A Tale of Toilets for the Disabled

By Nicolette Gardiner Bosman

I wonder whether architects who design facilities for the disabled ever consider how their facilities are actually used. As a mobility challenged person, I often have cause to ponder this. I know we speak about disabled people as being “differently-abled”, yet we do not have the super abilities that some architects seem to think we do!


As a result of living with multiple sclerosis (an immune disease of the neurological system), my walking ability is poor. For mobilising I use a rollator for short distances and an electric mobility scooter for longer outings. This entails that I have to make use of accessible bathrooms and I have come across a number of challenging situations.

My first, and probably biggest, bugbear is the spring hinges (I think they are called “door closers”) installed on the doors of most accessible bathrooms (and a number of normal facilities too). One needs a fair bit of strength to pull the door open. This can be an almost impossible task if you are manoeuvering a manual wheelchair or steering an electric one with one hand and opening the door with the other. No, we do not have superman strength! Leave the hinges off please – this would make our lives so much easier.


The most inconvenient situation I have yet come across is a shopping centre I visited recently. After eating in one of the restaurants on the upper level, I needed the bathroom. I was directed to the opposite side of the centre. It is of a circular design on two levels and there appears to be only this one bathroom. I made my way around the centre to where the toilets, including a prominently displayed disabled toilet, were signposted. On entering, I was confronted by a flight of stairs and a security guard who advised me that the toilets were ALL downstairs! Oh please! So I got back into my car and drove down to the lower level.

The disabled parking bay near the toilets was one of those set against a pavement (with no ramp). So, I got out of the car and made my way to the entrance of what turned out to be an extremely long passage (definitely longer than the recommended 45 meters). In the end, the toilet was finally located. No loo roll, no soap in the dispenser, no means of drying your hands, but a toilet nevertheless! We can lay charges for false advertising. I wonder if one can do the same for false signage.

Terminology can be tricky

So what is the correct/politically correct term for a disabled toilet? The accepted term is “an accessible toilet or facility”.

Toilet for the disabled


Most accessible toilets include (and are supposed to) a hand or grab rail of one sort or another. These are useful and often essential to assist you in standing up. Their positioning, however, often raises questions. Why, for example, would one need a handrail jutting into your back? Or set at an angle which makes it almost impossible to hold onto or to reach? Or so low down that it is at knee height? We are differently-abled but our body parts are put together in just the same way as everyone else’s.

Then there is a shopping centre where once you are on the loo, you have the basin that’s practically on your lap. Is the idea that you wash your hands while still perched on the loo? This would be difficult to achieve as the soap dispenser is on the wall behind you and the hand dryer on the opposite wall. There’s another place where the automatic hand dryer has been placed above the toilet. So every time you move, a gust of hot air hits you. Interesting…

And, pray tell, why are so many accessible facilities located close to the men’s toilets? If a disabled woman is waiting for the toilet to become free to use, she is in the path of the men heading for their loo. With the design of some restrooms, she can sometimes see more than she would choose to!

Why are there often no mirrors in disabled bathrooms? Is there a fear that the looks of disabled people will break them? Or that we couldn’t possibly want to look at ourselves? Another observation is that very few facilities that I have visited have the required lever taps installed. There are usually only the taps one turns to open, which can be challenging for a person with a disability (e.g. a person with cerebral palsy).



Let me tell you about some of the loos I have had occasion to visit. In one cinema complex there was no disabled toilet stall, so to make one the management decided to combine two stalls and installed a very large metal door (that read “heavy”), which opens outwards. Picture this – the wheelchair user enters the bathroom and pulls the door open to gain entry, negotiates around the door to get inside. They must then “drive” partially out again to retrieve and close the door.

Once inside, you make your way to the loo and do what needs to be done. You then reach for the loo roll, only to discover that while the loo is on the left side of the combined stalls, the loo roll holder is the original one from the right-hand stall. So, super long arms are also required here! To exit, the door manoeuver must be repeated in the opposite direction.

Then there is a restaurant where the toilet is on a very steep slope. So you negotiate your way in past the spring hinge, holding tightly to your brakes so that you won’t go speeding down the slope towards the toilet itself. Once done, you must negotiate back up the steep slope and open the spring door to get out again. A manual wheelchair is not that easy to negotiate on a slope and even less so when trying to hold the brake with one hand and tug against the strong spring to open the door with the other! Many motorised wheelchairs battle up steep inclines too, so they might stall halfway up.

Why is the disabled loo frequently considered a good place to keep the supply closet? As most of these have a normal door fitted to gain access to the contents, I have on a few occasions been concerned that the door would open and someone would emerge while I am busy!


I also wonder why people not entitled to do so seem to feel compelled to use accessible bathrooms. I often wait outside one and the person who eventually exits is more often than not, a member of staff. Oftentimes there is one disabled stall and many normal stalls. This seems to happen to me every time I need to use a loo in an airport.

I sometimes make my way to a normal stall when I am tired of waiting. I am fortunate that I can still hold onto something and do this. But what about those who cannot and just have to wait for inconsiderate users? And then there are the shops and centres that keep the accessible bathroom locked, entailing a trip to go and find out where the key is kept. Why? When the need is urgent, delays like this can cause problems, particularly if you have a condition (like multiple sclerosis) that causes bladder urgency.


Admittedly there are places where much thought has been put into the design of these facilities and the needs of the users. I commend those designers. There are also wonderful assistive devices available today. However, I would like to encourage people designing bathrooms for the “differently-abled” to get into a wheelchair and try to negotiate the facilities they have designed. Might be a big eye-opener! So, having had a bit of a (partially tongue in cheek) laugh, what are the rules and requirements for designing these facilities? Section 4:12 of the South African National Standard document is quite clear on this: SANS 10400-S:2011

If architects, designers, and builders follow the regulations, I think we would have far fewer stories like the ones I have shared with you.


If you are a designer:

You can consult organisations that work with the disabled community in order to find out more about the need for Universal Design. Some of them are:

  • The National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD) (ncpd.org.za)
  • The QuadPara Association of South Africa (QASA) (qasa.co.za)
  • Inclusive Design (disabilityinfosa.co.za) is a company founded on the fundamentals of the South African Constitution and aims to serve as a driver of social inclusion for positive and effective change in the lives of people with diverse human needs.
  • Rolling Inspiration magazine (www.rollinginspiration.co.za) is the thought leadership publication for people with mobility impairments.

Rolling Inspiration is an excellent magazine and includes a column on accessibility issues as well as much other valuable information and inspiring articles. These organisations and companies work with people who have different needs and they are well equipped to advise on design issues. Consult the relevant people when you are planning to design accessible facilities.

And as an individual?

The best thing that you can do is to show consideration. Do not use facilities that have been specifically put in place for those who need them. They are for the disabled, for buses, bicycles, mothers with children, motorcycles or any other specified users. And if you see someone who is having a problem accessing facilities, why not offer to assist? Help to find the key to the facility or make a comment to able-bodied people who you see exiting a facility. Be aware of other’s needs. Show respect, please. Become aware of the needs of differently-abled people in the community. 3 November to 3 December is Disability Rights Awareness Month but this is something everyone needs to do at all times.

You can also find an article on Disability Rights Awareness Month in Issue 31 of Profusion Magazine. Sign up for the pledge program to get access to the magazine.

Read more blog posts on PRO-Care.


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