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.
As annoyed as I was, I made polite conversation with the woman who escorted me to the toilet. I doubt that the decision to remove the ramp was hers. She only knew that it was removed because “drunk people in heels” had trouble navigating it and kept slipping over. She seemed genuinely confused about why it mattered to me whether I used the toilet in the venue or the one in a separate building I needed to be escorted to. Why, indeed.
The thing is: The ability to go to the toilet without asking someone else is a privilege. It’s a privilege wheelchair users enjoy only when there’s proper, independent access.
It’s a privilege we lose when venues use their accessible toilets to store the fridge that broke last week, or the over-ordered stock they don’t have room to keep. We also lose that privilege when an establishment removes a ramp, rendering a previously accessible toilet off limits for us.
The privilege of just going somewhere else is one that we don’t enjoy, because there simply aren’t that many options. New friends are often shocked at the relatively small number of places with adequate access, and surprised that it isn’t against the law to run an inaccessible venue.
I briefly explain the inadequacies of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) – it is a complaint-based system where disabled people have to prove discrimination (so it’s not actually “against the law” to deny access until someone complains), it’s time consuming, and hardly ever yields satisfying results.
Then I offer a few accessible suggestions and hope like hell they don’t decide hanging out with me is actually more trouble than it’s worth. (As an aside, this is a particularly terrifying conversation to have on a date – no-one wants to be that high maintenance).
The truth is, I give much less of a shit (access permitting) whether able-bodied people use accessible toilets or not. In a world where everyone is polite and considerate, we’d all think of others before ourselves. We don’t live in that world, and so I accept that able-bodied people will occupy accessible toilets and parking spaces from time to time. But I’d much rather wait outside an accessible toilet while an able-bodied person uses it, than have to ask permission and be accompanied to another building. Or use the ladies with the door open. Or give myself kidney stones – I’ve had them three times – restricting my fluid intake and holding on.
Sometimes I just want to go out for dinner with my friends and go to the loo without stressing about it and without having to complain to staff, write emails and consider an inevitably ineffective DDA complaint. I want to go to parties without the nagging anxiety that my access requirements will mean I have to bail early. I want to accept invitations without interrogating my friends.
Physical access is one of the very first issues disability rights activists of the 1960s and ’70s fought for. The fact that we’re still having the same conversations so many years later is disheartening. Particularly when there are so many other issues to address – like the alarming statistics surrounding violence against women with disabilities, or the astronomical rates of unemployment among disabled people.
If I wanted to talk about toilets all day, I’d have been a plumber.
Stella Young is the editor of Ramp Up, the ABC’s online destination for news, discussion, debate and humour for everyone in Australia’s disability communities. She is also a comedian, writer, speaker and all around awesome lady.
This article first appeared on the ABC’s RampUp and has been republished here with permission.