Lets talk toilets

by | Sep 4, 2023 | Ability News, Facilities

For most of us, going to the toilet is something we barely think twice about. But for people with disability, finding a usable public toilet can be a challenge. One advocate is using her experience to push for change.

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Why Changing Places are so important for people with disability.

When disability advocate and podcaster Peta Hooke arrived at Melbourne Airport, ready for a holiday, she did what many of us do before getting on the plane: she went to the toilet.

For Hooke, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, going to the toilet requires some planning as she needs to use an accessible bathroom, known as a Changing Places room. Melbourne Airport has two of these available for passengers to use.

But when Hooke arrived, she found that the bathrooms were inaccessible because the hoists inside were out of order.

“It’s always such a relief to know that there’s a Changing Places toilet, particularly at airports, because when you factor in the amount of time it takes to get to the destination, the last thing you need to worry about is to get on the loo, particularly when I can’t access a toilet on an aeroplane,” she told Ability News.

With the hoists in both Changing Places at the airport out of order, Hooke’s elderly father was forced to lift her onto the toilet, in a situation the advocate said was “not ideal”. She was also concerned about the impact on other passengers with disability who may also not be able to use the toilet.

“There’s no point having a service if it’s not going to be… operable. And on the day it almost brings more stress because you feel like you’re safe and then – all my anxiety comes through,” she said.

Hooke has since spoken to Melbourne Airport to have the issue addressed.

A Melbourne Airport spokesperson confirmed the Changing Places were, “on this occasion… not up to standard” and that the organisation had apologised to Hooke.

The spokesperson added that “inspections and testing” had been conducted on the bathrooms to make sure they were operational.

“We are also reviewing our fault reporting processes to ensure that the hoists are working or that any issues are repaired quickly,” they said.

Melbourne Airport is currently working with a team led by people with disability to review accessibility at the facility.

“As part of this we’re undertaking focus groups with staff and passengers about their experiences to help guide our next steps. We’re grateful to Peta for agreeing to participate and sharing her experience about what we’re doing well and where we need to do better,” the spokesperson said.

Hooke said training for all staff who might need to operate or come into contact with the hoist, including cleaning staff, could help alleviate future problems. Operation instructions on the wall could also be of value, she said.

The importance of Changing Places

The federal government has set aside $32.2 million to fund one third of the cost of building a Changing Places facility in all Local Government Areas that currently don’t have one.

According to the Department of Social Services, discussions are already taking place with states and territories about building the Changing Places.

There are currently 259 Changing Places around the country, all serving to make day-to-day activities more accessible for people with disability.

Hooke said they aren’t spread evenly throughout the country, however. While holidaying in Queensland, she found there were fewer of the facilities around.

“It really does make you realise how much you are limited about where you go,” she said.

She recalled missing once being forced to miss out on attending a birthday party due to the distance between the restaurant and the nearest accessible toilet.

More than just a loo

For Hooke, it’s a matter of human rights: the ability for people with disability to fully participate within their communities.

“Until I can go to a toilet like everybody else, we’ve got a long way to go,” she said.

It’s become something of a mission for the advocate, who openly shares her experiences of accessibility – and inaccessibility – on her social media channels and podcast.

“I jokingly say when I die, I feel like there will be a plaque for me in a toilet because I talk about them so often, they’re just so important to me!” she laughed.

For companies, councils and other authorities looking to become more accessible, she said their first step should be to consult with disabled people on the sorts of services needed.

She said while there appears to be a prevalence of Changing Places in parks, there needs to be more of them in places like shopping centres.

And although there has been progress towards greater accessibility more widely, Hooke feels there is a long way to go.

“I think any progress is always good. And when people disabled people are listened to, it’s a great win. But, you know, it is really slow. I don’t know whether it’s just my impatience of wanting to live my life to the fullest and being sick of seeing the inequality that we do face even in 2023,” she said.

“I really hope that the next generation of disabled people don’t have to go through what we’re going through because there’s still so many issues when it comes to access and the physical environment, accessing education, accessing employment, and having equal opportunities for all people.”

Further reading:

National Public Toilet Map, 3 September, 2023
Continence Foundation of Australia, 3 September, 2023