When Is A Toilet Not A Toilet?

Can all members of the public use the Public Conveniences?

Can all members of the public use the Public Conveniences?

You may well be asking what has a question about toilets got to do with ordination training? Yet it has turned out recently to be the most basic and essential necessity of finding a toilet that really brought it home to me how we so often both intentionally and unintentionally exclude a large group of people within society

One of my fellow ordinands, Helena, is a former lawyer and is a passionate advocate and fierce protector of people’s rights. She also has Multiple Sclerosis and uses a mobility scooter and therefore knows first-hand what the world looks like to a disabled person. She, like the majority of disabled people, doesn’t just want and need to be as independent as possible, but believes that each and every one of us has to become much more aware of what needs to be done to create a naturally inclusive society; which brings me back to toilets!

We’ve all heard the stories of inconsiderate able-bodied car drivers who blatantly park in a disabled parking space thus denying any genuine blue badge holders from doing so; but what about all those who deliberately use the designated disabled toilets, because they are the closest, which on becoming blocked force the person in the wheelchair to have no facilities at all?

That is just one specific instance, but what about when a community in which disabled people live shows too little consideration or awareness of their needs? A case in point is when we went on a field trip to a neighbouring village to the college. Firstly, I have to say that I am not singling out this particular community, as regretfully it is not unique, and it should be acknowledged that the organisers of the trip should have completed a health and safety assessment prior to the visit. However, if what happened, on the surface appears laughable, it is also deeply thought provoking

Everybody needs to go to the toilet – fact. Everybody is aware that not all buildings they visit will have toilet facilities – fact. Everybody knows that where public toilets are provided they can use them…………

The church we were visiting did not have a toilet, which was reasonable enough given its age and listed-building status; the vicarage did have toilets (as you would expect) except the vicarage itself was inaccessible to a person in a wheelchair. Where then was Helena, who not unreasonably had reached the point when she wished to avail herself of these facilities, to go? The public conveniences were about 200 yards from the vicarage but on arriving at them we saw that there was no designated disabled toilet, in fact there were steps to get into both the ladies and gents (see picture above)

Where else could we try? Fifty yards down the road, the Catholic church was situated in a lovely new building with signposted disabled parking and push button entry access to presumably up to date toilet facilities – but the building was locked and empty. Around the corner there was a public house, and calling through the open back door we asked if we were able to use their toilets. We may, but whilst we could get into the pub, the toilets had a step down to them. Retracing our steps, we were advised that a key had been found for the village hall, this was some 500 yards in the opposite direction. Here there was a small disabled toilet, barely large enough to allow Helena to enter with her scooter and hopelessly maintained so that the clutch rail would not stay upright. We spend several minutes with the two of us trying manoeuvre ourselves, one holding up the rail, the other trying to fit into the cubicle, before I could step outside and she was finally able to relieve herself – so much for self-esteem and independence!

All in all this farce lasted about 40 minutes, and I jokingly said to Helena that it was good job she could hold on. To my dismay she told me that for many disabled people this was not the case – it’s called ‘social incontinence’, where lack of disabled facilities force otherwise continent people to resort to incontinence products simply to be able to go out into the world for any length of time. One more example of the removal of a person’s dignity.

Helena was just one person in that place at that time, but how many more people have come up time and again against the same problems and instead of feeling welcomed and able to play their full part in their communities have felt excluded and devalued.

What good is it, dear brothers and sisters,
if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions?
James 2:14

It is a hundred years since people and governments became more aware of the need to make provision for the disabled, following the many thousands of men who returned incapacitated from the First World War, either blind or limbless. One hundred years in which we have come a long way to recognise the equality of all in society and yet we still exclude and marginalise the disabled through not consulting or considering fully their needs, so that they can just BE

Maybe it’s time to look around the places you live and work in, remembering that it’s not just toilets but other things like ramps and rails; and when you spot something that needs changing, then do what needs to be done to make that change happen, including asking the people for whom you are doing it  what it is they really need.

Helena, endures much in the way that she has to adapt in order to undertake her studies and she shouldn’t have to. As I walk alongside her she has made me more and more aware of issues that should change and transform how we think and act as individuals, as a society and as Christians. This sort of teaching, in my mind, will always be more valuable than anything that an academic text book has to say.

An inclusive society means no-one should feel excluded

An inclusive society means no-one should be excluded

This piece has been written with the full permission of my friend and fellow Ordinand, Helena 

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