Football matches, travel and toilets. How isolating can a lack of changing places be?

Do you think about toilets before you leave the house? It probably doesn’t cross your mind – unless you’re one of the 230,000 people in the UK who can’t use regular or disabled public lavatories. For them, properly equipped toilets are a fundamental issue that can keep them trapped at home, isolated by something as everyday as using the loo.

Take Andy*, who is supported by Livability in East Anglia. Andy is devoted to his team, Norwich City, and used to travel to all their away matches. Now his needs mean that he requires toilet facilities with sufficient space and a hoist. ‘Even service stations don’t have proper facilities,’ says Livability manager Ivan Etherington. ‘Some might have space and not a hoist, or the other way round.’ The result? ‘This has had a real impact on Andy. It’s a real barrier and he rarely goes away to matches anymore.’

What Andy needs are the facilities found in a ‘Changing Place’ toilet. These are equipped with a hoist system, a height-adjustable changing bench, adequate space for carers, a centrally placed toilet and other adaptations – which points up just how inadequate regular public toilets are, including most disabled toilets – for those 230,000 people. Changing Places are necessary for people with a wide range of needs, including those who have had a severe stroke or brain injury, people with profound disabilities and some older people.

Changing Place provision is seriously lagging behind need. ‘Currently there are just over 1,000 Changing Places around the UK,’ says Marion Messmer, Development Officer for campaigning charity Changing Places. ‘So if you’re in an area with few or none, you might not be able to go out and connect with your community, and if you do go out, you really have to plan your day as to where you can access toilets. It really limits people’s ability to attend events and fully participate in their community.’

Shockingly, rather than not go out, many families resort to using public lavatory floors to change the person they are caring for. Access to proper facilities is life-changing. ‘Once there is a Changing Place provided, people are really overjoyed, tag us on social media and post pictures of their day out,’ says Marion. ‘This does suggest when those toilets aren’t available, they can’t do those things and that’s why it’s a massive deal once those toilets are there.’

Livability residents campaign for Changing Places in Southend

Many members of the Livability community rely on Changing Places for days out. The people at Livability Dolphin Court in Southend-on-Sea feel so passionately about this that they are supporting a campaign to create a Changing Place on the seafront. The Dolphin Court community has joined in fundraising events and resident David says: ‘A disabled toilet will be helpful for all people of various disabilities,’ and will give disabled people ‘a better experience’ of the town.

Cllr Mike Stafford has championed the Southend plan because he is dismayed at the poor accessibility to seafront and beach for disabled people. He is adamant that the new facility ‘should be for everyone all together, able-bodied and disabled’ and he describes the people who live at Dolphin Court as ‘ardent supporters of our scheme’.

Changing Places at Jubilee Church

Jubilee Church in East Grinstead, which has participated in Livability training, has seen what a difference the provision of a Changing Place makes in enabling disabled people to connect with others. This church decided to create a Changing Place, in their building, for the community. ‘We felt it was important as there was nowhere local for people with complex needs to use a public loo,’ says the church’s additional needs coordinator Sarah Wallis. ‘At the time, the nearest one was at Gatwick airside or Brighton, nearly 30 miles away.’ Jubilee raised funds and secured local authority and charity grants for the build.

Jubilee’s Changing Place is open to the public from 8am-10pm on weekdays and most of the weekend. It has helped to create a truly inclusive community, Sarah feels: ‘It has shown the town that we are serious about ensuring that everyone can use our centre. It has meant that events such as our youth group “big sleepover” are for all our youth now. A young boy with complex needs could have his first proper birthday party here with friends from his school, who were all able to use the changing bed and hoist. They could have a bouncy castle and lots of people for a longer time than would have been possible anywhere else.’

Changing places at Livability’s national office

Livability believes passionately that accessibility and inclusivity have to be part of the sum which makes life all add up for disabled people. A Changing Place was a major part of the design of Livability’s national office in the step free zone of the Greenwich Peninsula, North Greenwich. Along with many other accessible design features in the office, the work place has been described by many disabled visitors and staff as a really important feature of the work place. For buildings with public access, whilst the Equality Act states that ‘reasonable adjustments’ must be made to the built environment, installing a Changing Place is only rated ‘desirable’ by current building regulations.

‘Having higher quality public facilities in the community would unquestionably reduce isolation and allow [those who require this] to participate in normal day-to-day activities that most people take for granted,’ says Livability’s policy advisor, Stephen Springer. Clearly, thousands more Changing Place facilities are needed. ‘Wherever there are public toilets, a Changing Place toilet should also be provided, plus in all big public buildings like schools, hospitals, supermarkets,’ says Marion Messner. ‘If they aren’t there, people are restricted in living their normal day to day lives.’

Livability’s national office is based in the step free area of the Greenwich Peninsula in North Greenwich.

Read more about Livability’s national office design project here.