• MJ

This sign doesn't mean what you think it means

Updated: Aug 29, 2019

There's a sign we've all seen, but that many don't seem to understand. It's everywhere. You see it in shopping centres, supermarkets, bus stations, airports, you name it. And yet despite all of this, there's still widespread confusion about what it actually means. And the most difficult aspect of this is that most people don't realise that they misunderstand it, which makes it all the more tricky to address. The sign I'm referring to is below.

Icon of a person sitting in a wheelchair.

Seems obvious, right? Most people, when asked, will tell you that this means "disabled person", which is technically correct. However, if you dig a little deeper and ask them to expand on who should use facilities with this sign, the vast majority will respond with "people in a wheelchair". This is where the misunderstanding comes in. Because although this sign is used to signify disabled people generally, it doesn't actually resemble the majority of disabled people. People struggle with this one, and I can understand that to some extent. The image does show a wheelchair user, but what it actually symbolises in public is "disabled access". And not all people who need accessible facilities use a wheelchair. For a number of those who don't, this common confusion can make access more difficult to obtain, rather than easier.

The most obvious situation is when using bathroom facilities, which is where this sign is overwhelmingly used. For those of us who do not use a wheelchair - or do not use one full-time - using the stall we need can become quite distressing. Many people take it upon themselves to heckle us on our way in or out to tell us we're "not disabled", or "that toilet is for DISABLED people, not you". To them, 'disabled' = 'wheelchair' and 'no wheelchair' = 'not disabled'. It's important to be aware that there are a huge number of disabilities that can make an accessible stall necessary, and that wheelchair adaptations are not the only feature of accessible toilet facilities. Take a look at the image below:

Accessible bathroom stall, viewed from the doorway,

There are a range of adaptations here for all kinds of disabilities, including:

  • Extra space to move around: this is useful for mobility-aid users (wheelchairs, walking frames, rollators), but also for anyone who requires a second person to assist with using the toilet. It can also give peace of mind to people who experience seizures, as if they fall there is space for other people to get in to help them, and there's less likelihood of hitting their head on objects or blocking the door when they fall.

  • Grab bars and supports: these are useful for anyone with restricted mobility who struggles with sitting up and down unaided. Examples include people with arthritis, back problems, or hip/knee replacements, who often need to support themselves on a bar to avoid putting all the strain through these joints. It can also be helpful for someone with postural issues such as vertigo, who need to stand up slowly with support to prevent fainting or dizziness.

  • Emergency assistance cord: this is the long red string with a handle which runs from floor to ceiling, and when pulled will sound an alarm which alerts staff and passers by that the user needs help. This is essential for anyone prone to falls, seizures, or who has difficulty getting back on their feet.

  • Lowered sink and mirror: at a better height for wheelchair users than a standard bathroom, but also necessary and important for little people. This bathroom also has a grab bar under the mirror, which enables the user to have support whilst standing to use it.

  • Sanitary bins and changing facilities: Whilst more commonplace in 'female' toilets - although often only in selected stalls - these are almost non-existent in 'mens' bathrooms. Sanitary bins allow for the safe disposal of human waste, and are essential for people who use items such as stoma bags, catheters and incontinence pads. Some people need assistance changing these, which is why the changing surface in accessible bathrooms is often designed to carry the weight of an adult.

  • Proximity: this is not visible in the image above, but is absolutely worth mentioning. Accessible stalls are often more numerous, more easily visible and located closer to amenities in many public places. This is incredibly useful for people with incontinence, or conditions such as Crohn's disease, which can cause them to need to find a toilet quickly or at short notice.

Of these conditions, most do not involve the use of a wheelchair. In fact, many are not visible to the outside observer at all. However, they are all valid reasons to require the use of an accessible bathroom with these standard adaptations, and none of these people should be criticised for or denied the use of the accessible stall. Thankfully, there is now a growing trend of supermarkets who use a different sign, showing all three standard toilet symbols and a slogan along the lines of "Not all disabilities are visible", to remind other shoppers of the huge range of conditions which might require someone to use an accessible stall. Prominent visual reminders such as this are essential to ensure that anyone who has need for an accessible bathroom can use it in peace.

This shift in consciousness is essential in a society where 6% of children, 16% of working age adults and 45% of adults over State Pension age are disabled. To create the kind of inclusion that is needed, we need to challenge these subconscious misunderstandings that are hampering access in our public spaces. This starts with awareness, and with correcting yourself and those around you when this error is made.

Next time you see that sign, remind yourself of its meaning. Talk to the people you are with; ask them "did you know, that sign actually means 'disabled access' rather than 'wheelchair user'?". Tell your children about meaning of accessibility. By doing so, you help to build a more informed society where people can use the bathroom they need to in peace.

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