The Disability Invisibility (Part 1)

Post Easter Intro

Hey guys! I hope everyone had a great Easter and celebrated Jesus’ resurrection in the most appropriate way possible – by ploughing through a mountain of hollowed-out, chocolate eggs that were delivered by an omnipotent rabbit! I gave up chocolate for lent this year, but like a recovering addict who’s fallen off the wagon, I’ve been hitting it pretty hard since Easter Sunday.

My mother, the enabler!

I’m determined however to battle through the palpitations and fluctuating energy levels to get this entry written before I pack everything up, move house and then inevitably spend the next 6-12 months staring at the sea of sealed boxes in the spare room, wondering when exactly they’ll begin unpacking themselves?! But I digress…

For this latest blog entry I’ve decided to look at how different disabilities are viewed when it comes to using certain disabled facilities. I’m breaking it up into two parts, with this first part looking at disabled bathrooms, the concept of the ‘disabled person’ in relation to these bathrooms, and why new signs are starting to be put up outside of them.

Sign of The Times

Last month I read an article that had been posted on the Active Hands Facebook page about the new signs that are beginning to appear on disabled toilets; signs stating that:

I think we can all agree that the message here is fairly self-explanatory: Just because you cannot physically see that someone has a disability, this doesn’t mean that they don’t have one. It’s the age old adage of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. And it’s completely true. The outline of a figure in a wheelchair has long been seen as the universal symbol of disability. It’s a fairly outdated image that has had the unfortunate side effect of stereotyping every disabled person as a wheelchair user and only a wheelchair user. Sure, if you’ve got a crutch or severe limp then you’ll maybe sneak into the club, but anything less than that and you’ll be on the receiving end of tuts and evil eyes as you shamefully emerge from the disabled toilet, a hang-dog look about you. I think most wheelchair users, myself included, at one time or another, will have silently judged or ‘cripple-shamed’ someone for using what is seen as the ‘wheelchair only bathroom’.

“Bloody walkers, coming over here, taking our toilets!”

But as time has gone on I’ve come to understand that there are a countless number of disabilities that exist beneath the surface, affecting millions of people and giving them just as much right to use the disabled facilities as someone in a wheelchair. Conditions such as ADHD, autism, Crohn’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome and ulcerative colitis all exist beneath the surface, invisible to the naked eye. Even conditions that affect mobility such as multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy can go by unnoticed in their milder forms. However, this shouldn’t deny them the right to use the disabled facilities. Several comments on the article were made by people who had in the past been publicly shamed for using the disabled toilet due to their condition being invisible. No matter how mild or unnoticeable it may be, if you have a condition that would be eased by the use of a larger, more accessible bathroom, then you have a right to use it.

The issue really is one of honesty.

Taking The P: Disabled Bathroom or Convenience Cubicle?

Much of the feedback to the article on the Active Hands Facebook page demonstrated that the major concern most people have with these new signs is that they would encourage more people to abuse the facilities. Proximity, convenience, peace and quiet, needing to go number 2; I’m afraid none of these are acceptable reasons for using the disabled bathroom! It is after all called the disabled bathroom, not the convenience cubicle; and as I once informed a gym employee who thought it was okay to use the room to unleash a devastating chemical attack, “It’s not your own, personal s******* chamber!”

You know who you are!

Many people use the accessible bathroom without strictly needing to, this is a fact, and one which is proving increasingly difficult to police. In theory one could argue that by limiting the use of these bathrooms to only people in wheelchairs, you are ensuring that only those who need them most are using them; unless of course a person were to borrow a wheelchair for the sole purpose of gaining access to the disabled bathroom, in which case I can only applaud your determination! But by implimenting this rule you would then be discriminating against all the aforementioned people with invisible conditions, which would be unacceptable.

On the flip side however, by now using signs physically stating that “not every disability is visible”, you are opening the door to every man and his dog using these facilities whilst hiding behind the ‘invisible disability’ mantle. One solution would be to ensure that every disabled bathroom was fitted with a radar lock and key system, so that only those carrying a radar key can gain access. However, this would be dependent on every person with a disability having a radar key on them at all times, otherwise you’ll be left crossing your legs for the duration! Personally, I really only take my radar key out with me when I go to pubs, most of which utilise these locks; but even then I’ve been guilty of forgetting it from time to time.

In Conclusion

The truth of the matter is that, short of installing finger print scanners outside of every bathroom and moving one step closer to a hellish, Orwellian reality, there is no sure fire way of ensuring that only those who need to, get to use the disabled facilities. Instead we must continue to rely on a combination of honesty and guilt. Sure, we could always politely confront the person if we didn’t think they should be using a particular bathroom, but if they claim to have an underlying condition then who are we to argue? The most important thing is that those who need to access them, can access them, without being shamed for it. And in that regard, these new signs can surely only be a positive thing?

In Part 2 I’m going to switch my attention to disabled parking bays and the joys/battles that often accompany them. In the meantime however, I shall leave you with a cautionary tale and perfect example of just what can happen if you use the disabled toilet without an appropriate reason…