A journey towards making inclusive toilets for persons with disabilities a reality

5 min read
World Toilet Day campaign
Image: WaterAid - District Collector of Debagarh, Odisha, interacting with a disabled person on inclusive WASH facilities at the campaign launch.

We want to make sure everyone has toilets as soon as possible, but not considering the differing needs of individuals can mean campaigns risk missing some of the most excluded people. Bishakha Bhanja, Regional Manager ‒ East, Programmes and Policy at WaterAid India discusses the challenges her team has faced in making sure persons with disabilities are properly served.

In the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector we usually use the term ‘universal access’ very casually, not always reflecting the fact that achieving universal access to any service is not a simple thing to do in practice. The term ‘universal’ also sometimes poses a contradiction because when we talk about scale and reach we tend to want to develop ‘Universal design/ models’ and forget that universal design may be suitable for a majority, but not for all. Universal models can make people already excluded even more invisible.

Mainstreaming inclusion

Recognition of this contradiction has influenced our work in WaterAid India, where we have been trying to mainstream a focus on various excluded communities across our work. For the past three to four years our focus in the eastern region has on been on persons with disabilities.

Here we started our efforts for better inclusion of persons with disabilities in our WASH interventions by focusing on technical modification of the existing facilities, especially developing disability-friendly toilet designs and modelling in a few places. We developed a manual on disability-friendly toilet technologies and advocated for the state government to adopt the manual so that technological options suitable for persons with disabilities can be used throughout the state. But during this period we realised that these technical designs would remain diagrams on the Government website if persons with disabilities were not aware of them or able to demand that these appropriate toilets be constructed.

Working with persons with disabilities networks

So the second phase of our work focused on exploring how we could work and organise with persons with disabilities in Odisha. We found very few self-organised persons with disabilities networks out there, but we did find the Odisha Vikalang Manch (OVM ‒ Odisha Disabled people’s Forum). OVM is a platform for members representing all kinds of disability.

Our journey with OVM began in 2015‒16. When we started interacting with their main demands were around disability pension, free public transportation, and reservation in government jobs etc. They hardly recognised WASH as a need let alone a right, so obviously were not demanding WASH facilities be accessible to them. We began awareness-raising with OVM on WASH rights and issues for persons with disabilities.

At the end of 2016, OVM surveyed its members to identify how many persons with disabilities did not have toilets in their households and used that to demand the immediate release of work order to construct accessible toilets for those people in their homes. In the Bhadrak District they submitted a memorandum to the head of the district on 3rd December (International Disability Day) demanding toilet construction for persons with disabilities as part of India’s Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM)- to eliminate open defecation and clean up its streets, roads and infrastructure. Within a couple of days, the head of the district ordered the District Water and Sanitation Mission to approve the construction of toilets for all the persons with disabilities OVM had identified in this district through their survey. That was a big success.

However, we soon realised that most of the toilets could not be constructed because the households did not have upfront funds for construction (in Odisha the incentive which is provided to households for toilet construction and use is given only after the construction is completed), and those who could afford to build toilets built them to the Government’s stock standard universal design. That meant the toilets even where constructed were not suitable for use by persons with disabilities, especially those who were orthopedically handicapped.

Auditing and redesigning

This prompted the OMV team to do accessibility audits of various toilets constructed and reconstruct them (where possible) as per the specific requirements of the disabled person. While OVM members were doing these audits, our Programme Coordinator Purna was providing appropriate structural designs, and our partner Pragati Jubak Sangh was providing the extra finance required (beyond government incentive) for making the toilets accessible. In certain cases, the people themselves contributed.

This approach raised quite a lot of enthusiasm, not just among persons with disabilities but also among the government officials in charge of SBM. Now the State Water and Sanitation Mission wants to train all its executive engineers in charge of SBM on inclusive toilet design. We could see in certain districts that the district collector (administrative head of the district) was very keen and ready to top up the SBM incentive amount from other sources to make disability-friendly toilets wherever necessary.

Man standing next to toilet.
Nageswar's toilet was customised for his use by OVM and PJS.
Image: WaterAid

Identifying where support is needed

This year WaterAid India launched a national campaign on World Toilet Day to highlight the issue of disability-friendly toilets. Locally we launched it in collaboration with our partner organisations and OVM. OVM members and our other partners are going village to village and organising various events to identify persons with disabilities who need accessible toilets and urging government officials and Gram Panchayat officials to support in making toilets accessible for persons with disabilities.

In Moto Gram Panchayat of Bhadrak, OVM has taken responsibility of making all the identified persons with disabilities’ toilets inclusive. For this they have motivated the Sarpanch (elected head of Gram Panchayat) of Moto Gram Panchayat to invest some money from Gram Panchayat. It is definitely a great step. But we have a long way to go to make universal accessibility to WASH a reality.