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A wheelchair user's survival guide to pub toilets

by Laurence Clark

27th January 2010

Your average able-bodied person assumes that 'disabled loos' in pubs are the height of hygienic spacious privacy. But how wrong this can sometimes be. Comedian and wheelchair user Laurence Clark gives us the benefit of a lifetime's experience of these locked-away special hidey holes ...
Back when I was a student, I gave pride of place on my bathroom wall to a framed poster showing every pub toilet in Liverpool – both gents and ladies. Neatly arranged in columns were photos of over a hundred of these dank, smelly, highly inaccessible cess pits. I decided to make it a personal mission during my three years at university, to conquer each and every one of them.
Poor balance and alcohol have never been a good combination for me at the best of times, however. And while this wasn’t a problem on a night out if I was able to stay sitting down, it would suddenly become a real issue if I ever needed to stagger out of my chair and tackle an inaccessible pub bog.
One common strategy used by wheelies when drinking in a pub with a toilet that's impossible to access, is to order spirits all night long - the neater the better. But although this low liquid intake approach to bladder control will enable you to minimise the number of times you need to spend a penny throughout the evening, you'll very likely wind up in a pretty ugly state the next morning. It is not recommended.
Alternatively, you could choose to go to pubs with a certain well-known fast food chain outlet nearby, since they can usually be relied upon to have an accessible loo. I only ever venture in to use their toilet and nick their straws, since I can't stand the food. Using up their resources without giving them a penny in return, is my small attempt at anti-globalisation activism.
Broken Inaccessible Toilet
The various disgusting states in which pub toilets are left in can also be a big issue. For example those featuring filthy grab rails and puddles of you-know-what on the floor. On one memorable occasion years ago, I slipped in a toilet cubicle and fell forward into a kneeling position. I spent the rest of the evening making up implausible excuses as to why I had wet knees. Even the best chat up lines in the world couldn't rescue me from that one.
One way to avoid slipping and falling over is to pee sitting down. However being both somewhat well-built, and having less than perfect balance, has gained me quite a reputation over the years for accidentally breaking toilet seats whenever I plonk down on them.

I was once on holiday in Botswana, staying at someone's house quite literally in the middle of nowhere, when I managed to split their wooden toilet seat in two by merely sitting on it. To make matters worse, this was very probably the only toilet seat within a 50 mile radius. Fortunately, the personal assistant who was travelling with me at the time happened to have a rather large behind, so the owner automatically assumed that she was the one who had broken the seat. But since they were too embarrassed to broach the subject with her and I never owned up to my crime, I got away scot free.
Stack of Boxes
Of course, nowadays more and more pubs have accessible toilets ... or as they are more commonly thought of by pub landlords: handy storage cupboards for smelly mops and buckets which can occasionally double as a bog if some stroppy wheelie threatens to sue.

I once asked to use an accessible loo in a bar and was told they couldn't unlock the door because they'd lost the key. Once I'd kicked up enough of a fuss, it turned out they'd had the key all along but the entire room was stacked high from floor to ceiling with crates of alcopops.

When I finally got in, after they'd considerately cleared a path to the bog, I felt morally obliged to stash a few bottles away in my bag. I don't even like alcopops!
But my all-time scariest experience involving a pub toilet happened a few years ago in Glasgow. I opened the door of the accessible loo to discover I'd disturbed a couple having sex on the floor.

Rather than feeling embarrassed and getting out of my way, they instead shouted unintelligible abuse, locked me out and carried on where they'd left off. Since I really desperately needed to pee, I went and got the bouncer to forcibly evict them.

They weren't very happy to say the least and I spent the rest of the evening looking over my shoulder, convinced they'd be coming back to get me.
A very grotty accessible loo
In conclusion: It would be nice every once in a while to throw caution to the wind by going out and getting hammered. However, the reality of the situation is that wheelchair users still need to do a bit more forward planning if they want to enjoy a night on the tiles.


  • 1. At 4:50pm on 28 Jan 2010, Lizzy wrote:

    I am able bodied myself, so I'd be interested to know what people think of this issue - it seems ridiculous that a lot of places have male loos, female loos, and a disabled loo, as though disabled people are genderless. I am aware that financial constraints probably prevent the realistic implementation of gendered disabled toilets, but is this an issue for anyone? Even if only in theoretical terms.

    A little more on topic - I was unimpressed a while back when I noticed that at a bowling alley, the disabled loo was locked and had a sign which said you should go to the desk for the key. It was pretty bad practice - I would imagine if I had mobility issues, I wouldn't be very happy about getting to the bathroom and then finding that I had to go all the way back to the desk just to get in.

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  • 2. At 7:01pm on 28 Jan 2010, WobblyBetty45 wrote:

    Ah, the disabled loo- extra storage, a staff changing room, AB place for a quiet number 2.
    An indwelling Catheter an empty bottle under the table or the gutter outside, or the male urinal in Rick Steins restaurant in Padstow as it was the only one I could get my chair into. Oh, I'm female and since all and sundry use the accessible loo, gender isn't the issue

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  • 3. At 11:40am on 31 Jan 2010, Jean - jhmelea wrote:

    I went shopping last week to the supermarket S and had to pay a £5 deposit for the privilage of spending my penny in their loo rather than over the floor.

    I am also astounded at the amount of AB who think that it is perfectly normal to use the disabled troilet rather than queue for their own then have a go when a wheelie or wobblie has the ordasity to need it, and not want to have to wait behind them.

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  • 4. At 12:52pm on 02 Feb 2010, Mel wrote:

    I visited a restaurant in Bearwood last Friday evening where they seemed to have a slightly odd take on the whole accessible toilet thing. The toilets, yes, all of them, were in part of the restaurant which was approached by about six steps. When I opened the 'accessible' toilet door I came face to face with a fully decorated Christmas tree right in the middle of the room! Very pretty but very inaccessible.

