The School of Geography, Politics and Sociology

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New guide aims to improve toilet provision for disabled people

Disabled people in Northumberland could benefit from a new guide that aims to encourage organisations to make their toilets more accessible and available for people to use.

Simple changes

The guide has been produced by researchers at Newcastle University, who worked with Carers Northumberland.

It is aimed at businesses and anyone who provides toilets for public use and sets out a range of low cost and easy to implement changes they can make to ensure toilets are accessible for people with additional needs and their carers.

The ‘Nowhere to go’ guide was launched at a special event which also launched a short film made with people from Northumberland talking about their experiences and why better toilet provision across the county would help.

To develop the sixteen-page guide researchers talked to disabled people and their carers, as well as volunteers from a range of organisations across Northumberland including Age UK, the Alzheimer’s Association and BID Services Morpeth, who support people who are deaf, hard of hearing, are visually impaired or have a dual sensory loss.

The research highlighted the difficulties people can face on a day to day basis when trying to access suitable toilet facilities. Some of the participants said that they had often been forced to return home or were prevented from leaving the house in the first instance by the lack of appropriate facilities.

Others talked about the negative attitudes they had encountered from members of the public who had challenged why they had used an accessible toilet when their disability wasn’t obvious.

Many commented on unclean or poorly equipped facilities, while there was also a widely held view that there should be more - and better signposted – accessible toilets.

Professor Janice McLaughlin, Professor of Sociology at Newcastle University, said: “Toilets are not a luxury – they are a basic right. For disabled people, who have complex or additional needs, having access to good quality, clean, accessible toilets that are easy to locate is vital.  Even an everyday trip to the shops can be problematic. This guide aims to highlight the simple changes that can be made so that going out becomes easier for people with ‘hidden’ disabilities and they feel less isolated as a result.”

Best practice

Debra Blakey, the Chief Executive of Carers Northumberland, sees the guide as an important culmination of the work they have done with Newcastle University over the last four years, looking at the social issues which carers face on a daily basis. She said: “Carers have been instrumental in shaping the direction of the research carried out by the university and are buoyed that their experiences and suggestions have been considered for the implementation of the guide.”

The guide is aimed at local authorities, tourist attractions and local businesses as a best practice guide to the simple changes that can be made to improve toilet provision for disabled people. These include making sure facilities are clean, that there are clear signs showing the way into and out of the toilets and replacing outward opening doors with sliding doors.

It also recommends that businesses nominate someone in the organisation to be an accessibility champion who could keep a list of local toilets, including the nearest Changing Places toilet – considered to be the gold standard of accessible toilets. Currently, there are just three Changing Places toilets in the whole of Northumberland. 

It also suggests that businesses ask customers with specific disabilities or illnesses for feedback on what could be done to make sure toilet facilities meet their needs. 

Hidden disabilities

Nearly 1 in 5 people in England and Wales have some form of disability, and the researchers say there needs to be better public awareness that not all disabilities are visible, to challenge assumptions that accessible toilets are for use only by wheelchair users.

Community toilet schemes already run in many parts of the country and local councils are usually responsible for providing information about which organisations participate in these schemes. Northumberland, which has a large rural and ageing population with many older people living with chronic health conditions, has its own ‘You’re Welcome’ scheme. Participating organisations are usually given signs to display to let disabled people and their carers know that they can use their toilet facilities without obligation to purchase products or services.

Professor McLaughlin added: “Community toilet schemes can make a real difference as they provide reassurance to older people or those who have specific illnesses or disabilities that they don’t need to worry about finding an accessible toilet when they’re out and about.

“However, for these schemes to work there needs to be a sustained effort from businesses and local councils to improve the number and quality of toilets. Up to date information about where accessible toilets can be found also needs to be easily available – this is something that voluntary groups who work with older or disabled people and their carers can help support, as they’re well placed to provide this information to the people who need it most.”

The free ‘Nowhere to go’ guide is available to download from

Pictured from left: Prof. Janice McLaughlin (Newcastle University), Libby Morrison (Newcastle University), Janet Pattison, Debra Blakey (Carers Northumberland) and Mary Hull (Newcastle University)

Prof. Janice McLaughlin, Libby Morrison, Janet Pattison, Debra Blakey and Mary Hull

published on: 12 December 2018