I take early morning walks at Wentworth Falls Lake in the Blue Mountains. There’s a toilet block there with a few design flaws in terms of accessibility in my case, but it’s okay.
There are 2 male cubicles. One is ambulatory. The other is not. It is wider though. That means the ratio of ambulatory cubicles to regular ones is 1:1 – far higher than you’d find anywhere else.
But why both cubicles are not ambulatory is the thing I want to discuss here.
Toilets are not my favourite topic. Its just that an absence of inclusivity and accessibility can be limiting and sometimes distressing – and very exclusionary.
Why inclusive design matters.
When it is possible for a single design feature to be in service of many, most, or all people, picking the all option makes the most sense. Of course, all is an ideal that may not be met – but it’s good to aim for it.
For example, a sliding car seat can meet the needs of all but the very very tall and very very short. But within the practical limits of car design, it shoots for all. It costs more to make a sliding seat than a fixed one, but the benefits are worth the cost.
Why wait more than you have to, or can?
There are times when there is a high demand for toilet cubicles and when this happens people with no disability will use accessible toilets. It’s bad enough, absent an ambulatory cubicle, that one may need to wait also because for some reason it’s okay to make an accessible cubicle do double duty as a baby changing station. Still, when you don’t have an accessibility need, the options are 100%.
But the flip side doesn’t work if you need the accessibility features. There is often only one option – and access to it may be impeded.
These days this becomes an even more pressing issue because toilet breaks have become havens where a 20-minute head break on one’s phone is not uncommon. Time flies when you are having fun, but not when you are waiting on the person having fun.
So why not?
Why did the council who constructed the toilet block at Wentworth Falls Lake not make both cubicles ambulatory? It wouldn’t have cost much extra to do so.
The answer is a fixed mindset rather than a conscious decision. Having one ambulatory cubicle seems to be not a minimal requirement, but the requirement on the presumption that this represents the least number to meet the percentage of users likely to need such a feature. You’ll find one ambulatory cubicle among five or more most places.
In this thinking is that an ambulatory cubicle is added because the others are exclusive, rather than inclusive (pause, by the way, to reflect that exclusive is often a term of privilege). But an accessible cubicle is inclusive only if it is available for use.
It’s not uncommon to find the ambulatory cubicle is occupied by a person who does not need this feature while other cubicles are vacant but unusable to the person who needs that accessible feature.
The absence of inclusive/universal thinking is what perpetuates fixed and narrowly focused thinking. It isn’t that the council did anything wrong or mean. What it did was right in the context of complying with standards. The standards are not, however, inclusive on a practical human level, even though that’s the intent.
The importance of universal design
If all cubicles are accessible to ambulatory standard, we are all on an equal footing. If only one is, it can magnify the inequity. It may cater to the minority who needs the accessibility feature, but because access to an accessible cubicle is not assured at the same rate all cubicles are accessible to able-bodied people there is no equity of access.
Of course, a solution might be to ban able-bodied folk from using ambulatory cubicles. But who would police that? Telling an able-bodied person that they may not use an ambulatory cubicle when they have an urgent need would not be kind, and they would not comply. This is a persistent issue for fully accessible toilets. When you gotta go you gotta go. It would be nice if this was a universal and realizable right. This also applies to those 20 minute head breaks, apparently.
But nobody needs to tell a person with disability they cannot use a regular cubicle. Yes, some folk cannot get off a toilet seat without aids, and asking a stranger or workmate to help isn’t really a desirable thing to do, besides you can’t get up to unlock the door.
An accessibility feature in all cubicles is the only fair thing.
You’ll find this when you go driving around NSW. There are roadside toilets that are single fully accessible options. That’s a mathematical logic – if one – only go universal. So why not go 100% ambulatory accessible with all cubicles to get as close to that same universality as possible? Its an equity issue, not a math one.
Of course, retrofitting current cubicles to make them all ambulatory accessible isn’t always practical. There are size issues to be considered, given you need room to fit supports. But if you advocate for a greater level of inclusion in the loo, don’t be quickly put off by protestations of impracticality. It ain’t always so. Ask for compelling evidence. Sometimes a can’t do attitude masks a won’t do one.
Universal design not only makes sense, it establishes an argument for a sliding scale of possibility. You start off with all and if that’s not possible, go to most and then finally to many.
Exclusive design is a conceit and should be reserved for private settings for people who know nobody who might need an accessibility feature – including themselves – as I found out in 2009 when I returned home after 10 months in hospital to realise just how exclusive my home was.
There are good reasons to make private and shared domains inclusive – we never know when we, or folk we share our lives with, might need these attributes. There are good reasons to learn to think in terms of universal/inclusive design as the standard mode. Here’s a good place to start https://centreforinclusivedesign.org.au/.
Equal loo rights are for all of us!