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Accessible toilets: An essential guide

Under the Equality Act 2010, all organisations have a responsibility to provide accessible goods and services, which includes equality of toilet provision.  Document M of the UK Building Regulations sets out the standards buildings must adhere to in order to comply with the law on accessibility. But what does all this really mean?  If it’s set out in law, how come not all disabled toilets are created equal? And most importantly – what makes the most difference for users?  Let’s take a closer look, with an essential guide to accessible loos – including upfront advice about what makes a great one.

First things first: what is an accessible toilet?

Accessible toilets are designed to meet the needs of independent wheelchair users and people with mobility impairments.  They also cater for the needs of people with bowel and bladder conditions (such as colostomy bag users); those with physical conditions affecting their balance, dexterity and grip, and other conditions where physical support from grab rails, additional privacy and the presence of an emergency alarm is helpful, including neurodiverse conditions.  Standard accessible toilets are designed for independent use and do not meet the needs of all people with a disability, including those who need help with lifting and handling or changing.

Who needs an accessible toilet?

There is a perception that accessible toilets are made exclusively for wheelchair users but in fact, they only make up around 8% of the UK’s disabled population.  The other 92% is made up of people with a wide range of disabilities including permanent disabilities, intermittent medical conditions, short-term impairments and hidden disabilities.  So a person who needs to use a disabled toilet might be in a wheelchair, but they also might have a colostomy bag, poor balance, be recovering from major surgery, or have a sensory impairment.  The point is, you can’t tell by looking at somebody whether or not they have a disability – so beware restricting access to your disabled facilities.

What are the main types of accessible toilet?

There are three main types of accessible toilet.
  • Ambulant accessible toilets are the most basic.  They provide some accessible features such as a higher toilet pan, grab rails, lever taps/ paddle flush, an outward-opening door and an emergency call bell, but they don’t have enough space to accommodate a wheelchair.
  • Standard accessible toilets include all of the above plus shelves for colostomy users, a lowered basin and mirror, and crucially, a turning circle large enough for a wheelchair user to enter, turn, reverse alongside the toilet and exit comfortably.  
  • Changing Places toilets offer the highest level of adaptability and are designed to meet the needs of people with severe disabilities.  As well as all the usual adaptations, they offer enough space to accommodate a wheelchair user and one or two carers, as well as providing a hoist system for lifting and handling and an adult-sized changing bench with privacy curtains.  Changing Places are now a legal requirement in new public buildings with a capacity for more than 350 people.

What makes a great accessible toilet?

Even though all accessible toilets must comply with an agreed set of standards, the quality of provision varies considerably.  75% of disabled people say they have walked away from a UK business as a result of poor accessibility or customer service*.  The former is something that can and should be resolved through good design and appropriate selection of inclusive washroom accessories – something NYMAS group is well-placed to provide for architects, designers and trade professionals. The latter – good service – involves being alert to the diverse needs of disabled people and making sure they are considered throughout the planning, development and maintenance of accessible washroom facilities.  Key pointers for making your accessible washroom experience better include:

Ease of entry

Accessibility means removing the barriers disabled people face that set them apart from non-disabled people.  As well as providing disabled toilet facilities, it’s important that users can locate and access your facilities easily.  This means putting them in a convenient place and installing clear signposting.  It’s common for disabled toilets to be locked to prevent people from abusing the facilities, but this deprives disabled users of their privacy since they must always alert someone when they need to use the toilet.  If you can’t leave your toilet unlocked, consider a passcode lock or radar key.

Good communication

Many disabled people like to do research in advance so they know they can access the facilities they need when out and about.  Providing information about your accessible facilities via your website, app or social media can really help with this.  Aim to include photographs and dimensions, and have this information readily available so that your staff can provide it by email or verbally if asked. If for any reason your accessible toilet is out of service, be sure to let customers know as soon as you possibly can, and offer an alternative if possible.

Keep the space clear

All too often, disabled toilets are used for storing things like mop buckets, cleaning supplies and even baby highchairs.  These items can be a hazard for disabled users, taking up vital floor space they need to move around safely, as well as making the space feel cluttered and unwelcoming.  Make sure cleaning and housekeeping staff are trained in the importance of keeping the floor, cistern tops and shelves clear at all times – and remind them never to tie up alarm cords.

Conscious design

Features that work perfectly well in a non-disabled toilet can be inappropriate for a disabled bathroom.  Sensor lights are a good example, since disabled users may not be able to move enough to activate the sensor if the lights go out. A non-disabled person can easily wash their hands and turn around to access paper towels or a hand dryer – but for a wheelchair user, it’s no fun having to turn their chair around with wet hands, so placing these items on the same wall is more practical.   NYMAS Group has more than decade of expertise creating beautiful, inclusive washroom spaces that tick all the boxes on compliance and user experience.  From domestic installations to high-end hospitality, we champion quality, accessible design that makes a real difference.  Get in touch to discuss your next project. *Source: Purple