I don’t believe in disabled parking spaces.
Just to clarify, I do know that they exist; I’ve seen them in the carparks. What I mean is that I don’t think that they should exist. I think we shouldn’t need them. Of course, I understand that some people have a genuine need to park nearer to the door or close to a drop kerb or in a wider bay, in fact, I fully advocate and endorse that this should be facilitated. I just don’t think that disabled parking, or Blue Badge parking, is the way we should be doing it. For me, the disabled parking space in the carpark is a microcosm of the state of inclusion in wider society. It’s a symbol of segregation and the product of a problem. Segregated, ablest self-congratulation (or, sometimes, half-hearted box ticking, begrudging and tokenistic), abused at any given opportunity, and only really necessary because, without it, the true colours of society would be shown in all their glory… I mean, who doesn’t want to park near the door on a rainy day??? The disabled parking space is fraught with problems whichever way you look at it. There are people who need them that aren’t allowed to use them (because they didn’t meet thresholds, because they don’t have the ‘right’ disability, because their need is temporary, because they forgot the badge) and people who don’t need them, and aren’t entitled to use them, but just park there anyway. There may be days when a person with a disability arrives in the carpark but all the disabled parking spaces are full. There may be days when no one with a Blue Badge is using that carpark and all the parking spaces are full. Except, of course, those ones. And don’t even get me started on the highly visible segregation or that bloody wheelchair silhouette logo. The bottom line is this; we only need disabled parking spaces because we live in a selfish society. Having labelled disabled parking spaces absolves us of our responsibility to our community. Don’t park near to the door if you don’t need to. Don’t park at the drop kerb if you don’t need to. Don’t park in the wide spaces if you don’t need to. Clearly, this wouldn’t happen and so we need to keep the disabled parking spaces… but I feel a little bit sad about it every time I see one.
The same issues that I see with disabled parking spaces I see with other aspects of provision for people with disabilities. Take, for example, teaching assistants. Teaching assistants make schools ‘work’ for students with additional needs. They make it so they can cope in the classroom, cope in the corridors and communal areas, and get the things that they need, stated in the EHCP, that the school wouldn’t otherwise provide. Having the teaching assistant absolves a school of its responsibility to make their school actually work for that child. It enables schools to identify a list of things that make that child different and insert a segregated provision in order to address that list. It’s the deficit model disguised as the social model and, I suppose, it is better than nothing; but that doesn’t mean that it’s the answer.
And what about disabled toilets?
Well, of course, I don’t believe in them. I don’t not believe in the need for public toilet facilities that cater to the full, wide and diverse range of people that constitutes ‘the public’, I just don’t think that having standard toilets and disabled toilets (and, if you’re lucky, a Changing Places toilet too) is the way to do it.
Disabled toilets fit the pattern. They exist because the fabric of society doesn’t cater for some people and, although the system doesn’t actually work for many people, we stick with it because it makes us feel like we’ve done something, it’s better than nothing, Equality Act says so and so on. People who shouldn’t use them do use them, then they get radar locked and people who should be able to use them can’t. People get shamed because they don’t ‘look disabled’ (I’m blaming that bloody wheelchair silhouette symbol again) and, heartwarming as it is that ASDA have added a ‘some disabilities look like this [insert stickman]’ clause to their disabled loos, actually some disabilities don’t look like a stickman and their slightly larger cubicle with grab handles just isn’t going to cut it.
As is the case in all three of these examples, disabled loos are us seeing a problem or deficit in society and sticking a plaster over it instead of fixing the actual problem. This might tick a legal box, make us feel good about ourselves and it might even make things better for a few more people but a temporary fix is always going to be flimsy and full of holes. I’m not saying that now’s the time to ditch disabled toilets, parking spaces, teaching assistants or anything else that might fit this same pattern – we aren’t ready. But there was a time we didn’t even have these things and we made progress, and now it’s time to make progress again – we are ready to start. It isn’t over until society genuinely works for everyone equally. The revolution will not have disabled access.
