When I was at a conference at Leeds University last month, I saw a sign on the wheelchair accessible toilet saying ‘GN’, as well as the wheelchair symbol, which I assumed, was short for Gender Neutral. I found this quite interesting as it raised a few issues for me and the purpose of accessible toilets and whether it is right for them to become generic gender neutral loos?
It is important to note that the toilet was in the students union building, and therefore it is going to be a place where political correctness, disguised as equality, rules policies and practices. There has been an increasing awareness of gender identity in recent years as gender and sexuality labels have expanded to something I can not keep up with. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this although as with a lot of label specific awareness raising, like dementia or transgender issues, I must wonder if the resources invested in the issue is proportionate to the number of people affected and the impact of their lives.
The exclusivity of wheelchair accessibile toilets, which is what they are legally designed to be, has already been under attack by the ‘invisible impairment’ movement. While having enough space to comfortably change continence management garments, nappies, could be covered here, a key reason cited for people with invisible impairments to need to use accessible toilets is their urgency to use the toilet. This assumes an accessible toilet is closer than other toilets which is not always the case, it is a need that is not considered in its design.
Making an accessible toilet a general gender neutral toilet means anyone can use it regardless of who they are free from fear of breaking social norms. On paper, I agree with this as I believe in equality. Wheelchair users should not get preferentially treatment because they use a wheelchair, but this is where there is a misunderstanding. Accessible toilets exist and are legally required internationally because the other toilets are not accessible to them. It is equaling an inequality. Other users can use normal toilets and will do so without hesitation if a gender neutral one is unavailable as they have choices wheelchair users fail to have. This is a difference between real need or comfortable desire.
If the demands on accessible toilets are slowly increasing, then the supply of them must increase as well. Wheelchair users should not find themselves at the back of a queue where people in front can use other loos if they so wished, even if it was not politically correct. Maybe the solution long term will be only providing rows of single occupancy accessible toilets that no one has a choice but to use?
I understand how needs and desires in accessibility changes, and we can see that in the rise in Changing Places, which is a whole other story, but we should never forget why something existed in the first place because we allow others to hijack it for their own agenda. Developing accessible solutions requires consultation with everyone involved, not sometimes aggressive rights based demanding or a desire not to upset anyone.
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