Having access to the toilet is a basic human right, but for people with disabilities, access remains a common problem

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

It wasn’t until my multiple sclerosis progressed that future trips to the bathroom became an important part of preparing for any trip outside the home.

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

But I have been puzzled on more than one occasion when trying to find a toilet that I can fit in and use in my own city of Adelaide.

Here is an example for you.

While conducting interviews for this story, I had to use a regular public washroom because the adjacent accessible washroom was “out of service” – and the sign didn’t appear to be temporary.

I managed to get in, but I couldn’t turn around to get out.

I was stuck.

It is experiences like these that often leave me frustrated and anxious about the state of accessible public toilets in Australia.

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Robyn Thompson talks about her difficulties accessing the toilet in Adelaide.(ABC News)

Access to toilets, a human rights issue

There are over 22,000 federally listed public toilets National map of public toilets.

Only half of these facilities are listed as accessible.

Lawyer Natalie Wade – who specializes in equal opportunities and uses a wheelchair – said having equal access to public toilets is an internationally recognized human right.

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

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

“It is absolutely a human rights issue.”

A woman in a wheelchair looks at the camera
Lawyer Natalie Wade says access to public toilets is internationally recognized as a human right.(ABC News: Michael Clements)

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

Compliance, a complex issue

The accessibility of public toilets is governed by a combination of federal and state laws, and the Australian Building Code.

The “Building Access Standards for People with Disabilities 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 boards and businesses.

“Sometimes that can even be the case with newer versions.

“An example could be that the saucepan [toilet] pan, there are no grab bars, or there is an encroachment of sinks and other types of fixtures in the installation.

“I have had cases where there were steps at the entrance to the [accessible toilet]. “

A public toilet in a park
Accessible toilets in the Adelaide Parklands.(ABC News)

Heavy doors and moving items like stacked chairs, changing tables, and boxes can also create challenges.

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

“The standards have changed over time [and] your existing toilets do not need to be upgraded even if there is a new standard introduced, ”he said.

“This is only required if there is a change of use in the establishment, perhaps moving from an office to a restaurant, or if they are doing new work … or if there is a complaint.

“It’s not satisfactory [but] it gets better … [and] all new buildings must have accessible washrooms. “

A man smiling at the camera
Warwick Gregg said the toilets are rated against the standard in effect at the time of construction.(ABC News: Isabel Dayman )

The federal government is committed to making improvements

The revision of the premises standards in 2021 called for new actions to improve the regulations concerning accessible parking lots, automatic doors and the dimensions of openings to public facilities.

He also called for a greater focus on helping people and organizations understand their rights and responsibilities under the standards, improving the data available for future reviews and increasing consistency between the standards of premises and others. handicap standards.

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

“National Building Code compliance and enforcement activities 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 advance opportunities for action.”

From May 2019, changing rooms accessible to adults must be provided in all new shopping malls, sports venues, museums, galleries, theaters and airports above a certain size.

The facilities offer additional space and specialized equipment, including changing tables for adults and a ceiling lift.

Community attitude towards accessibility is 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.

“Wherever there are toilets, there should be accessible toilets. “

A middle aged woman wearing a striped top in an electric wheelchair with a small dog on a leash
Robyn Thompson with her dog in Adelaide.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

I agree that the attitudes of the community are essential.

I understand that people may not think about an accessible washroom until they, or someone they know, needs it.

But for people with reduced mobility and for many of the 4 million Australians living with a disability, this is far from a simple matter of convenience.

Everyone deserves a safe, friendly place to go to the bathroom

And, while I have you, don’t use the accessible washroom if you don’t need it.

Robyn Thompson has worked as a journalist and communications consultant for over 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) abroad.

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