We could, for example, all use parking spaces more considerately (even with the disabled parking spaces still there). This is going to mean different things to different people… but don’t park by the door if you don’t need to; someone might need that space. Don’t park at the end near the path if you don’t need to; someone might need that space.
A complete redesign of the entire education system so that it meets the needs of all children – not just the ‘thriving few’, but SEND, just-not-quite-SEND and the ‘coping core’ as well – doesn’t seem to be on the cards, but this doesn’t mean that there’s nothing we can be doing. As soon as you stop seeing SEND students as something different to students; as soon as you stop applying a different set of rules, routines and expectations to them as a result of that perception, then things will start to change. If you design a school for your least able and most vulnerable students, it will work for everyone. The rigour, high expectations, challenge, accountability and expertise we afford our most able students is the entitlement of all children. The level of care, individualisation, nurture and consideration we apply for our least able and most vulnerable… that is the right of all children too.
And enabled toilets.
Society has changed, over time, for the better. We are more inclusive and more accessible than we have ever been in the past. We are more exposed to more information so we can be more open-minded, understanding and accepting. We are freer to be whoever we are without constraint of oppression on grounds of race, religion, gender, sexuality, disability… we aren’t there, but there’s no denying that we have made progress over time. I haven’t done any research or anything, but I’m pretty sure that public toilets are the same as they were when the first ones were installed in London in 1851 (okay, I asked Siri about that one specific detail). The public toilet has not moved with the times. What we need now are toilets that meet the needs of the society we live in. A society where people with disabilities access the community, women breastfeed outside of their home, some people have hidden disabilities, some people have very complex and multiple disabilities, and some people do not fall within the gender binary. A public toilet should represent and be available to the public. It isn’t okay for someone with profound physical disabilities to have their personal care needs met lying on a dirty toilet floor and nor is it okay for someone to be challenged and shamed for using a disabled toilet when they don’t ‘look disabled’. It’s not okay for a mother to feel that they have to sit in a toilet cubicle to feed their baby and it’s not okay that some people’s gender identity precludes them from comfortably using any of the available options.
It’s fine to have male and female toilets, just not for these to be the only available options. It’s fine to have standard sized cubicles and bigger ones with support rails, but not for these to be the only options. It’s fine to have doors with wheelchair silhouettes on them and its fine to add a ‘not all disabilities are visible’ caption to it too… but some disabilities are visible and the standard disabled toilet is not sufficient. And it’s fine to have bigger and smaller sized toilets, but it isn’t alright to label them ‘adult’ and ‘child’; there are other reasons someone might require a lower toilet than being a child.
The biggest barrier to inclusion, in schools and in society, is a prevailing attitude to disability that makes it okay for some people’s needs to be met (often barely, and sometimes not really at all) as a series of add-ons, afterthoughts, and annexed provisions that tick a box, make the able majority feel like they’ve done something, and enable society at large to comfortably turn a blind eye. So long as we keep celebrating Blue Badge schemes, slightly bigger cubicles, and non-teachers teaching our most vulnerable students as enough for some people and enough for us to feel like we’ve done enough, we are celebrating segregation and preventing progress being made. Creating a society that really works for everyone isn’t easy but, also, it isn’t optional. And, actually, some of the things that need to change are pretty straight forward. If, for example, each set of public toilets had men/women/neutral options, a disabled cubical and a Changing Places, we’d be doing pretty well! Refusing to provide this, as I believe one of the big department stores has (refused to include a Changing Places because it would take up valuable retail space), is, to me, literally stating that some people are not important or valuable enough to be catered for. You couldn’t say it about, for example, women and refuse to have a female toilets; why is this any different.
As always, for me it comes down to attitudes and behaviours. Yep, there are financial implications, structural upheaval and space and time to be taken up… but nothing that we aren’t capable of if we decide that it’s worth doing! The beauty of society is that we are all different but all equal. We are capable of working together to do great things. And – the great leveller – we all need a decent loo.