Toilets for all…

Today I learned that during the Glastonbury Festival 2011 a woman was allegedly physically assaulted for raising objections to an able bodied person using “disabled” toilets.

These are the only two references I have found so far within the British Media.

Now I’m not going to go on about a lack of reporting of what appears to be an assault against a woman at a music festival or even the obsession the media have with over-paid, over-hyped footballers… let’s face it, if this story hadn’t involved Wayne Rooney it would never have made it to the paper in the first place so, in this case, I will forgive the media it’s obsession.

No, this piece is something more personal. This is about my feelings with regards “disabled” toilets.

For the last few years of his life my father was restricted to a wheelchair whenever he went out. He never liked using it and would only agree to going out with it if he could use it first as an aid to walking and only resort to sitting in it when he got too tired, or hurt too much, to continue. Unfortunately for him this period of the “wheeled walking stick” would get shorter with every excursion. Truth to tell (and I’m not letting any secrets out now, I told him this myself), I didn’t like him using his wheelchair. Actually that’s not strictly true. I didn’t have a problem with him using his wheelchair, and I certainly never had a problem pushing him. In fact some of the best times I can remember having with him were when he was “at my mercy” :D. No, the problem I had with his wheelchair was how other people perceived him when he was in it.

On more than one occasion he would ask for help from somebody; the usual stuff – directions, hold the door, “can you reach that?” – you know, all the little things that we need to do to interact with other human beings and the person he was communicating quite clearly with would either patronize him or ignore him completely and look to whoever was with him. That’s why I hated that chair. Just it’s very existence somehow reduced my father to a “lesser being” in the eyes of some.

One thing the chair did for him though is give him access to “disabled” toilets. Actually, again that’s not strictly true, after a lot of searching on our part (in the pre-Google days) we found that for a small fee “disabled” (oh how I hate that word but none of the current crop of PC alternatives appear to have the same impact so I guess I’m stuck with it) could obtain a RADAR key. For those that don’t know (and let’s be honest unless you are in need of it for yourself or for someone you care for, why would you?) RADAR keys are the ones that give you access to “disabled” toilets. Now I don’t know how many RADAR toilets there are (yes, that’s a better phrase I think), and seeing as this isn’t a history essay I’m not going to spend hours of searching (well alright minutes of Googling) trying to find out but I do know that there really aren’t enough. Ok, admittedly, there aren’t enough Public toilets anyway but that’s another blog (not by me hopefully).

Right, so back to RADAR toilets. Hundreds (if not thousands) of people have campaigned for years for equal access to the basic human rights like public transport, shop entrances, toilets and parking (to name but a very few) and RADAR toilets have been something of a success. Most Shopping Malls, Pubs, Restaurants, Cinemas and virtually every public building now has a RADAR toilet and this is a good thing. In an ideal world all toilets, whether they be funded by public money or private enterprise, would be equal access but this isn’t an ideal world and so they aren’t. Space, cost, and an underlying prejudice are all factors for this.

Yes, I went there. Prejudice. It’s a fact of life, however much we wish it wasn’t. And none of us are immune to it (though some of us try very hard not to be). We have all had those thoughts; “Why do “they” get that when I don’t?” “Why do “they” get treated differently?” “Why do I have to pay for “them” to have something I can’t?” Whichever group of “them” “they” belong to. They are not thoughts most of us are proud of (at least I hope not) but we cannot deny having them. It’s how we choose to act with regard those thoughts that define us not having the thoughts. But that’s just an aside, let’s get back to the main point.

For many years, my father and I went out for a drink once a week, before his failing kidneys put paid to our excursions. He never drunk much but it was a time for us to catch up and enjoy each others company away from all the reminders of his illnesses that filled his house. Now most of the time, due to the lack of funds and the convenience (and proliferation) of their locations, we would frequent a Wetherspoon’s establishment. Wetherspoon’s were very good in regards that they always provided RADAR toilets (I say were because I haven’t been in one for a few years now and they may have changed) but for some reason these toilets weren’t always for use exclusively by RADAR key holders. Now I know this may sound like I’m contradicting myself here but please bare with me. I want All toilets to be equal access but unfortunately they aren’t and so I finally come to the point (that’s if you’ve managed to stay awake long enough to get this far)… On many occasions, when visiting these pubs, I would observe somebody walking to the bar to request the pub’s RADAR key so that they could use the RADAR toilet. This happened more frequently in establishments where the able-bodied toilets were on another floor. And this is it folks, this is what gets my goat. Yes Ok, you’ve been drinking all afternoon, yes the toilets are up/down stairs, in another part of the pub/field/mall/etc. Yes, there will be a queue. Yes, the RADAR toilets are roomier (and generally cleaner), closer and used less often but you know what? You can get up/down the stairs, across the field, through that narrow door a lot easier than someone in a chair. So you may have to cross your legs in a queue, you know what to do then don’t you? That’s right, don’t wait until the last minute. Some people in chairs (yes, I know a lot of “able-bodied” are in the same boat) don’t have the control of bladder and/or sphincter that most people do so when they need to go they need to go Now!  The more observant of you will have noticed that I mentioned that you have to get RADAR keys yourself. They don’t come sellotaped to the wheelchair. You have to go out of your way to get them. So, with that being the case, why not allow the people who have to use them have the use of RADAR toilets?

Yes, I do want equal access to all amenities. Yes I do want to live in a world where people are treated as people regardless of their physical attributes. And yes I will admit I do still have the occasional “Why should “they” be treated differently?” thought. But, in my defense, those thoughts are invariably followed with “They’re human just like me”. But come on, let’s face it, we don’t live in that ideal world and if, for now, we must have separate toilets for those that need the extra space and the grab handles and the emergency alarm cord can we not, as compassionate human beings, allow those amenities to be used exclusively by those they were installed for? Why do we feel we can use them simply because they are more convenient for us?  I don’t want to marginalize people because of their physical attributes, nor do I want those attributes be the things we use to define them but I don’t see why we can’t allow those of us that are less  able to function in a society that has only very recently (in comparative terms) been entirely negative towards them to have those things that they need to function and thrive on their own terms.

In the years that I had of pushing my father in his wheelchair, I can honestly say that most of our interactions with other people were positive but every so often I would have to point out (when somebody started talking over his head) that it was his legs that didn’t work not his ears/brain. Or I would quite happily argue with somebody for not folding their empty push-chair to make room for him on a bus. On one occasion I even gleefully (though rather drunkenly) stood in the middle of a pub and shamed an able-bodied man for daring to push past my father to use the RADAR toilet. Most people that have to use RADAR toilets don’t like doing so and wish they didn’t have to, so please next time you are caught short, go that extra few yards and use the regular amenities. And whether you are sitting or standing to relieve yourself, thank your chosen deity/anthropomorphic personification that you while you have to perform these natural functions you can do so without having to struggle out of a chair first or in some cases having somebody stood in there with you to help get clean afterwards.


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