Having access to toilets is a basic human right, but for those with a disability, access is still a common problem

 In Home News Section, Uncategorized

How carefully do you plan your next trip to the toilet?

It wasn’t until my multiple sclerosis progressed that future trips to the loo became a major part of preparing for any trip outside the house.

I have travelled the world with my wheelchair; Istanbul, Florence and Moscow, to name a few.

But I’ve been stumped on more than one occasion trying to find a toilet I can get into and use in my own city of Adelaide.

Here’s one example for you.

While out conducting interviews for this story, I had to use an ordinary public toilet because the adjacent accessible toilet was “out of order” – and the sign didn’t seem temporary.

I managed to get in, but I could not turn around to get back out.

I was stuck.

It’s experiences like these that frequently leave me frustrated and distressed about the state of accessible public toilets in Australia.

Toilet access a human rights issue

There are more than 22,000 public toilets listed on the federal government’s National Public Toilet Map.

Only half of those facilities are listed as accessible.

Lawyer Natalie Wade — who specialises in equal opportunity and uses a wheelchair — said having equal access to public toilets was an internationally-recognised human right.

“It is absolutely essential that everyone in the community recognises and respects that people with disabilities need to go to the toilet when they are out and about,” she said.

“The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was ratified by Australia in 2008, requires that people with disabilities have the right to access premises and the right to equal participation.

“People with disabilities are often denied their right to access toilets in many communities across the country.

“It is absolutely a human rights issue.”

The Human Rights Commission receives hundreds of complaints under the Disability Discrimination Act every year, including about “goods, services and facilities” and “access to premises”.

Compliance a complex problem

Public toilet accessibility is governed by a mix of federal and state legislation, and the Building Code of Australia.

The “Disability Access to Premises Building Standards 2010” are designed to ensure dignified access to buildings and are reviewed every five years.

Building certifier Luke Trento said he frequently encountered problems with accessible public toilets operated by councils and businesses.

“I would say that with most existing buildings we go into to undertake an audit, very rarely do we come out to say, ‘This was 100 per cent compliant,'” he said.

“Sometimes that may even be the case with new builds.

“An example might be that the pan [toilet] is not the correct pan, that there are no grab rails, or that there is an encroachment from hand basins, and other types of fixtures within the facility.

“I’ve had instances where there are steps at the entrance to the [accessible toilet].”

Heavy doors and moveable objects like stacked chairs, change tables and boxes can also create challenges.

Architect Warwick Gregg – who uses a wheelchair – said compliance was assessed based on the standards that applied at the time of construction.

“The standards have changed over time [and] your existing toilet isn’t required to be upgraded even if there’s a new standard brought in,” he said.

“It’s only required if there’s a change of use in the facility, maybe going from an office to a restaurant, or if they’re doing new work … or there’s a complaint.

“It’s not satisfactory [but] it is improving … [and] all new buildings do have to have accessible toilets.”

Federal government ‘committed’ to improvements

The 2021 review of the premises standards called for further action to improve regulations around accessible car parks, automatic doors and the dimensions of openings to public facilities.

It also called for increased focus on helping people and organisations understand their rights and responsibilities under the standards, to improve the data available for future reviews and increase consistency between the premises standards and other disability standards.

Assistant Minister for Industry Development Jonathon Duniam said the federal government was “committed to implementing the review” to “improve outcomes for people with disability and to give the building industry greater certainty that they are meeting their obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act”.

“Compliance and enforcement activities in relation to the National Construction Code remain the responsibility of state and territory governments,” he said.

“The government will work with state and territory governments and relevant stakeholders, including the Australian Human Rights Commission, to progress the opportunities for action.”

As of May 2019, adult accessible change facilities must be provided in all new shopping centres, sports venues, museums, galleries, theatres and airports above a certain size.

The facilities provide extra space and specialist equipment, including adult-sized change tables and a ceiling hoist.

Community attitudes to accessibility crucial

Ms Wade said she believed improving accessibility to public facilities – including toilets — required changes in community attitudes.

“The goal must be to create accessible toilets throughout our community,” she said.

“Everywhere where there is a toilet, there should be an accessible toilet.”

I agree community attitudes are key.

I understand that people may not think about accessible toilets until they, or someone they know, needs to use one.

But for people with limited mobility, and for many of the 4 million Australians living with a disability, it’s far from just a matter of convenience.

Everyone deserves a safe and user-friendly place to go to the toilet

And, while I’ve got you, please don’t use the accessible toilet if you don’t need to.

Robyn Thompson has worked as a journalist and communications consultant for more than 35 years. She was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1994, while working as an information officer for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) overseas. 

Special report by Robyn Thompson (Original ABC Article)