Err….who said that toilet was accessible, anyway? in which I discuss the lack of truly accessible toilets in public buildings

I got trapped in an accessible toilet today.

I was being called as a witness at Magistrate’s Court and had turned up as instructed. The Witness Care service were very nice and showed me to a room where I was able to wait, which was big enough to wheel around in. So far, so good.

These things always take longer than expected, so I’m always clued up enough to ask where the toilets are. The toilet pointed out to me as accessible was just down the corridor from where I was waiting in the room. After a certain amount of time (and coffee) it was time to make use of the facility.

It was one of those toilets with the double doors- a push door, a short corridor, a second push door. Inside, as is not unusual, the toilet was not accessible- in fact although the room was relatively large there was no cubicle suitable for a chair to toilet transfer. I’m okay with things like this- I’m aware that this is often the best it’s going to get, but I am always surprised when in a public building, relatively newly built, that this is the arrangement. Especially given the DDA, with which we wheelchair users can expect all public buildings to be accessible. However, I had my crutches with me (balanced on the footplate of the wheelchair, because I’ve found myself in this situation before) so I could transfer myself to standing, then get to the toilet. The only problem is that to do this, it was necessary to leave the wheelchair in the doorway of the toilet. This means it was not possible to close the door on the cubicle, which was a privacy issue. However, at this stage (not to put too fine a point on it) this was not my priority- so I continued to use the facility.

Afterward, I transferred back to standing and used the crutches to get back to the wheelchair, and then wheeled to use the sink and towel. So far, so good. Then, I tried to leave…

The door to leave was a pull door, which as any wheelchair user will tell you is hard to use at the best of times, since leaning forward to grab hold of the door is difficult, and pulling it back has to be coordinated with wheeling backwards with the other hand, so that you don’t simply slam the door into your own footplate, preventing the door from opening. Doors, particularly good quality fire doors, are also very heavy to pull back (think about the lever you’re using in this position, physics geeks). So it’s not impossible or inaccessible to open a door in this circumstance, but it should have given me a clue that accessibility wasn’t high on the agenda when planning the layout!

Anyway, first obstacle surmounted, door open, it was then possible to wheel or pull myself through the doorway. The corridor between the doors was narrow, there was not sufficient clearance to turn the chair around. But this is often useful, because it’s possible to use the walls of corridors like this to pull forward. Anyway, the door I had just come through closed behind me. I then repeated the manoever to pull open the next door. The problem was that the corridor was too short- as I pulled the door open, the chair had to move backwards to create clearance- but the door behind me blocked me from moving back!

So I tried again, and again. I tried folding back my footplates, going on tiptoes, to create a little extra space. Still, the space was too small to open the door in front. I tried opening the door in front whilst simultaneously trying to twist and push the door behind, to give myself the clearance to wheel backwards into the second doorway- which was both painful and unsuccessful!

As I often do, I tried to talk myself through it as if I was a client (I’m an OT by trade)

“Stop. Think about it. Is there something you’ve missed here- there must be a way out of this toilet corridor! The most important thing is don’t panic. Go back- think it through again….”

It was no good. there was simply no solution to the problem. But the door in front of me had a window- and I was able to see the occasional person walking past. I hate to have to ask- but given a choice between being trapped in a toilet and having to ask for help- well, it’s no choice really, is it? As one of the Court ushers passed, I was able to open the door in front a crack and shout “Help- I’m stuck in the toilet!”

Goodness, he was ever so kind and immediately helped me- it wasn’t simple with two of us in the corridor, because there really wasn’t much space, but we were able to work it out, then he was kind enough to wheel me back to the room where I was waiting.

Shortly afterwards, a representative of the Witness Care service came and apologised to me for the upset and inconvenience (which I thought was a very nice thing to do). She stated that she had no idea the toilet was not fully accessible- and that no-one had ever had an issue with it at all! I was surprised about this, but I think that had I been with an escort, I would have managed without difficulty. Obviously, no-one using a wheelchair had ever used the facility alone.

Another day, another small, embarrassing bump in the road to navigate for your humble wheelchair user……….

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3 Comments

  1. It amazes me how nobody ever asks the relevant people at the *design* stage.

    …Actually, given the small dealings I’ve had with large PPI-project firms, I’m not surprised in any way whatsoever…

    Reply
  2. I *very* much doubt that no one had ever used the toilet alone before. What’s more likely is that the wheelchair users who have previously been stuck in it were disbelieved, with staff assuming they were too stupid to get out. An OT would be taken far more seriously than an average wheelchair user. The number of times I’ve encountered barriers and it’s been assumed to be *my* fault is so many that I’ve lost count…

    Reply
    • I suspect you’re right about it having been used before…although they didn’t know I was an OT, so they were treating me as any other wheelchair user. But the whole toilet was inaccessible to wheelchair users-I hope that there is a toilet elsewhere in the building that meets accessibility requirements under the DDA, I will be posting about this when I hear back from the City Council.

      Reply

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