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Disabled women are being let down by public toilets every time they get their period

People with disabilities and wheelchairs are met with a harrowing array of barriers each month, leaving them housebound or endangered, says Helena Vesty

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By Helena Vesty on

“Disgusting”, “horrendous”, “it’s totally Russian roulette every time you open the toilet door” – the kind of reviews you might only expect on the last day of a music festival. Instead, these are the exasperated voices of women with disabilities describing their daily experiences with accessible toilets while on their periods.

Over 17% of all women in the UK aged 12 to 50 are disabled, according to analysis by the disability-equality charity, Scope. Yet in public spaces where people need to change their sanitary products regularly, hygienically and safely, those with disabilities and wheelchairs are met with a harrowing array of barriers.

Women have spoken out in frustration at the severe lack of accessible toilets and many struggle to find one featuring the necessary equipment they need to change products or clean themselves. Changing Places toilets are fitted with an adult changing table and hoist, and are the most accessible type for all disabilities. However, with only 1,000 spread across the country, they are a rarity.

Those who can make use of typical accessible toilets are frequently met with small, dirty bathrooms. Becky Whitworth, 27, tells me: “I’ve had to ask staff to clean toilets before as they’ve been dripping in urine, blood and sick. The majority of the time you ask for a toilet cleaning you’re made to feel like it’s your fault or an inconvenience.”

Before leaving the house, people with disabilities have a litany of preparations to carry out, to ensure they are covered for all eventualities: an exacting knowledge of where a suitable toilet in the area is; doubling up uncomfortable overnight pads or adult nappies in anticipation of there not being one; extra product provisions to overcome the non-existent dispensers in accessible toilets are essential.

Every woman I spoke to for this piece had stories of when they have had to simply go without changing, because of the absence of the right amenities or even hazardous conditions.

“Because of the rarity of public accessible toilets, I might have to wear the same sanitary product for six or seven hours,” says Zara Todd, a 33-year-old wheelchair user from Edinburgh.

As well as it being common to find accessible toilets without bins, Zara adds, “if you were using a ladies loo, you would find options to buy sanitary products, that doesn’t exist in most disabled toilets. So you can’t be surprised by your period. It means I have to carry around with me an excessive number of sanitary products.”

I just really felt that society didn’t seem to understand that disabled women are exactly the same as other women, the same monthly cycle

Just last week, Becky, who has had over 300 fractures as a result of the genetic bone condition Osteogenesis imperfecta, suffered similarly from the safety risks of public transport: “I was travelling via train, I had the dreaded feeling I had leaked. I can’t transfer on a moving train, it’s just too dangerous, so I had to wait four hours until I reached my destination.”

The question of where they might find a suitable toilet is an ever-present cause of anxiety. The exhausting toll on their mental health has led some to choose to stay at home or turn to hormonal contraceptives to stop menstruation.

“I would be housebound for a week every month and I just couldn’t do it, I was getting in such a mess and I couldn’t clean myself up. It was completely dictating my life,” says Lucy Watts. The 24-year-old, from Essex, who has a rare neuromuscular disease, turned to Depo-Provera injections five years ago. “I just really felt that society didn’t seem to understand that disabled women are exactly the same as other women, the same monthly cycle. I really felt that society assumed that we must all be sterilised because there aren’t the facilities.”

For Fiona Anderson, 29, from Bolton, the consequences of contraceptives proved too much: “I felt like I had to put myself through the symptoms of being on unnecessary medication. It was purely a toileting issue, I’m already on lots of medication I don’t need any more side effects.”

Despite this, she may have no choice: “I’m due to move house and if it’s even harder to find Changing Places toilets then it might be something I have to revisit.”

The hard-fought campaign continues, and women are hoping for progress.

“They need to do away with disabled toilets altogether and just have Changing Places because then at least you know they meet every single need,” says Anderson. “They are so much better kept, because they are heavily locked and the people who use these toilets respect them because they know how important they are. That would be life-changing for people with disabilities.”

Simple services to ensure the menstrual health of people with disabilities in public spaces remain fundamentally absent, creating an environment filled with physical and mental dangers.

Fiona continued: “It’s emotionally draining having to keep fighting for such issues as toilets, we’re not a third-world country, we shouldn’t have this issue. We want to go out and live our lives, and why shouldn’t we?”


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