Sunday, August 21, 2011

Unisex disabled washrooms "discriminatory"?

"Discrimination" is a word that people with disabilities throw around quite often. It is not without reason – we face it in employment, social activities, transportation and so on. We face a constant struggle to gain an equal status to people without disabilities.

But when is it not discrimination but, rather, common sense?

A friend of mine alerted me to an article from the Korea Times, an English-language newspaper from Seoul, South Korea. In the article:

'Unisex toilets for disabled discriminative'

Unisex toilets for the disabled in subway and train stations are discriminative, the nation’s human rights watchdog said Thursday, recommending their operators improve the situation.

“We concluded that unisex toilets in subway and train stations in the metropolitan area are discriminatory against disabled people as they fail to offer due convenient measures to them,” the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) said in a statement.


The decision came as four organizations for the disabled such as the Network of Accessible Environments for All and the Institute of the Disabled for Independent Living filed a petition last year, arguing the disabled experience difficulties in using the facilities in many subway and train stations.

According to the NHRC, the ratio of unisex toilets stands at 26 percent, 45 percent and 24 percent at stations of Korail, Seoul Metro and Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corporation, respectively.

The NHRC said it reached the decision on the grounds that the non-disabled use separated toilets and unisex toilets can make the disabled feel a sense of shame.

Upon the decision, the three operators pledged to renovate their toilets for the disabled, but expressed financial difficulties and space problems.

I have been to Seoul before. It is not a wheelchair-friendly city. Their subway system definitely tries to be accessible but faces many structural challenges. Unlike Vancouver's SkyTrain system, having washrooms at stations is quite common. Some of them have accessible stalls, some do not.

If they don't have room for accessible stalls, then they have the above-mentioned unisex washrooms instead. While I realize that they wish to maintain the sex segregation for accessible stalls to maintain equality, I also think it's somewhat stupid.

Let's face it. Without the ability of many mobility-impaired folks to stand properly or stand and maintain balance, it makes little difference whether someone is using a urinal or a toilet – we're more likely to use the toilet no matter what our sex is.

Also, personally, I've found that accessible stalls that are in regular sex-segregated washrooms tend to be used a lot by able-bodied people. They cherish the space and whatnot; I was once able-bodied and I get that. But in unisex washrooms, it seems much more of a rarity that an able-bodied person would be using it (unless he/she has a baby in a carriage; that is understandable). It is also often cleaner than the "regular" washrooms, which is a big plus for people with disabilities whose wheels roll through God-knows-what in "regular" washrooms.

Sure, sometimes it's weird to be separate from everyone else while you're doing your business, but it's nice to be able to catheterize or empty your legbag/Foley bag or whatever you do in peace without people rushing in and out only mere metres from you. I was never a pee-shy kind of guy but personally, I find it comforting.

I don't find unisex accessible washrooms discriminatory. I actually kind of like them.

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