesses, organisations, and other places that have a good accessible toilet. Thank you especially to those who let non-customers use them. You contribute to making it possible for people like me to go out and do normal daily stuff, knowing that this basic human need will be accommodated.