Stories

When a private pee is a public disgrace

Access to a toilet is an important but unacknowledged part of travel, days out, shopping, restaurants and the arts. Lezlie Lowe, author of ‘No Place to Go’, explores how the rarity of suitable facilities is a form of discrimination.  

Words by Lezlie Lowe and photography by Adam Summerscales

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Photograph though a doorway into an accessible toilet. The floorspace next to the toilet is covered with a cardboard box and piles of packets of toilet paper.
Accessible toilet #01, motorway service station. © Adam Summerscale for Wellcome Collection.

No one’s marching in the streets for more and better public toilets.

“Wipe away inequity!” “Wee demand better!” “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Pay toilets have got to go!” are not the protest signs of our times.

Why?

None of us can have any kind of social, civic or professional lives without away-from-home bathrooms. Having a network of safe, clean, accessible places to spend a penny is a building block of community.

Photograph of the exterior of an accessible toilet building, through a metal construction fence. The toilet is closed and the building is surrounded by construction materials and equipment.
Accessible toilet #02, town centre. © Adam Summerscale for Wellcome Collection.

Accessible toilet #02, town centre.

Public loos are essential infrastructure. Yet they are increasingly shuttered, and publicly accessible toilets in restaurants and shops are hit or miss. You might be let in; you might be kept out.

As much as we rely on toilets, there is a deep stigma and cultural embarrassment that informs our social understanding of them. That shame silences us and our governments. Public toilets don’t exist in our conversations and debates. And too often the real world is a match.

Public loos are a paradox – communal spaces where strangers engage in deeply private acts. And we learn from our earliest days that they are never the topic of polite conversation.

We need to talk about toilets

When I was writing my book, ‘No Place To Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs’, I discovered there were only two responses to my project: laughter or disgust. Making jokes about toilets or thoughtlessly calling them gross are the only ways we’re ‘allowed’ to talk potty.

But I also found once I cracked the shell on the topic, almost everyone let loose. Once people had permission to reflect thoughtfully on public toilets, it was a signal for them to dredge up stories of exclusion or frustration. That made me recognise another way toilets are functionally invisible – precisely because we don’t talk about them enough, we only see the toilet inadequacies that affect us personally.

The first time I saw an adult-sized changing table in a public toilet, I was myself sitting on the loo in a new building at the university where I work. Now, I have researched and written about public toilets since the mid-2000s. By the time I was having this particular pee, the North American version of my book was on the shelves. Yet I sat for considerable time staring at the large fold-up changing table thinking: what the heck is that?

The UK’s 2006-launched Changing Places campaign lobbies for more of these facilities, which include extra space, height-adjustable changing benches, and electric ceiling-mounted hoists to lift users from chair to toilet or changing table. The disabled teens and adults who use Changing Places toilets require them to go about their everyday lives out in the world.

Public loos are a paradox – communal spaces where strangers engage in deeply private acts.

But such facilities are still too rare. And the broader call for them is rarer still. Unless we personally need these facilities, or act as caregivers for those who do, we don’t even notice they’re missing.

We head into the toilet, we wash our hands, we carry on. Back to our work or shopping or lunch. We don’t consider the challenges of the mum beside us in line who’s caring for her disabled adult son, the patron at the café who can’t fit her wheelchair into the too-small stall we just exited. We didn’t even see the man who just bolted from the grocery store, abandoning his kale and shallots, because he has Crohn’s disease and desperately needs the one toilet labelled “Employees Only”.

The equality issue

In our don’t-ask, don’t-tell toilet world, the problems we perceive with public toilets are only the problems we personally feel. When I was caring for my children as infants, I was forever scanning for baby-changing facilities. When they became toddlers, that public bathroom obsession shifted. All I cared about was knowing where the closest toilet lay so I was ready to scoop and run when a child informed me she needed to go.

Now that my kids deal with their own, ahem, shit, I don’t bat an eye at changing tables. My automatic bathroom locator radar has shifted to the off position. (That will change, I bet, as I get older.) For now, what do I note? Endless queues for the ladies’. The annoyance of sniffing out nappy-changing spots and being aware of toddlers’ urgent needs have become invisible to me. Same with all-gender options.

I am a cisgender woman. Despite the exasperating lines caused by bathrooms designed without enough toilets for women (for the record, there should be at least two times more provision to reach equity with men), I am, and always have been, accommodated unquestioningly by ducking behind the door with the skirt-wearing stick figure. I never have to worry I will face the violence or verbal abuse that studies show many transgender and non-binary people face for using bathrooms other people think they don’t belong in.

I care about this injustice deeply. But it’s not my day-to-day toilet reality, so it’s all but invisible to me. Ditto automatic door-openers and stools for little ones to reach the washbasin. Did I have to step up into the last public toilet I used? I haven’t the foggiest. My able body grants me incognisance.

And the final strike in this game of thrones? What we can’t see, we can’t fix. And the people who need those fixes aren’t merely inconvenienced. They simply aren’t there. We can pack snacks for walks and changes of clothes for when it might rain. At a pinch, we can nap in parks and libraries and on public transport.

But with toilets there’s no stand-in. Without access, users don’t scream; they don’t protest. They stay at home. And they become, like public toilets themselves, invisible.

There is the potential for change. The more we talk about toilets and concede their essential place in public life, the more our institutions and governments will recognise this too, and act.

If we want people – all people – to go out in the world, we first have to make sure they can, simply, go.

About the contributors

Photograph of Lezlie Lowe

Lezlie Lowe

Author
Lezlie’s website
@lezlielowe

Lezlie Lowe is author of ‘No Place To Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs’. She is a freelance print and broadcast journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and an instructor in the Journalism School at the University of King’s College. Her journalism has appeared on CBC Radio, and in publications including Buzzfeed, the Globe and Mail and the Guardian.

Photograph of Adam Summerscales

Adam Summerscales

Photographer
Adam’s website

Adam Summerscales is a UK-based photographer. His work is celebrated for raising awareness of the feelings of frustration and invisibility experienced by disabled people when navigating the streets of our towns and cities.