For This Relief, Much Thanks

I have just returned from holiday, and one of the problems which I always encounter whilst out and about, is the Disabled Toilet. I wasn't in France or some such benighted place where modern plumbing is unknown. No, I am refering to toilets deemed suitable for disabled people. Such a daft name, Disabled Toilet, with ghastly visions of broken cludgie chains, leaking cisterns and much worse. I much prefer Accessible Toilet. This conjures up a much more civilised image.

Years ago,when I could see them, I occasionally noticed the abstract wheelchair design and, probably thought, if I bothered a thought at all, that toilets accessible to all were a civilised and sensible idea. However, when my sight started to go, it never occurred to me that I could use them. Well, the sign shows a wheelchair, doesn't it? It couldn't apply to the likes of me, blundering along the queue in the ladies. I remember, on an overnight journey down the M6, trying to get out of the Ladies' loo through a full length mirror. Eventually, my curses echoing round the silent wash basins, attracted the attention of my husband outside and he rescued me. It was when I was on a mobility course at Forfar, that I discovered that the abstract wheelchair design applied to all of the disabled. Mmm, sounds like a punk group, doesn't it, The Disabled; all spiky green hair and acne. That must have made life easier. Not really. The next time out on a trip, in Kirkcudbright, I happily approached a door bearing the blue and white sign, only to find it was LOCKED. Not nice, when you're in desperation! Anyway, whilst I was jumping up and down with my legs crossed, two elderly ladies approached. One was pushing the other in a wheelchair and, on reaching the locked door, this one staggered to her feet, unlocked the door and hirpled in.

“How'd she do that?” I asked.

“Don't you have a key? Awfully handy thing to have,”replied her companion. “I'll tell my friend to leave the door for you when she comes out.”

That's how I discovered that a Radar key can be ordered from the Town Hall and now, the Pee Key, as I call it, is an essential item on all expeditions.

So what's the problem? Surely it must be very satisfying, in many senses of the word, to be able to bypass queues in a busy service station and nip into a cubicle which has probably not been used by anyone else that day. Well, yes, it is handy and I don't want to sound like an ungrateful and intolerant old git, but- - -

I'll assume you have never entered a disabled toilet. They're huge! Most could accommodate an eightsome reel made up of wheelchair users, stookies on crutches and a pack of guide dogs and still have space for a substitutes' bench. So, a visually impaired person has a problem finding anything useful. I frequently have to use my mobile to alert any companion waiting to batter the door and so help me to find my bearings. But don't I have a white poker? Can't I tap about? Occasionally, yes, but usually I have a dog. “Find the loo!” is not one of his recognised commands. Yes, I know all about creeping around a room with my back against the wall, but that takes time not something I have to spare if I've sought out the loo!

And not only are these rooms cavernous, but they are invariably painted tasteful beige, probably to compensate for usually being windowless. So there I am; alone with dog in a vast, echoing, beige cavern, vainly peering around or gently kicking at fuzzy blobs trying to guess by the sound which is the loo. I don't want to risk my paws coming in contact with God knows what; I might not be able to find the wash basin!

Then there are items essential to the design of the place which, nevertheless, cause problems. Firstly, there's an emergency cord always very long and usually hovering near the loo. I don't know what happens if it's pulled. Probably klaxons shriek and all doors fly open. But I've had plenty of near misses, including finding the blessed thing entangled in my knickers! And the other is the position of the automatic hand drier. There isn't always one provided but if there is, it, obviously, should be at a height accessible to someone in a wheelchair. Quite right too. However, this means the drier is easily activated by a passing guide dog's tail! I'm undecided whether the ensuing prancing means dog has been spooked ordelighted by the blast of hot air up the bahookie!

And, of course, it is only right and proper to wash one's hands. But try finding a white basin against a palely painted wall! Not all toilets have an automatic drier. If dog's tail hasn't activated one, then I have to hunt the hand towel. Usually those paper things which are reduced to soggy, disintegrating lumps on contact with water. And never assume the bin for these is near their dispenser. I no longer crawl around the floor looking for it. There are more enjoyable pastimes. However, what to do with the water-logged paper towel? Recently, I emerged from the loo at a pukka English stately home, a squelchy dod of paper in my paw.

“Where the hell can I dump this?” I yelled at my husband. Only to find that I was attempting to shove the dod up the nose of a wifie sitting in her wheelchair.

On another occasion, I erupted into public view, wringing my hands and scattering soapsuds like an environmentally friendly Lady Macbeth.

“How am I supposed to dry these?” I announced. Then realised that as well as husband and dog, I was confronting a school trip! However, this was in Wales, so they probably didn't understand me.

Spare loo rolls are another source of disaster. I've lost count of the times when I've left a disabled toilet knee deep in unrolled bog rolls, dislodged from precarious piles as I've fumbled around, searching for soap dispenser, drier etc. There's a lot of paper in an escaped roll and it wraps itself around anything mobile.

Finally, why should toilets for the disabled have to double as changing rooms for babies? Why should we be the ones forced to share space, however, large, with bins of used, disposable nappies? We were travelling along the M74 recently and its abysmal service stations are made even worse by this. Especially as the layout is designed not for the disabled but the nappy changers. For example, hand driers return to their usual height. I was reminded of this when I turned round from locking the door and the blasted thing walloped me on the nose!

Heh ho, I suppose I should be grateful. At least I seldom have to queue. And there are well-designed exceptions, such as the loo in Tully House, the Carlisle museum, which is painted dark grey. Or those few with a window, a great help in orientating oneself. And my eruptions with those paper towels or the expletives resounding through the locked door must give the hoi polloi something to talk about as they sit in traffic jams on the M8.

© Charlotte Bennie 2007