Voices: When you’re fighting about gendered bathrooms, keep disabled toilets out of it

·5-min read
In my experience, access to disabled toilets has worsened since venues have reopened after Covid measures  (iStock)
In my experience, access to disabled toilets has worsened since venues have reopened after Covid measures (iStock)

A rare benefit of the pandemic was that it appeared to increase disabled people’s participation in cultural events.

Does that sound counter-intuitive? The Audience Agency, a charity, has the answer for why: it was a result of the digital content boom triggered by Covid. This made a big difference to disabled people, who had previously been markedly under represented in the audiences at events.

The problem, of course, is that such content is now less available, and investment in it has ebbed away because venues have, obviously, reopened. So, are we back to square one? I’m afraid that it may be back to square zero.

It’s not just the fact that Covid is still around, and disabled people are often highly vulnerable to it, and thus wary of it. But there’s another problem, which pre-dates the pandemic but seems, at least in my experience, to have got worse since venues reopened.

It is the scarcity of accessible toilets/bathrooms and the colonisation of the few that are around by able bodied people who have alternatives. Venues are sometimes guilty of facilitating this shabby behaviour. “Accessible toilet, please prioritise disabled people,” was the legend above one that I saw recently, which implies that it’s fine to use if there are no disabled people around. Except it’s not.

For a start, you may not see the disabled people who are around and need the space. There are innumerable people with hidden disabilities who may have very good reasons for using an accessible loo.

They could be people with visual impairments in need of the extra room they usually provide. They could be those with conditions such as epilepsy, for whom the orange emergency cord can be vitally important. Some autistic people find the regular facilities intolerable. There are plenty of other examples around.

You might, at this point, ask whether it’s actually people with hidden disabilities I’m seeing using these facilities. But it isn’t. It’s frequently quite obvious when the only disability the person making me wait has is suffering from is laziness.

Sometimes they’ll give an embarrassed look as they shuffle past. Sometimes they may look away before muttering a half-hearted apology. The ones which really get my goat are the those who make a great show about opening the door for me, as if they’re doing me a huge favour. Here’s a tip: most of us can do that for ourselves and if we can’t we’ll let you know.

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I realise that women have for years faced problems because of inadequate provision for them. And I realise that I should have been shouting about that long before it took a cement truck running me over to provide me with an understanding of just how maddening queuing can be. But sometimes it goes beyond that. Queuing can be a particular problem for disabled people, regardless of their sex, because of the nature of their conditions.

Some simply won’t go to the toilet publically as a result of these problems. Some even resort to extreme measures. Fazilet Hadi, head of policy at Disability Rights UK (DRUK), tells me these include wearing pads or not eating/drinking.

I confess, I tend to try and limit my consumption of liquid when I go out if the venue has previously caused problems. For a type one autoimmune diabetic, this is inadvisable to say the least. And I’m afraid that there are a fair number of London venues that do cause problems, venues that are reasonably good at accessibility generally but fall flat on their faces when it comes to the subject of bathrooms.

Solutions? More loos, for a start. An end to the infuriating practice of doubling them up as storage cupboards and/or baby changing facilities, which should have spaces of their own. Clearer signage would also help. It simply isn’t good enough to say “please prioritise”. That’s a sorry-ass cop out. It says: “When we make a big noise about inclusion and accessibility, it’s really just PR. We don’t really want you here.”

Venues need to make it crystal clear that disabled spaces are for disabled people. You can do that with the right signage, signage making it clear that hidden disabilities are welcome but rude and idle people aren’t. It doesn’t hurt to have trained staff visible around the disabled facilities.

I would personally advocate for a greater use of the Radar key scheme. The lock system prevents misuse and keeps disabled toilets readily available for people who actually need them. You don’t have to jump through a mass of hoops to get a key via DRUK or other organisations. They’re not expensive. I know not everyone has one of them, and not everyone has heard of the scheme, but if the venue has them on hand then it solves the problem.

A recent visit to Shepherd’s Bush Empire, with helpful, apparently well-trained staff with keys on hand, provides a good example of how this can work in practice. I realise that the idea of locking toilets makes some people queasy. But the current situation – where disabled people are frozen out because there’s nowhere to answer the call of nature – is a disgrace.

It’s not all that dissimilar to the way we have been pushed off buses. Even a Supreme Court ruling in our favour hasn’t protected the disabled spaces on those in practice. Is that what it’s going to take to improve things at cultural events? If venues lived up to the inclusivity claims they like to make on their websites, it shouldn’t be necessary.

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