When is accessible not accessible?

Changing Places toilet selfie

Toilets may not be the most glamourous element in a building but they are certainly necessary! Often classed as part of the building’s ‘core’  – it’s essential workings – we’d never consider designing a building without them.  Indeed we wouldn’t even expect to attend a temporary outdoor event without some toilet provision being put in place…. but are they accessible to everyone?

sketch plan unisex accessible WC
Unisex Accessible WC

Architects and developers all know this little diagram of a unisex wheelchair accessible toilet from part M of the building regs.

There’s lots of info about the design of this loo, the minimum dimensions, the positioning of sanitaryware and fittings which are all critical to enable a wheelchair user to transfer to the loo and (maybe just?) enough space for a carer to assist an ambulant disabled person to use the loo.

It’s automatic to include this accessible toilet in our designs now (of course it’s part of legislation so we have to, but) it’s inclusion isn’t it? Everyone has to go to the loo so we need to make sure that where there are toilets, there’s a facility for everyone, right? Well, actually, no.

Changing Places toilet selfieThe thing is, this ‘unisex accessible wc’ is actually pretty small when it comes to using them in a wheelchair, particularly a motorized chair (check out your nearest one!), and impractical (if not impossible) if you are not able to transfer on your own or can’t stand up to change an incontinence pad.

It seems so obvious to me now, when I really look at that drawing, and see the compact little wheelchair drawn neatly next to the loo.

My 5.5 year old daughter needs assistance with personal care.  She wears nappies/pads.  She outgrew ‘baby change’ tables long ago and yet cannot use this accessible loo.  What do we do? Where can she change?  (I refuse to entertain the idea of laying her on the floor!).

Sometimes (if we ask) we may be offered the first aid room.  Which for us is doable as EJ is still small enough for me to lift without a hoist, and we don’t need the use of a toilet – but this is discretionary and not a permanent solution.

So most often we go home – we cut our trips to the length of time it’s reasonable between nappy changes – we are timetabled and our lives restricted by the toilet.  Or, if it’s not possible to go home, we might change her in the car (not very dignified, or practical, especially as she grows older).

So many people end up with no choice but to change their loved ones on that small area of floor in the ‘disabled loo’.

People don’t really talk about their toilet needs, or the needs of those they care for – it’s all a bit embarrassing and many people just make do or stay home – so I think the lack of facilities is just a case of not knowing there is a need, unless you have the need, and a lack of joined up policy that we (society) are only just starting to catch up with.

I’m ashamed to admit that working as an architect (pre-children) I didn’t put two and two together. I worked in housing mostly, including extra care housing, where we designed accessible homes with space for carers, bath and shower rooms with ceiling hoists etc, but it really didn’t occur to me that those sorts of facilities wouldn’t be provided for people when they’re out and about!

The best practice standards for Changing Places toilets were conceived to address these needs.  A CPT is essentially a larger room, with space enough to accommodate a large wheelchair/scooter, 2 carers, a changing bench and a ceiling hoist (in addition to toilet and wash basin).

Plan of a Changing Places Toilet
#ChangingPlaces Toilet

The Changing Places campaign  has just celebrated it’s 10th year, and in that time the Changing Places toilet best practice standards have been included in BS 8300:2009 (section 12.7) and referenced in Part M of the building regs. However, despite official acknowledgment of this need, it’s still not compulsory for ANY building to install a changing places toilet, irrespective of building use or occupant capacity.  I think this is a huge deal, because when something is only recommended it implies it is ‘not essential’ – however to those of us who need them, they really ARE essential!  There’s also a huge potential to miss recommendations completely, when already juggling the complexities of all the complusory regulations in a large building project.

There are now over 850 registered Changing Places in public places and venues across the UK, which is both exciting (given that from nothing the campaign has had 850 successes) and also shocking (in that there are only 850 toilets in the WHOLE of the UK that my daughter can use!).  For example there are only 2 CPTs listed in the whole of our home city of Cambridge!  One at Addenbrookes Hospital, and the other in the Grand Arcade shopping centre – I would hope more places in Cambridge would welcome disabled visitors than that, but how far is it reasonable to travel away from the only toilet you can use?

It does have to be acknowledged that Changing Places toilets do require a significant amount of space and, understandably, to many smaller individual retailers/venues & in refurbished buildings the degree of space and cost required can be quite a commitment.  However if your project is smaller, or existing building too awkward, to accommodate a BS standard changing places toilet, please don’t dismiss the idea! There are other options for upgrading the standard facilities and it is definitely worth speaking with access consultants or the CP consortium to help you get the best out the space available.

My own view is that in smaller venues, particularly those with a family friendly ethos, should be looking to provide more inclusive ‘family facilities’ – perhaps where they’d currently provide a baby change area, one that would provide space for all, from babies to grannies (and everyone inbetween) who need help to use the loo.  Something in the spirit of these proposals by the Space to Change campaign. (Note: if thinking of combining facilities, care has to be taken to ensure the needs of those currently met by the ‘unisex accessible WC’ are not compromised).

As an architect passionate about inclusive design, I’m hoping that we can encourage our clients to see the positive impact in upgrading their toilet facilities.  Make those ‘reasonable adjustments’, asked for by the Equality Act, and make buildings welcoming and inclusive for all.

Family out shoppingOften the focus of discussion around ‘more standards’ can become negative.  Quite understandably, clients are concerned about cost, loss of area & sometimes security…. however aside from the improved sense of inclusion around their business, there is the huge potential increase in patronage by disabled customers (and not forgetting their friends and family!), if the facility is effectively promoted and well integrated in the design to ensure good security.

Research tells us the purple pound represents billions to our economy! People with greater accessibility needs, families like ours, want to get out and about and enjoy our built environment, socialise, spend money as much as the next person!

Where EJ can’t go, then we can’t go, so we will choose to go to the shopping centre, restaurant, cinema, tourist attractions where we know our child, friend, partner, parent can use the loo comfortably – We will stay there longer, and we will spend more money!

I’d like to end with this link to a fab blog by fellow changing places campaigner @ordinaryhopes who, I think, really illustrates the challenges our built environment presents us with, and one of my favourite quotes from one of her posts:

At the end of the day, it isn’t really about the toilet. Nobody goes to a theme park just to use their toilet. We want to be able to use their toilet so that we can go to the theme park


Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday