The public restrooms that set the world standard for accessibility

Disabled toilet bathroom with silver grab rails in white interior design hotel

Depending on where you live, the accessibility, frequency, and sanitary quality of local public restrooms wildly vary.

In the United Kingdom, it speaks to a specific lack of both care and understanding, that local authorities do not invest in accessible and clean public WCs, where not only are public toilets perceived as a symbol of the UK’s deteriorating and underfunded public infrastructure, but demonstrative of the lack of respect that we have as a nation towards cleaners, who are often the most low-paid workers in society.

Despite being one of the most basic of human needs, the Public Toilet Index, a study by British Company Q Supplies, identified that the UK offers only fifteen public restroom facilities per one hundred thousand people. This falls massively short of countries such as Australia, with thirty seven, and the world leader Iceland, with fifty six.

When it comes to safety, accessibility, and cleanliness – the UK public toilet is also hardly representative. In contrast, countries like Japan and Norway, have enlisted world-leading architects to design public toilets that are both world-leading in terms of inclusivity and aesthetic. 

In Japan, cleaners are well-respected (and compensated) for their public service, with Tokyo often being cited as the world leader in terms of cleanliness. Additionally, cleaner overalls are even designed by well-known fashion brands, and some of the most innovative public facilities, such as Architect Shigeru Ban’s toilet design integrate panels of colour glass that become non-transparent when in use.

Meanwhile, in Norway – local architects are refurbishing roadside restrooms into literal tourist destinations in which restrooms are strategically placed to integrate the impressive local scenery into the design, which supports tourism and actively encourages usage. Compare this to the public attitude in the UK, where the design (or lack thereof) encourages us to perceive public restrooms as a last-minute necessity rather than something halfway desirable.  

In both cases mentioned, the accessible features that we, as access auditors encourage, are standardised, including lever style and/or automatic taps placed at varying heights, handrails placed within reaching distance from the toilet pan and sink, colour contrasted amenities, cord alarms, as well as new innovative ideas that push beyond the minimum requirement.

Despite the clear necessity for inclusive public restrooms, their absence is an often-cited issue when we deliver public accessibility consultations, with many counties offering very few facilities to none at all. The most glaring examples of this are Berkshire, Merseyside, and Greater Manchester – though Greater London is not much better. Most bizarrely, Wakefield was flagged for having the most public toilets per one hundred thousand people according to the Public Toilet Index.

Broader investigative research has uncovered that many disabled people offer similar sentiments to those our team has met at consultations, with Research by the Royal Society for Public Health revealing that 43% of people with medical conditions who need to use the toilet frequently feel tied to a small area near their home because they fear they will not be able to access the facilities they need farther afield.  

Examples of groups that are likely to feel this way include those with chronic bowel diseases and people who have anxiety attacks and mental health issues, where restrooms are often a place of refuge, particularly in city environments. By not providing accessible toilet facilities in commonly frequented locations, the UK government effectively makes access to certain public spaces a privilege, which is no direct contradiction with the Equality Act are supposed to have the same rights as non-disabled people “A public authority must, in the exercise of its functions, have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination”.

Direct Access can help authorities deliver accessible and inclusive restroom facilities by providing accessibility audits that identify areas for improvement, granting our clients the knowledge to not only comply with local laws but also receive the knowledge of world-leading best practice innovations.

By incorporating a blue-sky thinking approach and our experience as a team of disabled people we can help you unlock the financial support of disabled people in your area, who offer significant spending power in the multi-millions but are let down by a lack of understanding for their specific access needs.

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