My mother loves to remind me that about the age of four, I made a somewhat formal announcement that I was going to be a plumber when I grew up. I suppose I reasoned that my small stature would make me a handy size to fit into whatever nooks and crannies plumbing entails.
Being a fickle child, my plumbing aspirations quickly made way for dreams of being something else altogether, and 28 years on, my daily grind involves neither overalls nor plungers.
I do, however, spend a great deal of time talking about toilets.
It’s hardly surprising, really. It is a truth universally acknowledged that all us wheelchair-users really care about is keeping able-bodied people out of our car spaces and our dunnies. Dare to park your derriere in the larger cubicle and we’ll make you rue the day, right?
(Who is and isn’t allowed to use disabled toilets is an age-old and frankly boring question. People who don’t look disabled need to use accessible toilets for all kinds of reasons. A friend of mine is diabetic and needs extra room to inject insulin, and constantly has to explain that to people who abuse her for using disabled toilets. Another friend with a stoma uses them for similar reasons. It’d be nice if we all calmed down about that particular issue. Shit’s complex. Literally.)
Nonetheless, our reputation for getting stroppy over toilets isn’t entirely unwarranted. As a wheelchair user I am utterly obsessed with toilets and all my friends know it. A simple invitation to the pub is consistently followed by, “Do you know if they have an accessible toilet?”
Thankfully most of my mates are a pretty considerate bunch and they try to think about access on my behalf as often as they can. For my part, I’m pretty flexible. With enough notice I can restrict my fluid intake in the hours before going out, or resign myself to peeing with the cubicle door open and my chair parked as an ineffective privacy screen in the ladies. That might seem like a sarcastic exaggeration, but I regularly do both of those things.
In the 10 or so years I’ve lived in and loved Melbourne, I’ve developed a mental database in my head that tells me what bars and restaurants I can get into and which ones have accessible toilets. If friends ask where is good and accessible in the CBD, or in most of the inner suburbs, I can generally offer at least a couple of useful suggestions.
And so it really does burn my crumpets when previously accessible venues suddenly become inaccessible for no good reason.
Earlier this week I found myself in the CBD with a couple of friends after seeing a movie. We were in search of dinner and the usual access conversation ensued. We settled on a place I’d been perhaps a dozen times, and actually taken other wheelchair users to. We sat down, asked for a wine list and menus, and then I excused myself to pop to the loo.
Heading in the direction of an accessible toilet I’ve used many times before, a staff member stopped me in my tracks. She informed me that while there used to be a ramp on the way to the loo, it had been removed and there were now steps. Um, what?
Not to worry, she assures me, I can go next door. Well, we can go next door. The alternative is in fact two doors down, up two separate sets of steps with wheelchair lifts (both of which look like they could cark it at any moment) and behind another locked door – a door outside which the aforementioned staff member will wait while you wee. Too bad if you need to do anything more time consuming, like check Twitter or reapply your lippy.