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  • 5. At 11:38am on 04 Feb 2010, RoseRodent wrote:

    I have seen disabled toilets up steps, down steps, in between two flights of steps, over cobbles, down a narrow corridor where it was impossible to turn around or open the door to the toilet AND which had a step in said corridor and was in any case locked with a key... The toilets in the student union were accessed by asking at the bar for the barman to call security who then got a key and took you in the lift and opened the door for you and prowled outside waiting for you to do your biz. They were not impressed that I needed to go 7 times in one night and nor was I impressed by their "service" and I never went again.

    Lasting favourite, however, is Nantes SNCF station, France. Dying for a no.1 I had to put money into the lock. In the days of multiple currencies I had to go to the Change desk and get some Francs, then spend the right amount of Francs to get a 2F piece for the door. When I finally managed all this the *disabled* toilet was a 2-footplates and a hole traditional French bog. The mind absolutely boggles!

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  • 6. At 4:17pm on 04 Feb 2010, detta wrote:

    Although I am disabled, I do not need a wheel chair, so to onlookers, I may not appear disabled. I use the disabled loos as they overcome some, not all!!, of my access issues.

    My local pub has a loo locked with a radar key. You have to go to the bar to get the key, but as I have my own, this pub, and many establishments like it, is not such a problem for me. It is not great that the dartboard is directly outside the door however, and darts fly across the doorway as you open the door. Not so bad getting in 'cos you can just get the dart players to be annoyed by stopping their game, but not so good to get back out again!!

    Another local pub I have used twice for a meal with friends has the loo stuck up a far corner, behind two archways with a coal fire between, which then creates another small room, with one large table and chairs leaving little space between the walls. One of those "press the numbers in a certain order" lock is on the door. The bar staff only want to tell you the number, not open the lock for you, not easy when you are blind with dexterity problems. The alternative is to go up an open twisted wooden staircase for the main toilets.

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  • 7. At 07:35am on 05 Feb 2010, powerrider wrote:

    I was taken out for a meal at a local; golf club. There was a sign proudly proclaiming 'Disabled Toilet', I though I would be fine, but when I need to have a pee, my wheelchair could not fit through the doors, even if it had done I would not have been able to shut the door, it was far to tiny. Perhaps it referred to the 'toilet' being disabled. How do they get away with these things?

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  • 8. At 12:58pm on 05 Feb 2010, jaimelicious wrote:

    Re: the bowling alley - I used to work in one, and we used to do that.

    Mostly because it stopped people taking drugs and having sex in there.

    We got far less complaints and far less hassle doing that and telling everyone we saw who might need the disabled loo what was going on, than we did when it was always full of used needles and condoms.

    Plus, when people did need to use it, it was actually safe.

    And, frankly, being mean to staff about disabled loos is stupid. It's generally nothing they've done, or can change. If you must be horrible to someone, try the manager!

    My worst one was the guy who peed on the floor in protest, and then found it totally unreasonable to be arrested for doing so. I mean, in a bowling alley full of children?!

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  • 9. At 11:59pm on 12 Feb 2010, mog wrote:

    I just love the fact that you have to have some sort of super extra arm length, and mega upper body stregth to get the wrteched doors open (then shut behind you).......
    Like many others, the number of disabled loos that are unaccesible - the Starbucks in Norwich which has a 6 inch entry step before the disabled loo - and no, they have not the staff available (even if you could catch their attention) to get a ramp for you.
    And the amount of disabled loos that are either their for their staff to use for 'number 2's' or for storage of baby chairs, cleaning equipment etc....

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  • 10. At 2:51pm on 15 Feb 2010, wheeliewoman wrote:

    Being a full time electric wheelchair user and a person with newly diagnosed coeliac (with chronic diarrea) it seems that accessible toilets have suddenly become more of an obsession with me.

    Use a RADAR lock - by all means - but just remember, if you lock the door using a key that no-one but the manager has, how annoying it is for an adult to have to ask permission to use the toilet. It brings back memories of "Please Miss, can I go to the toilet?". If we are going for the equality slant here - why not lock the non-accessesible toilets too! And try making an assualt course out of the cubicles and urinals and see how others like that! I bet there would be more complaints then!

    In my opinion the only truely "accessible" toilets are the "changing places" toilets - and there are precious few of them. Oh how I wish that all accessible toilets were up to this standard - having a hoist would mean my PAs wouldn't have to manhandle me onto the loo and back!

    And don't talk to me about French toilets - I made the mistake of not doing proper research before I went to France - they don't have the seperate unisex toilets but ones that are integrated into the male / female toilet block. Very inclusive you might think - but not if you are a female travelling with 3 male PAs!! It made for a very difficult and uncomfortable (and, needless to say, embarassing) holiday!!

    My personal bugbear are the so called "accessible portaloos" - accessible for who? I use an electric powerchair - but even a friend who uses a small manual chair couldn't go to the loo with the door closed - PAs who would normally be sent away had to stand guard duty to cover the crack (or gaping chasm) left while trying to use the loo with the wheelchair in the cubicle too!!

    My current situation has left me longing for someone to come up with the next peice of essential adaptive technology - a wheelchair that transforms into a toilet! Something that would robotically open a pre made flap in your trousers, retract a lid in the cushion to uncover a commode type affair which has its own smell neutraliser and an automatic bum wiper/ bidet -so you could just press a button do the biz whereever you are, without having to go and find a key to a far from accessible toilet, without risking life and limb (of you or the PA), without having to stop what you were doing, and no-one would be any the wiser! Hmm, I wonder if I could get on Dragons Den with that?!

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