The humble toilet – the bog, loo, dunny, outhouse, shitter – is an essential piece of infrastructure used by everybody regardless of race, gender, disability, age or any other factor. Yet toilets do not receive the attention they deserve in when it comes to supporting access, inclusion and participation in public life.
Public toilets – those toilets located outside of the home and provided within workplaces, shopping centres, and parks – are where public and private life collide. It is here that people expose their most vulnerable body parts out of necessity. In addition to eliminating bodily waste, people use these spaces for a multitude of other essential daily activities: to administer crucial medications, for menstrual management, to care for young children, to support others to use the facilities, to find a quiet place to rest or access drinking water. For many Australians, there are barriers in locating, accessing and using public toilets. These challenges ultimately result in people limiting food and water intake or restricting their movements, either returning home early or not leaving home in the first place. This then impacts who is using our public spaces and can contribute to social isolation.
If you can find a toilet, there can be access barriers, including steps, long lines, missing bins and doors that don’t lock. I have heard stories from wheelchair users not being able to close the toilet door, of people with chronic fatigue barely making it to the toilet only to find that it is locked and that going back home is easier than trying to negotiate access, or of bins not being provided in men’s toilets increasing the shame and stigma surrounding the use of continence pads.
A customer-only toilet, or one that is locked after dark, can impact those who are sleeping rough, those exercising or transport workers (including ride-share drivers). Using an alley or bush instead, has public health implications, but can also result in fines or a criminal conviction for public urination.
When you finally find a toilet that is open and that you can physically use, then may be social barriers, such as the monitoring and policing of who else is able to use the toilets, how, what for and when. Parents are berated for taking children of the opposite gender to the toilet. People with invisible disabilities are confronted when they use a disabled toilet. People who are trans- or gender diverse experience violence or abuse when using a toilet that aligns with their gender identity.
This is all assuming that a toilet exists that you can use. Historically, Australia has a less than stellar track record in the provision of inclusive toilets to support access for everyone, even in its highest offices. Women served in Federal Parliament in Australia for thirty-one years before a specific toilet was provided for them in Old Parliament House. Current Senator Steele-John, a wheelchair user, had to wait for his office to be renovated before he could access a toilet.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has referred to an initiative to improve inclusiveness of public toilets in the Offices of the Prime Minster and Cabinet as ‘political correctness’, questioning the need for intervention: ‘I don’t think this is necessary, I think people can work out which room to use.’ This statement negates the experiences of people who are fearful of using public toilets based on expectations of violence or abuse.
I was fortunate to receive the Rodney Warmington Churchill Fellowship to research how barriers are being addressed to create inclusive and accessible spaces for essential bodily functions. From March to May of this year I travelled to the USA, Canada, the UK, Ireland, The Netherlands and Germany. I met with community groups, advocates and activists, academics, toilet manufacturers, government, business leaders, social enterprises, non-government organisations, library staff and toilet enthusiasts, all of whom had an interest in how to better meet our basic human need of going to the toilet.
I was heartened to find that, in some areas of North America, anti-discrimination legislation has been specifically applied to public toilets. In Portland, Oregon, after significant community engagement, the local authority passed the ‘All User’ Ordinance requiring all existing government-provided, single-user, gender-specific restrooms to be converted into all-user restrooms. The Ordinance removes barriers to inclusion and creates ‘spaces which are welcoming to all.’ This has prioritised the needs of parents with children, people with personal attendants and transgender people in government policy.
In New York City, everyone is allowed to use the single-sex facility that mostly closely aligns with their gender identity or expression ‘without being required to show identification, medical documentation or any other form of proof or verification of gender,’ (this is similar to the sign displayed in the Offices of the Prime Minster and Cabinet). To increase awareness of this right, the local Human Rights Commission ran a city-wide Look Past the Pink And Blue campaign.
There are toilet companies and local governments around the world whose innovative designs respond to local challenges such as public urination in entertainment districts, limited access to potable water or the needs of people experiencing homelessness. Access to public toilets is also being linked to government initiatives such as the promotion of physical activity and tourism.
I met with community activists that are urging their governments to increase planning for and provision of public toilets, in town centres, local parks, public transport routes, entertainment venues. They also have a raft of great toilet puns, such as PHLUSH (Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human) and GottaGo Ottawa. These groups work to affect change, knowing that increased access to toilets increases participation and inclusion in public life.
What I learnt from my research is that the planning, provision and maintenance of public toilets supports the dignity, humanity and human rights of people. While Australia has, in my opinion, pretty good provision of public toilets, we can and must do better so that all people can access and use a toilet when they need to. The first step must be a legislative requirement for toilets to be provided in public spaces as part of a commitment to access and inclusion for all.
More about the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.
Image: Public toilets anonymous