Wednesday 28 October 2015

You know your life has hit a high point when you are sitting in a public toilet waiting to be let out. aka The Claytons Accessible Toilet.

(Sign to the Phantom Accessible Toilet.)

The knock I’d been dreading came suddenly through the door. A hesitant male voice, muffled by the thick door,

“Are you ready?”

“Not yet. Sorry.”

The muffled voice announced that he would be back in a few minutes, and I yelled my thanks. My unenthusiastic tone matching that of the disembodied voice coming from the otherside.

I sat on the toilet with my head in my hands knowing that the voice would be back and this time I would need to be ready. I didn't expect the complete stranger to come back a second time. I’d already apologised once. Because you always want to apologise to a stranger for your bowel and vomiting habits.

Why today? Today was the day that my body required a toilet. Now! Repeatedly. Which doesn't matter so much when I'm home. Or when I have someone with me. But alone. With weak limbs. Limbs more weak than normal, as any other symptom escalation leads to increased weakness. But today I was alone. My companion in another part of the hospital attending their own needs.

The other part of the hospital.

As there are no accessible toilets in the busy section of the hospital where he is being attended. Although there is a sign pointing to an accessible toilet. The phantom toilet that doesn't exist despite the bright blue sign and the arrow. The one I sent him off to search for, but instead it led to two sets of able bodied toilets, but no accessible version.

Instead I must navigate the convoluted hallways to one of two accessible toilets in another part of the hospital. Toilets that I had initially been escorted too by a staff member as the route was too hard to explain.

And now I sit here alone waiting to be let out.

Blanche DuBois' classic line from A Streetcar Named Desire, comes to mind. “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” This time because someone keeps designing so-called accessible toilets with doors too heavy for weak arms. Doors that wont even click to stay open so I can roll in without being hit and getting jammed, should I actually be able to open them. The Claytons version of an accessible toilet.

Weakened arms and slowed movements after having to self propel to the distant toilets, and then I couldn't even open the door. A strange man saw me struggle, came out of his office to help. The damsel in distress. Because I love that feeling. The feeling of dependence. Ugh. It’s bad enough when it’s a regular door, but a toilet just adds to the loathing. The embarrassment. The frustration. I have no desire to be Blanche for even the most basic of life's events.

And so I sat in the toilet waiting to be let out. Twiddling my thumbs. Looking up at the roof. Waiting. Because the accessible toilet failed at accessibility on the door step. Because being stuck in a toilet is my life long dream.

I unlocked the door and waited.

And waited.

Until a woman pushed the door open onto me and my chair. Surprise!

She shrieked and jumped back. The man from the office came running. And I turned a bright shade of red. Too many cooks spoil the broth and too many helpers make getting out of the accessible toilet a farce of awkward arms propping doors and helping to direct what I can direct myself. Nothing like having to duck a strange armpit, or two as both arms are extended over your head, bums stuck out awkwardly and tip toes engaged. And everyone is embarrassed and awkward. And overly accommodating and solicitous.

I rolled off as quickly as I could. A snails pace with weakened limbs and hands that refused to grip the wheel rims properly. Refusing offers to push me to whereever I need to go in the hospital.

A hospital.

Where people are sick. And injured. In wheelchairs and on crutches. Where weakness is high. Where access may be needed, now! Not when you can find someone to let you in.

Accessibility is so much more than a big toilet and a couple of rails.

It is not accessible if I must ask for help to open a door. If I must rely on another. If I must sit inside, stuck, not even a button to push for assistance.

I am grateful to the man from the office and even the shrieking woman. Neither had to help me. But if they had not it would have been grossly problematic given I had rampant nausea and had manage to forget both my puke bag and antiemetics.

Accessible means I can pee, or poo, or puke alone. Accessible means I am on even par with those who do not have medical issues and disability and who can pee, poo, or puke with wild, independent, abandon.

So often I go places where the doors are so heavy I cannot access them alone. Or if automated close so quickly that I end up with bruises or stuck in the doorway.

I went to a conference earlier this year. When I questioned the organisers about accessibility they said the venue had assured them there was an accessible toilet.

And there was.

Four floors down. Through two sets of doors I could not open and down dodgy hallways and through storage rooms. Accompanied by a security guard. Who had to be paged. While I waited at a front desk. A security guard who in the end had to push me back through the maze as my arms gave out.*

Totally accessible.

I went to a medical clinic earlier this year and could not access their accessible toilet thanks to the placement of two small doorways at right angels and an automatic door which kept closing on me, all of which prevented me from being able to move my chair to get in or once inside out again. My swearing and banging alerted my husband to my predicament and he had to physically lift my chair to be able to navigate the small awkward space. If alone I would not have been able to pee.

Or the major Melbourne hospital that had a locked accessible toilet with a sign saying to go to security for the key. Only when my son went to collect the key, no one was there. He then went to the information desk who couldn't tell him where an alternative accessible toilet would be located and we were directed to try another floor. Nothing like a quest to find a toilet when your bladder is about to go all B-grade disaster movie as the dam breaks.

The examples go on and on. And don't get me started on their use as storerooms.

Being able to access a toilet is a basic need. And yet even when there are dedicated toilets something like the weight of a door, surrounding architecture and distance, can make it inaccessible from the get go.

No one should have to rely on the kindness of a stranger to pee. Or have the indignity of being stuck inside unable to get out until that stranger or another comes back.

It's not that hard.


*All credit to the organisers who followed up my complaint and were angry on my behalf.

Sing it Beyonce! I want to be an Independent peeing Woman!


  1. I am still able-legged. But not able-armed. I need the automatic door buttons. More and more places I go to, the buttons either don't exist, or DON'T WORK! I tell clerks and tellers and superintendents that the buttons don't work only to be told "they are hard to repair", "it's expensive to repair", and the latest.... "we just don't bother to fix it as people just punch the button and it breaks again." Well, guess what. I don't need to shop at your store. I will find somewhere else to spend my fortune on gluten free flours and snacks. If you can't accommodate my need to have an automatic door, I don't need to fight my way in to spend my money. One of my closest friends is paraplegic, we find all kinds of hurdles when we go out.
    I was pleased and impressed that I have found 2 restaurants which have accessible bathrooms, with automatic door buttons!!! Surprising how nice it is not to struggle to get a door open an inch so I can shove my foot in it and use my legs to open it.
    I feel for you Michelle. I have had many occasions to RACE to a public bathroom. Finding them locked, FILTHY, not stocked with essentials like TP!!! I thankfully know where the clean, accessible bathrooms are most of the the places we go to. Even our hospital facilities aren't ideal. Accessible facility, but the steel fire door to get in and out - without a door opener!! I wish more businesses would realize the importance of accessibility.

  2. Bathrooms I'm not too bad with - I'm well enough to park outside and walk in.

    But chair access almost anywhere - Grrr. Dymocks in Sydney have no lift and can't put one in for heritage reasons. Except they DO have escalators - WTF? JBHiFi in the Strand - it's on about 10 different levels, impossible to get into.

    And SO many stores that have a 1" step - it'd be so easy to just level it out into a slight ramp. But no. Even the (modern) office building where I work. Their disabled door is too heavy for me to get open (and my arm strength is mostly OK). During recent renovations that door became my ONLY way in or out and it took them months to get it fixed so the "automatic" actually worked. Until they did I was at the mercy of strangers. There's always someone happy to help, but geez, we shouldn't need it!

    Michelle, I feel for you too. Needing help getting in and out of a BATHROOM, and in a HOSPITAL. That's insanity.


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