Tom Shakespeare

Forgive me, if this month I tackle an impolite topic: public toilets. For those of us who use wheelchairs, a bathroom break is a lottery. When you make your visit, you never know what to expect. Will there be an acccessible toilet? Will it be convenient? Details matter.

Space is important. In cafes or bars, it is not unusual to find that the toilet doubles as a convenient furniture store, which is not really compatible with its primary purpose. Or perhaps you cannot get alongside the toilet, to allow you to side-transfer from wheelchair to seat. On French trains, the so-called accessible toilets are so small that you couldn’t fit a wheelchair inside unless you took it to pieces first.

So is height. At Schipol airport recently, I had a gymnastics work-out, pulling myself up onto the seat using the grabrails. Afterwards, I found that the toilet paper was more than a meter away on the cubicle wall. When I leaned over to reach, the automatic toilet flush drenched me. I know the Dutch are tall, but that was ridiculous.

There are some Shangri-las in the accessible toilet world. Years ago I visited the Musem of Contemporary Art Chicago. “Disabled” was not a separate gender, but integrated into “Men” and “Women”. Every shiny steel cubicle was spacious enough to wheel into. And they had stylish rails running along each side, design feature not adaptation. Sometimes, I dream of those toilets.

Closer to home, I want to applaud SBB. They’ve got the accessible toilets exactly right on their trains. The doorlock is simple (unlike on British trains). There’s enough space; the grabrail is convenient; the washhand basin works. Of course, others may disagree. Toilets are very personal, because every disabled person has slightly different needs. But for me, every time I travel on an SBB train I’m in bathroom heaven.