Access to toilets is a basic human right

A sign for public toilets in London. Spending by councils in England on basic services such as publi

The closure of so many public toilets has become a focus of national controversy - Credit: PA Images

Over many years of taking our son with autism and severe learning disabilities out to public places we have found that one of our most valuable accessories is the "Radar Key", which provides entry to 9,000 accessible public toilets.

For many individuals with problems of bladder and bowel control, which may be associated with a wide range of disabilities, this key not only opens the door to a toilet but also allows access to leisure and social activities.

The widespread closure of public toilets has become a focus of national controversy. The fact that this policy has caused particular distress to many older people and disabled people has been less widely recognised.

Toilet closures have exacerbated the long-standing problems of access to properly equipped and clean toilets. As we emerge from the lockdown there are initiatives to tackle these problems, though we have a way to go.

Mary Langan. Picture: Luke Dixon

Mary Langan says it should be a condition of employment that care staff have the Covid vaccine - Credit: Luke Patrick Dixon Photography

The Changing Places consortium, supported by Muscular Dystrophy UK and Learning Disability Today, has launched a survey to clarify the scale of the challenge faced by some 250, 000 people who are unable to use standard toilet facilities. The consortium estimates that only 1500 public toilets currently have adequate provisions.


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The charity Bowel and Bladder UK – which promoted World Toilet Day last year – has indicated the difficulties that many people with autism experience with the noises and smells of public toilets. It has introduced a Just Can’t Wait Card which leading retailers have pledged to honour when individuals request access to toilets. In the past we have appreciated being allowed access to MacDonald's toilet facilities. Other firms could provide the same courtesy.

The London Toilet Manifesto is encouraging councils to appoint lead officers to implement an annual toilet strategy, including monitoring planning applications and ensuring that information on toilets is widely available. The government has made £30m available to improve toilet access for people with disabilities.

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If we want to help people enjoy social life again and end lonely isolation we must recognise that access to a toilet is a basic human right.

  • Mary Langan is chair of the Severe and Complex Needs Group

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