by Alice Thomson

There are so many terrible things going on in the world. I could talk about any number of them – but everybody else is already doing so. What has always been my concern about things like Brexit is that the aspects of life that were already difficult are going to be forgotten in favour of this new event. So many people are going to be left behind as the government puts all of its focus on negotiating our split from the EU. And so my article today is not going to be about any of the ‘big issues’. It’s going to be about a very small one. It’s one that really gets my goat, but it’s often forgotten. Well – not just forgotten. It doesn’t even register to most people.

I’m talking about toilets.

I know what you’re thinking. I know because I’ve attempted this conversation before with friends and loved ones. When asked what my upcoming article is about, people tend to laugh at my response. I spent a good hour trying to explain my points to my mum, and I think she got it in the end. Here’s hoping I do a better job of it this time round!

I’m disabled, and part of that means I suffer with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). I had a bit of a learning curve, particularly with public access to facilities. As a result, I have a few rules I live by. Almost mottos. For example: check for paper before you sit. ALWAYS live in a two-toilet house. If there’s a loo, use it, as you don’t know where the next one will be. And finally, never trust a fart. Before I became disabled, these were not things I had to even contemplate. But now they are rules I live my life by. Initially, I was embarrassed about this development in my health. You’d be amazed at how liberating talking about your poo with friends and family can be. Mainly because you discover you’re not alone with your concerns or problems.

You’d be amazed at how liberating talking about your poo with friends and family can be.

So where is the controversy? There are a few things that irritate me about accessible toilets. The reason they irritate me is not to do with the loos themselves, but the subtle message they send. For example, if you go to a smaller establishment that only has two toilets, nine times out of ten one toilet will be allocated to men, and the other to women and disabled people. Both facilities have a sink and a standard toilet. The female one will be larger and possess all the grab rails and so forth to make it accessible. My problem is this: why is it men are prioritised, while women and disabled people are lumped in together? The message it sends is one of privilege. Men don’t have to give way to disabled people and women are (in privilege terms) further down the pecking order, down there with disabled people. As a woman and a disabled person, I find this offensive. It’s another sly jab that shows how unequal our society is. I do realise that this is a small issue. I\m nit-picking. But it’s an example of the kind of daily inequality that exists within a society that deems itself progressive and tolerant. Although, let’s be fair, we’ve had a few elections and referendums over the past year that prove otherwise.

Photo credit: Asda

I offer a simple solution to this toilet predicament, and it is embarrassingly simple. Don’t gender the toilets. In this scenario, there are only two. They take one person at a time. They provide the same facilities, with the only difference that one is accessible. Why gender them? If our (rather dated) concern is that the male one is not fit for a woman to use, maybe men should learn to leave a toilet in a fit condition for the next person. Maybe they should do that anyway. And that view is under the illusion that a woman would never leave a public toilet in an unfit state. We don’t allocate gender to toilets in our own homes, and we seem to manage fine. By taking away the gender of the toilet, you are taking away the loaded label behind it. And this is before we even get into talking about gender. It wouldn’t just benefit men, women and disabled people. It would benefit everyone.

People either forget, or don’t realise, that a disabled person does not always look disabled.

My next gripe concerns the accessible toilets in larger establishments. This isn’t exactly a labelling problem, but an attitude one. An attitude that so many members of society hold. Although, I would like to just say that we should call them accessible toilets, not disabled ones. The point of these toilets is to make them accessible to disabled people, allowing people to maintain their dignity and independence. Often when using public accessible spaces and places, I get funny looks and comments. I’ve even been shouted at. Accessible toilets are no different. People either forget, or don’t realise, that a disabled person does not always look disabled. We are not all wheelchair users. In fact, very few of us are. I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where I can manage my disability without my wheelchair. That does not mean I don’t need these accessible places, particularly toilets. But I still feel extremely uncomfortable doing so.

It’s not just because of the additional support these toilets provide with grab rails, but the privacy they give to those suffering with conditions such as Crohn’s disease, Autism, IBS and anxiety. One organisation is pioneering in the attempt to change people’s attitudes. Asda has relabelled their accessible toilets to highlight that not all disabilities are visible. They did this in all their stores under a year ago, and now I’m starting to notice other establishments following suit. I feel much more at ease using these facilities because I know that if anyone has a problem, they can see the sign over my shoulder, and be reminded that people who need to use these toilets do not all appear disabled.

Featured image credit: Asda

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