Toilets, are we there yet?

On a road trip from San Diego to San Antonio with my parents in 2019 we stopped at an amazing pizza place which was located outside Boerne, Texas. As the night wore on, I needed to relieve myself after my pepperoni pizza and, to my amazement, found a fully accessible toilet. One door for everyone. The sign simply said toilet. How novel, it told me exactly the intended use of the room. It didn’t tell me or anyone who they had to be to enter, it simply stated its purpose. The goal of being able to relieve yourself was what was important, as it should be.  

I am lucky, I am a cis-gendered white man who has full use of all his limbs and has no sensory needs. For me, a toilet I would not want to go in is the bio-hazard level of gunk, but to many people the toilet they would not go in is what is a normal toilet for me. This is because, even as they enter, they are being told they must fit in a societal construct of man and women, and then when they enter the room, they often find the toilet doesn’t work for them. Maybe the sink is too high, maybe they can’t use the taps or there isn’t enough space for them to transfer from their wheelchair.

A bad toilet for me is an inconvenience, a bad toilet for others is complete and utter discrimination.  

Growing up in rural Australia as a kid, I remember there were always two sets of toilets at school,  one for the boys and one for the girls. Oh, and there was that door no one used, we were told by teachers it was ‘only for people in a wheelchair’- language, today, I know to be incorrect.  The door was even locked, which was probably to stop kids like me using it as the ultimate hiding spot in games. A door for boys, a door for girls, and a third door for ‘people in a wheelchair’. This is what I was taught. Looking back on it, I am still perplexed with the reasoning. The goal, after all, is the same for everyone who enters the toilet. You are there to sit or stand over a bowl and relive yourself, so why were there three different designs in play?  

As I got older, I was taught about privacy and this was inherently linked to toilets. Obviously, the reason for these three doors is privacy? Maybe safety? All tenuous reasoning at best. The real reason is public toilets are based on outdated and sexist ideas being engineered into us having two doors, men and women, and when we began to consider people with disabilities, we shoehorned in a third door. As we stand here in Australia, three doors is pretty much the standard. Yet, go to many cafes, restaurants and pubs/bars and it’s fairly common to still see two doors – or you’ll only see one door leading to a completely inaccessible bathroom with barely enough room for a person to stand.  

The amazement I felt at the one door in Boerne wasn’t just that it existed, and it was accessible – I was amazed it existed in a little pizza place in the middle of a field. The building was an old house which had been converted to support the restaurant, and it was nestled into the backdrop of a small forest and field about 10 minutes from the town itself. My Texan family called it, ’the pizza place no one knows about’, it was a well-kept secret for locals that I was lucky enough to enjoy. It started me questioning toilets everywhere I went in Australia, because my ‘normal’ is outdated. 

I’m not the first person to question toilets, Stalled! is one of my favourite toilet designs out there, creating amenities to be inclusive for all. Toilets are finally starting to get attention, even 99% Invisible have an incredible podcast on toilet design, but we are still very far away from toilets being inclusive. 

As I’ve travelled, I’ve found toilets to be a barometer to measure the inclusiveness of a country. In Australia it has technically been legal for you to use whatever bathroom you want thanks to the 1977 Anti-Discrimination Act. In 2013 the Sex Discrimination Act double downed on this, and yet in 2021, we still want to tell people they can and can’t use certain bathrooms. 

As an entry point, just consider the signage we use for toilets. As we enter we are greeted by little pictures of a man or a woman, often labelled, incorrectly, ‘male’ and ‘female’ which is sex, not gender. What does this tell me about the room? I’ve walked in toilets for men with no urinals, I’ve walked in toilets for disabled people and seen sinks far too high for a person using a wheelchair, and I’ve walked into toilets for women and discovered it to be the same as the men’s toilet.

The sign is meant to signify the purpose of the room, but instead we seem to want them to signify who is allowed in the room? This seems like backwards design to me.  

From hotels in the North of Spain to truck stops in the middle of New Mexico toilet design is consistent. But why? Does this design work? Does it achieve what we need? Is it hygienic? You might be thinking I am insane, you’ve never had a problem going to the toilet, but I’d argue you just haven’t thought hard enough when going into the room. The next time you go into the toilet I want you to think about every single action you take. I want you to be conscious. You might surprise yourself when you think ‘wait, why is it that way?’. 

The one door design is the ideal design for me, but it needs to truly be one door. To be inclusively designed for everyone. I no longer want to be amazed at toilets in little pizza places in Boerne, I want people to look back and be amazed one door wasn’t the standard.