A Lot of the “Accessible” Bathrooms Around Now Aren’t Really Accessible to Everyone

Aaron Daly often has trouble squeezing into standard accessible bathrooms with his daughter and her wheelchair, he says.

Even when there is enough room, there is no adult-sized changing table, he says. With no other option, he has to change his daughter’s nappy on the floor of his car.

“We started looking around, and, thankfully, there is a group in Ireland called Changing Places, and I was lucky to get involved with them,” says Daly, commenting on the appetite for change to accessible bathrooms.

Changing Places are accessible toilet facilities, built different to standard accessible bathrooms.

The Changing Places website shows nine of the Changing Places-style toilets across the city.

While summer debates have centred on the lack of public toilets available because of Covid restrictions, Daly says this is an issue the disabled community has always struggled with.

Planning Around It

Róisín Dermody plans her days around the availability of accessible bathrooms, she says. “When you find an accessible bathroom that works for you, you will travel to get to it.”

Like others, she knows where her favourites are: the ones in Marks & Spencers on Grafton Street, she says.

Amy Hassett says her favourite accessible bathroom is in the Newman Building in University College Dublin because of the turning space available for her chair.

Elsewhere, Hassett often struggles to find a bathroom big enough to manoeuvre her motorised wheelchair, she says: “A lot of the disabled toilets, even the modern ones, don’t even have space for me to get the electric wheelchair in the door.”

Reaching sinks or hand dryers can be a pain too, she says. They’re often too high and out of reach completely for those with limited mobility, says Hassett.

Dermody says there isn’t enough room in standard public toilets for her and her guide dog.

If she can’t find a large accessible bathroom, she has to abandon her dog outside, she says, which leaves the dog at risk of being interfered with by passersby.

Accessible bathrooms are always kept locked to the public too, she says: “I’m told that the security guard has the key or the cleaner has the key.”

But they could be anywhere in the store, she says. “So how am I supposed to find them? I feel like a child asking for permission to use the bathroom. It’s so undignified.”

Wheelchair users who need help from carers to use the toilet or have their underwear changed are often unable to do so in small bathrooms without the proper equipment.

They can be left with no other option than to be changed on the dirty floors of public bathrooms, explains Daly.

What Changes?

There are different designs of accessible toilets.

Part M of the building regulations says that an accessible bathroom in a building of 200sqm or more should have a minimum turning space of 1.8m by 1.8m for wheelchairs. This is too small for Daly’s daughter, he says.

Changing Places bathrooms and toilets are a different design. One that aims to make using the bathroom safer and more comfortable for disabled people of all physical abilities, says Daly.

Changing Places bathrooms are larger – with at least 3m by 4m of floorspace and with equipment like changing tables and hoists.

Since 2014, when the Changing Places campaign launched in Ireland, 16 facilities of its design have been put in across the country, shows its website.

Northern Ireland is home to three times as many Changing Places as there are in the Republic, despite having less than half of the population.

Last year, building regulations in the UK were amended to require all public buildings above a certain size to have a Changing Places toilet in newly constructed buildings or in pre-existing buildings that undergo a major reconstruction.

Changing Places Ireland is calling on the Irish government to follow the UK in changing building regulations to require public buildings to have Changing Places toilet facilities.

Late in 2020, the Department of Housing set up a working group to look at the proposal.

“The government is heading in the right direction,” says Daly, who is involved in the Changing Places campaign.

But there is still a long way to go until Ireland becomes fully accessible to people with disabilities, he says.

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said that, while Part M of the building regulations may be the minimum standards, the technical guidance that goes along with that “encourages building owners and designers to have regard to the design philosophy of universal design and to consider making additional provisions where practicable and appropriate”.

But relying on building owners and designers choosing to build bathrooms above the standard size isn’t practical or acceptable, says Daly.

The working group [in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage] is planning to run a public consultation later this year, putting the question about the provision of Changing Places out to the public, says the spokesperson for the department.

The spokesperson said that “these facilities enable people with complex care needs to take part in everyday activities such as travel, shopping, family days out or attending a sporting event”.

Declan Treanor, director of the Disability Service at Trinity College Dublin, says that it was the first university in Dublin to have a Changing Places bathroom.

“This came about by a parent of a child who required a hoist to use a toilet and she couldn’t visit Dublin,”says Treanor.

“I used this as an opportunity to make this possible. So everyone should demand this of their public institutions and make it happen,” he says.

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Niamh Ní Hoireabhaird: Niamh Ní Hoireabhaird is a journalist, master’s student and a disability activist from Kildare. Follower her on Twitter: @niamhnih

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