Recently the Broken of Britain blogged Personal Responsibility: The IDS Way – “Someone Told Me I Could”
,in which it provided a damning account of Iain Duncan Smith using a disabled toilet. The writer notes the ‘universal’ pictogram of the wheelchair symbol, the very one that is supposed to encapsulate all types of disability. However, as this symbol doesn’t explicitly represent people with disabilities who don’t use a wheelchair, those people with other disabilities – especially invisible disabilities – come to be excluded. Who, in that case, can judge who is entitled to use the ‘disabled’ loo? Who knows, maybe IDS has a hidden disability: IBS, perhaps?!. One commentator rightly observes that the disabled sign “usually denotes that the toilet is adapted for wheelchair users, it doesn’t specifically bar anyone else from using it.” I have to admit, though, with no pun intended, I too would be pissed if I had to wait to use an ‘adapted toilet’ that was suitable for my needs. Laying personal inconvenience and bad jokes aside, however, and getting to the crux of the argument: what if we removed the exclusivity of the disabled toilet, and instead encouraged inclusiveness? Toileting, after all, is a universal experience.This is currently not the case in the UK. Due to inaccessibility, especially outside large-scale commercial settings, toileting is far from being a universal experience. Militant Crip activists would argue that separate ‘disabled’ toilets signify an undesirable rhetoric of the third gender, and the attribution of a sexuality that is mostly in line with asexuality. The LGBT community has been quick to flag up these issues in response to transgender encounters, or ‘political epiphanies’, within the public restroom. In 2005, The New York Times’ A Quest for a Restroom That’s Neither Men’s Room Nor Women’s Room
discusses the de-gendering of public restrooms and reveals that public bathrooms have become a ‘cultural “fault line”’. In this article, Professor Case points out that there are few remaining spaces that are divided by sex: “there’s marriage and there’s toilets, and very little else,” he claims. The gender division of public spaces is further antagonised by the situation which arises if a person with a disability needs assistance from a member of the opposite sex. This provides a testimony of the complex social situation arising from toilets that are segregated by both gender and ability.
In major American cities like San Francisco and New York it’s very common to find one toilet for all. The female/male/person in a wheelchair is seen to transgress the boundaries of perceived gender or ability, moving towards a universal experience. A substitute teacher from Fremont insists, “bathrooms are about biology, not perceived gender.”# My own experience in San Francisco has showed me that it has become common practice, especially in social settings like bars and restaurants, for public restrooms to be indeed inclusive. There, I was no longer faced with non-disabled people’s embarrassment if they were seen to be using ‘the disabled people’’s toilets.
As tempting as it is to berate politicians like Iain Duncan Smith, this type of diatribe is only going to enforce the binary of differences. Instead of attacking his ignorance, one should take this opportunity to educate and begin new conversations. In the segregation of public toilets by gender or ability, an undesirable hierarchy is reinforced. Even though it is widely seen to be unacceptable for ‘non-disabled’ people to use disabled toilets, let’s have conversation about liberal loos.