The Politics of the Third Toilet

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.


One thought on “The Politics of the Third Toilet

  1. While I can’t fault the overall sentiment, I think that we’re currently at a point where practicality overwhelms the narrative of inclusion. And when I say practicality I mean both physical, in terms of provision, and intellectually, in terms of the non-disabled audience having sufficient understanding of disability to follow the discussion and understand the conclusions.

    Taking the physical first, in terms of accessible toilets we’re looking at a significant under provision. A fairly typical set of toilets at, say, a modern cinema or mall, might have half a dozen cubicles for women, four cubicles and four urinals for men, and a single accessible toilet that doubles as the baby changing facility. One accessible toilet (and that shared!) out of fifteen. It’s difficult to know what precise percentage of disabled people need to use accessible toilets, but most of us would probably agree the provision isn’t over generous. Thankfully planning advice has now changed to say that baby changing facilities should NOT be in the accessible toilet, so we’ll gradually take the factional fight with the mums out of the discussion, but the limited availability of accessible toilets is cut down even further when non-disabled people feel justified in using them. Getting to the accessible toilet to find it occupied is bad enough if your disability means you are in pain or urgent need, but if you are forced to wait 10 minutes and find it was because of not another disabled person, but three giggling teenage girls, then you will be understandably peeved. Shared accessibility would be practical if all facilities were accessible, not just one in fifteen or so, but while we are dealing with a shortfall of provision anything that increases demand is not going to be helpful.

    Moving on to the intellectual side of the argument, the non-disabled majority largely think disability means wheelchair users alone and they don’t understand the need we may have, resulting directly from our disabilities, for accessible toilets we can get to in a hurry. They see accessible toilets as a ‘better’ class of facility, they don’t see that by using them they run a significant chance of causing a disabled person pain or other discomfort. The shared use for baby-changing erodes the specificity of accessible toilets, particularly when harrassed mums see it as reasonable to keep using the accessible toilet even once the child has been toilet-trained because it keeps them together. That means pretty much everyone under 30, if not 40, has been brought up in an environment in which they will some memory, whether conscious or subconscious, that using accessible toilets is socially acceptable. Now try to tell them that toilets should be universally accessible as part of a dialogue of inclusion, and all they’re equipped to hear is that ‘everyone should be able to use accessible toilets’, to the exclusion of ‘because all toilets should be accessible to all’.

    We need a future in which all toilets are accessible and available to all, but at the moment the state of the physical provision and the lack of sophistication in the intellectual discussion, combined with the needs of the disabled population, mean that the current dialogue needs to be one of exclusivity around disabled toilets, not inclusivity. We can hope that will change in the future, we should work towards that, but at the moment we need the solution that works now, not the solution we’re ultimately aiming at.

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