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An Interview with Margaret Ellis on Accessible Toilets

accessible toilet for people with physical disabilities

Deborah Bell, Enablement Team Manager at Disabled Living recently interviewed Margaret Ellis. Maggie originally qualified with a Diploma and later graduating as an Occupational Therapist, working in a range of service provision including management of physical disability, mental health and learning disability services, sometimes combining NHS and Social Services.

Margaret photo
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I qualified as an Occupational Therapist, working in a range of service provision including management of physical disability, mental health and learning disability services, sometimes combining NHS and Social Services. Now, I run an Independent OT practice, West Square Associates.

I have been Chairman of the British OT Association (now RCOT) and of the European OT Committee and I have also been a member of several university and research boards.

My membership of EU and ISO Technical Committee brought wider experience and the opportunity to link user needs with planners and policy makers, especially concerned with Appropriate Design and Practice for People with a Disability, including Accessible Transport.

I am currently a Member of some ISO Technical Committees for similar topics and also Coordinate the European Group for eTechnology which started at LSE in 2010.

Why are you interested in discussing accessible toilets?

I am part of the Cross Party group for Disability in Holyrood and the All Party group in Westminster which have recently been looking at the need for accessible toilets. Part of this involves gathering facts about existing and lacking facilities.  Part of this information gathering has emphasised a well known fact that in some parts of the country there are open facilities for men and women while the ‘accessible’ facilities provided are in fact inaccessible because they are locked.

In a remote village in Scotland, in the Highland Region, the ancient notice on the door of the “accessible toilet” tells potential users they can get the key to unlock the door from the Post Office. The Post Office is about a mile away and is only open for twenty Hours a week. When I wrote to all the members of the council concerned about this a disabled council member wrote back to me to tell me it was wonderful because he had purchased a key (costing about £5) so he could always use a loo whenever he needed. Should he have to buy a key to have a wee?

The opportunity to visit Kidz to Adultz Wales & West presented itself and Disabled Living is one way we can get the message across that disabled access to toilets around the country is being looked at.

You say Councils are failing to comply with Equality Law, why do you think this is?

We discovered early on that Central Government does not force Local Government to provide Public toilets. In fact, in some parts of the country facilities are under threat as part of the general thrust for savings in our society.

One thing we have determined is that the Equality Laws require that providers offer similar or even the same facilities to all users. If a council only offers locked facilities to accessible toilets it could be inferred that they are failing to comply with Equality Law.

There is the misconception that Accessible Toilets are locked to prevent them being defaced. What is your response to this claim?

So far the All Party Group and All Party group have only had one report of such action in Disabled Facilities although many of us are faced with vandalised public toilets. There is also the theory that anybody might use them. Fortunately there is now more awareness about hidden disabilities with some supermarket chains adding the excellent slogan ‘not all disabilities are visible’.

What has happened so far?

The convener of the Cross-Party Committee in Holyrood was so concerned about the locked facilities that he has managed to get the Planning Laws changed in Scotland so that planning permission will prohibit locked facilities. It’s a start but not the whole solution.

Some work has been done about the development of Changing Places Toilets which offer a wider range of disabled facilities including hoists and changing plinths. The UK government has funded a £2 million review with the Multiple Sclerosis Society of some motorway Changing Places toilets.

There are many instances where the toilet facilities are inadequate and inaccessible preventing people from living the independent life they want to. We must continue to highlight the issues and push for equality in accessing facilities which are fit for purpose. The more information people have the louder we can shout.

We do now more greatly appreciate the requirements of the Equality Act – www.gov.uk/guidance/equality-act-2010-guidance. This requires that facilities should be equal for us all wherever they are provided. So no place should be locked against anybody.

This post has been written by Margaret Ellis, Lead Academic and Co-ordinator EKTG, Enterprises, London School of Economics.

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