How do you campaign for accessible public toilets?

5 min read
Wheelchair user collects water.
Image: WaterAid/Guilhem Alandry

How can we ensure there are enough public toilets for people with disabilities? Rémi Kaupp, WaterAid UK’s Urban Sanitation Specialist, and Jane Wilbur, Equality, Inclusion and Rights Advisor, share insights from the around the world.

The right to sanitation may seem self-evident, but we are seeing setbacks even in countries where we take sanitation for granted. In the UK public toilets have been in dramatic decline. France may soon enshrine the right to water and sanitation in law, but the watered-down bill has lost most of its useful features (such as financing mechanisms to support the poorest).

Public toilets are particularly threatened, because of their direct dependency on ever-shrinking local authorities’ budgets. The shame and embarrassment of not having a public toilet available can affect everybody, whether through a day feeling sick, a surprise period, or even as part of the crowds coming out of bars and restaurants in the evening. But it disproportionally affects those who are already vulnerable, including:  

  • Older people
  • People suffering from incontinence (one in ten adult males and a quarter of women over 35, according to recent research
  • People with disabilities who need accessible toilets, or ‘Changing Places’ – toilet cubicles that have more space and the right equipment, including a height adjustable changing bench and a hoist. 

How to test a toilet's accessibility in Cambodia. See the full film series here.

We don’t just need more public toilets, we need more accessible public toilets too, so that everybody can enjoy public spaces in a dignified and safe manner.

How do we get there? How do we successfully convince authorities to support this? It is a big question for us in Nepal and in Cambodia, where we are lobbying together with local disabled persons’ organisations, notably through awareness-raising films. Earlier this year, we asked for suggestions from various experts – here is their feedback.

Experience from Timor-Leste, Cambodia and Bangladesh

(With thanks to our colleagues Chelsea Huggett in Australia, Moises Pereira and Getrudis Noviana Mau in Timor-Leste, and Pheng Pharozin in Cambodia.)

Access to inclusive sanitation benefits everybody regardless of whether they have an impairment, so we are working to make sure WASH is part of the disability rights agenda. This means thinking about equality issues throughout our advocacy work, and not just during inclusion-specific campaigns. With disability organisations advocating more broadly for disability rights, there is a good degree of overlap.

Because of the poor sanitation situation in Timor-Leste, Cambodia and Bangladesh, forming an alliance between water and sanitation NGOs like WaterAid and disabled persons’ organisations has worked particularly well. We have been able to understand each other’s issues, and, while WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) organisations can be focused on technical issues, disabled people’s organisations often know a lot about public campaigning and how to increase recognition of their rights.

Practical demonstrations work particularly well to show officials the practical constraints people with disabilities face on a daily basis. This is done through ‘accessibility and safety audits’, which we have done in CambodiaBangladeshMadagascar, and many other countries.

We have also achieved this sort of collaboration through ‘communities of practice’, which enable showcasing of good examples of inclusion in practice, for instance by demonstration of accessible toilets, our technical guidelines in Bangladesh, or our Compendium of Accessible WASH Technologies. Such practical work helps campaigns gain credibility and fosters better collaboration with relevant national and local authorities.

Insights from the UK

(With thanks to Michael Le-Surf from Mencap and disability consultant Simon Minty.)

The best campaigns are led by people who need accessible toilets – they can make a concrete case to authorities and help elected officials realise the actual need. They can also explain the economic benefits that come from people with disabilities being part of the workforce, using public transport, and so on. 

Many good campaigns at local level are also co-driven by an elected official, who often has a personal interest in the issue – they may be in charge of equality and non-discrimination in their council, or have a family member who needs such facilities. As always, for campaigners it’s worth doing a bit of background research on people we hope to influence! The Nottingham case study of the Changing Places movement illustrates this well – see also their very practical toilet campaigning guide.

In the late 1990s, a big campaign – ‘Is there an accessible loo’ – encouraged people to map where accessible toilets are across the UK, at a time when many public toilets were being closed. The campaign collected information on more than 4,000 accessible toilets, and produced a directory of their locations across England. Although the organisation has now disbanded, their legacy lives on through online TripAdvisor-style reviews of accessible toilets.

Technical guidance proves useful when speaking to planners and architects. The useful ‘Good Loo Guide’ by RIBA (sadly not in print anymore) aims to be as inclusive as possible for designing public toilets. It describes how people actually use toilets and what is needed, not just for the overall layout but also for small things like handles and rails.

Policy changes can be useful, as with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in the UK. But it is the translation of such policy into practical terms that becomes really helpful:

“[the Act] essentially suggested if you have public loos, you need to offer an accessible one. The smart organisations realised that if they have limited space, one accessible loo covers everyone. Of course it's not perfect but we are slowly getting there,” said Simon Minty.

Do you have any other experience to share? Please use comments below.

Remi Kaupp and tweets as @remkau. Jane Wilbur tweets as @janewilbur