I get asked several times a week about accessible toilets. There is no law enforcement on toilets like there is parking. There’s a very good reason for that. So I’m going to explore the ins and outs (oh dear this is only going to go down hill from here) of access to public toilet facilities.
The Access to Premises Standards state the requirements of buildings to provide toilet facilities that are accessible to people of all abilities. This is governed by the Disability Discrimination Act. Various other Acts and Codes of Practice are incorporated in the access standards including the Building Code of Australia and Local Government by laws.
The purpose of the Disability Discrimination Act in Access to Premises is to ensure that people are not excluded from the equivalent access that the rest of the community enjoy due to their disability.
So lets look at it in perspective. Public toilets. When you gotta go, you gotta go. We all know how much we’ve loved the blessing of being able to find a toilet when you’re out at one time or another in our lives. We also all know the joy of finding said toilet only to discover people have lined up out the door and down the Pacific Highway to use said toilet. It happens. To all of us. Not just those with disabilities.
I saw a tweet a while ago on Twitter from a person of some significant prominence in the disability community. The person is a wheelchair user. It said “The person in this disability toilet had better be in a wheelchair.”
I used a great deal of restraint that day to not reply. Lets get something sorted right here right now, using a wheelchair is not the only need for access to a toilet.
There are many types of mobility devices that would restrict a person attempting to use a standard type toilet. Those people have just as much right as wheelchair users to access. Including, the accessible toilet.
I’m prepared for the condemnation I’ll receive for saying this but seriously, unless that toilet has your name on it, you’ll just have to wait like the rest of us. Now, before you go all hell hath no fury on me, remember I have used and still on occasions use a wheelchair and there are times my mobility is so restricted I cannot control my movement enough to even speak clearly. So the “you don’t know what it’s like” argument just went out the window.
This is how we need to perceive accessible toilets.
1. Are they provided?
2. Are there enough to cover the equivalent use of standard toilets? That means considering up to 10% of the population NEEDS an accessible toilet is there 1 to every 10 standard toilets (both male and female) provided.
3. Are they being used reasonably? That is that the people using them have a NEED to use them because they can’t use a standard toilet in their situation and there are no other facilities provided to suit their needs AND are they using them for the purpose of sanitary hygiene needs?
The reason I point out the specifics in point 3 is that prior to writing this I have actually done a bit of research. I’ve spoken with shopping centre security and managers, and I’ve had a real eye opening education about what goes on in public toilets. One shopping centre staff told a story of a couple who regularly meet and use the disability accessible toilet for a ‘romantic encounter’. One of these people uses a wheelchair and the other person has other disabilities. True story. There were other stories about people who fall asleep in toilets, use them as change rooms and unload their shoplifted stash into bags to look like purchases.
The most shocking part of this is that every one of these stories featured a person with a mobility disability. So they had every right and need to use the toilet however they weren’t using it reasonably.
We really need to stop ableism but just as much I think we need to stop able-hate. The assumption that access facility abuse is only by able bodied people is clearly wrong. We already know the amount of abuse of parking permits by permit holders that goes on. No it’s not appropriate if you are the permit holder to use the disability parking to pick up your able bodied child from school while you sit in your car and wait.
So the question posed so often to me “Are disability accessible toilets for the exclusive use of people with disabilities?” has the answer of NO.
What does the Disability Discrimination Act say about accessible toilets?
Do accessible toilets have to be reserved exclusively for people with disabilities?
No. There is nothing in the DDA to mandate accessible toilet facilities being exclusively for use by people with disabilities – so long as in high use areas there are sufficient numbers of accessible facilities to give users with disabilities equivalent convenience of access.
Where there are multiple toilet facilities, venues may well make their own decisions to reserve accessible facilities for use by people with disabilities only, or to implement a priority system. That is however a matter for management decision in the circumstances of each venue, rather than for the DDA. Other users without disabilities may likewise decide voluntarily as a matter of courtesy not to use an accessible toilet if possible where another toilet is provided, to avoid delaying a person who does not have a choice. Again, however, that is not a matter for the DDA.
Of course, the only way to ensure absolutely equal access would be to require that each and every toilet be accessible – but no one has argued that the DDA or other laws require that, in recognition of the additional space that an accessible toilet facility requires.
The position where parking spots are reserved for use by people with disabilities is different. A parked car typically remains in place much longer than a person using a toilet does, so that parking in “disabled” spaces by drivers without a disability can effectively deny people with a disability access at all, rather than only requiring a short delay.
So in a nutshell…. if the building has provided the required access for people with disabilities their job is done. No discrimination has occurred.
It then comes down to the person using the facility. Have they caused discrimination against a person with a disability? Have they used the toilet instead of using standard toilets that were available at the time? Have they used the toilet reasonably?
It’s tough to control the use of toilets. It relies heavily on people being considerate and having morals. Perhaps we need to have signs on all the accessible toilets where standard toilets are also provided that say “Do you really need to use this facility?” If you gotta go, you gotta go and all things considered, we’re damn lucky to live in a country where we have the right to fight for equal access. Let’s enjoy that. Even if we have to wait our turn.