The Equality Act of 2010 defines disability as any physical or mental impairment that ‘substantially’ impacts your ability to do normal daily activities over the ‘long term’. There is rightfully much in place to support those with physical disabilities, but does the same apply to disabilities that are not obvious or external? What about those people who are told: “You don’t look disabled?”
I particularly want to talk about toilets here, as you may have guessed from my attempt at a witty title. Many people who don’t ‘look’ disabled feel judged and embarrassed for having to use these facilities, even when it is perfectly in their rights.
There are so many disabilities that are not visible, and disability isn’t limited to those with mobility issues, as the symbol would suggest. I am not taking away from the 56 per cent of disabled people in the UK with mobility impairments, but I think it is time to address the other 44 per cent. When I spoke to Diana Isajeva, the Students’ With Disabilities Officer at the Union, she addressed that “many disabilities are called invisible for a reason- you cannot see them. In my opinion, making assumptions when seeing someone mobile using the disabled facilities is simple ignorance and lack of awareness.”
I also talked to a Cardiff University student with long term health and mobility issues. She said: “I don’t use an aid or wheelchair to get around; usually people can’t tell I have a hidden disability. I feel as if I am being judged when using disabled toilets, so I only use them if there is a big queue and I won’t be able to physically stand and wait in it. I wish it wasn’t like that, as they are there to be used.”
When asked if she felt there was a negative stigma surrounding ‘hidden’ disabilities, she agreed that “as it’s very under-discussed, it’s a taboo. I came out of the disabled toilet once and there was someone in a wheelchair waiting. I felt bad even though I shouldn’t have.”
As someone who suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), I on rare occasions have used disabled toilets in an emergency. While I agree it isn’t a ‘serious’ condition (though one in five people have it, so it is a common one), it is one that impacts my daily life. I must always be aware where the closest toilets are whenever I am out; this is usually a disabled one. I have little control on when I have urges to go to the toilet, and the act of ‘going’ can often be a long and physically painful process for me.
Not to mention I already strongly disliked having to use public toilets before I was diagnosed. I know, a great combination. But as fellow women will understand, queues can often be long in the ladies toilets. So when IBS strikes, I can’t wait. If I had to go and couldn’t, it would be obviously be extremely embarrassing and inconvenient. Yet, similar to my interviewee, I have received tuts and disapproving looks when opening the disabled door, accused of queue jumping and being disrespectful. I feel like I shouldn’t be using them, even while I am having severe stomach cramps that make it painful to walk whilst having an ‘attack’ of IBS and immediate action needs to be taken. I can’t control this, and I shouldn’t feel ashamed.
A friend who suffers from a severe form of endometriosis (a common yet relatively unknown condition, despite one in ten women suffering from it at some point in their lives) also talked to me about her experiences of having an internal disability. “Cells from my abdomen travel around my body causing my organs to fuse together and bleed internally. One moment I feel fine and the next I can be in crippling pain and lose control of my legs.” Evidently, this is very painful, and she went on to say she has used disabled toilets as there is “always a possibility at any time” that she could lose mobility when in extreme pain.
There are multiple other conditions that entitle someone to use these facilities, too many to list here. Think of people with bladder conditions who may use things like urostomy bags, as well as the multiple conditions that can affect the bowel, and all other organs for that matter. What about mental disabilities? I could go on, but I think my point has been made. We shouldn’t be deciding who is ‘entitled’ to use or not to use the facilities specifically catered for them, whether they ‘look’ disabled or not.