Spotlight on Accessible Bathrooms

Unless you are needing to use them yourself it’s likely you only have a passing familiarity with specific accommodations. This Spotlight series will take a look at several more common accommodations as well as a couple you may not have thought of.


This week we kick off the Spotlight series by taking a look at one of the least glamorous yet absolutely crucial accommodations, the accessible toilet. It’s well established in UK society that people have a right to good and proper sanitation. It’s a part of our Human Rights Act and there are even laws stating that all employers must ensure access to toilet facilities for their staff.

But shouldn’t this basic human right extend to all people? I would hope you agree that it should and legally it does, again under the Human Rights Act 1998, as well as the Equality Act 2010 and the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 which states that:

“Suitable and sufficient sanitary conveniences shall be provided at readily accessible places.”

It’s so enshrined in Western culture that there are references to it in recent history and in film: fans of the 2017 biopic Hidden Figures may recall the infamous scene in which Katherine G Johnson faces down her boss to describe the ridiculous lengths she, as a black woman, has to go to in order to use a bathroom compared to her white colleagues. Though we no longer see race segregation of toilet facilities (one would hope) it is still common practice that disabled people are not afforded the same access to toilet facilities as non-disabled people.

When accessible toilets are available they often aren’t fit for purpose leaving those who really need them simply unable to do or at least not whilst retaining any sort of dignity.

saddest bathroom ever
Photograph of the “saddest bathroom ever” as described in the below quote

Wheelchair user Ian P gave this description of what he calls “The Saddest Bathroom Ever”, pictured above:

“… Lacking such features as sufficient rails, a pull cord, a mirror (cripples are like vampires, we don’t have reflections), a floor or a door. The latter problem solved by putting a lock that sorta works on the external door.
But the feature it does have is a wonky toilet. That’s not just a trick of the photo.
I feel valued”

A person who wished to remain anonymous noted that:

“There are some train depots at tfl [Transport for London”]  where the only women’s toilet is also the only disabled toilet. Because heaven forbid there might be both a disabled person and a non-disabled woman in the area at the same time.”

Emma R recounts one of her worst experiences being

“…having to use a kids height non-accessible loo during an ATOS assessment – door wide open into the room with the assessor.”

Also on the list of what people have had to struggle with are: doors that don’t lock properly; lack of space for wheelchairs or other people; toilets only accessible on one side; sinks being too high or too low; toilets only accessible with special keys, access codes or with a member of staff; rooms being used as store rooms; toilet paper out of reach and many others.

Obviously there’s a lot going wrong here. A lot of it is simply down to people not understanding why people might need to use an accessible toilet or what features are useful.

Let’s take a look at some good examples then.

“I was recently happily surprised when going into the Waitrose toilets in Uttoxeter that not only was there a ‘not all disabilities are visible’ sticker on the disabled toilet, but the standard toilets had grab rails included.” – Michelle T

The thing is accessible toilets may be needed by people with a whole host of different impairments or health needs. What’s so great about these supermarket toilets is that they acknowledge that people can’t be judged on appearances as to if they should be using an accessible toilet or not. Also having a variety of options available makes the services accessible to a greater number of people – not all who need accessible toilets need the larger floor area that wheelchair users do. For some having hand rails available in “normal” stalls is sufficient, leaving the larger wheelchair friendly cubicles for those who need the space.

family wheelchair
Photograph of a woman in a wheelchair with a baby in her lap and a toddler in an adaptive buggy that fits to the front of the chair. At her side is a black service dog. Cheryl likes any bathroom which fits them all in.

There is sometimes disagreement over baby change facilities. It’s common for baby changing cubicles to be combined with accessible toilets. However this means that those accessible toilets are not available to those who need them when they need them. On the other hand, parents with disabled children and/or disabled parents with children also need access to changing facilities. Key here seems to be in making sure that your facilities are sufficient for both groups of people and if changing tables are contained in the accessible toilet that it doesn’t take up vital space.

Gill Loomes notes, “The Changing Places facility at York train station is good. Particularly helpful for me is the sink with adjustable height, meaning I can get my footplates and arm controls under the sink in order to get close enough to reach the taps without straining, reach the soap, and generally wash my hands without soaking my lap!”

Gill cites Changing Places, a UK organisation whose focus is on providing fully accessible toilet facilities in public places for those who are not provided for my standard accessible toilets. This includes people with multiple sclerosis, motor neuron disease, adults with incontinence, and those with profound or multiple learning disabilities. While not every building or workplace is necessarily able to include these types of facilities they are something of the “gold standard” and can give a people a lot of inspiration and guidance of what they can be aiming for.

changing places
photograph showing a Changing Places bathroom with adjustable high bed, adjustable hand rails, sink, toilet and hoist.

It’s not just the fitting themselves though that can cause issues, it’s the attitudes that staff and business owners take toward the toilets and those who need them.

Jess T describes a common issue: “A Costa [cafe] in London had shelving in the disabled loo stocked with their cups and straws etc. This made the usable space smaller than the standard loo!”

It’s all too common to find disabled toilets being used as store rooms. Not only does this reduce usable space or present hazards to the disabled person in there it’s also demoralising and gives the impression that staff forget that disabled people exist and may need to use the toilet or that they have been not-so-metaphorically shoved in a store room.

But good attitudes can make a difference and will often be noted by your disabled patrons. Recognising that you can’t always tell who “really” needs to use a disabled toilet and being helpful and accommodating to those who use it goes a long way in giving disabled people confidence and reducing distress. This includes how you grant people access – keeping things locked and having to make a special request from staff is discriminatory and humiliating.

Making a good quality accessible bathroom isn’t out of reach though. The key is to remember to treat people with equity – disabled deserve the same access to facilities, and experience as non-disabled people. If your non-disabled customers have access to a toilet, then so do your disabled customers. If your non-disabled employees have mirrors in their bathrooms then so should disabled people. While how disabled people access facilities may differ from non-disabled people, it doesn’t change the fact that disabled people are first and foremost people and should be treated as such.

By simply taking the time to consider who might be using it and ensuring that the facilities are fit for use – not just on paper but in practice as well – you can provide this necessity to a wide range of people without discrimination.

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