The History of Accessible Portable Bathrooms

Before the 1940’s access to toilet facilities for the disabled was not considered something which deserved much attention. However, after WW2, things began to change. One reason for this was that some 300,000 UK citizens were made disabled through enemy action. The number of disabled people also being swelled by the victims of Polio.

One particular Polio survivor was a young architect called Selwyn Goldsmith. He recognised that both Victorian and Edwardian architecture, both very prevalent in the urban environment of the day, were not at all suitable for use by the disabled. He, therefore, decided to change this and overcome ‘architectural disability’.

The fact was that, at the time, it was very hard for wheelchair users and others disabled in some way, to gain employment, go shopping, visit the theatre or to use public transport. With public opinion seeming to be in his favour, he interviewed a number of disabled people and found that their key priority was access to public toilets. He went on to build the first unisex accessible toilet in Norwich, this also being the first of its kind in England.

Progress at giving the disabled access to all that they needed was very slow though, the process was boosted by a Paul Hunt whose efforts resulted in the formation of the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS), which campaigned regarding the issues of being disabled.

The next big move was the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995. This meant that all public buildings had to be accessible and have suitable facilities, like accessible / disabled toilets. All of this meant that old buildings had to be refitted, which when I came to toilets, sometimes meant that they had to be provided outside the premises in specially designed units. Hence the portable accessible toilet was born.

Things further changed in the 1990’s as it became clear that architects had to design any new building with accessibility in mind, which was good news for all disabled people in the UK.

The quest for complete accessibility goes on. The Accessible Guide was established in Liverpool by persons with disabilities to offer current access data on locations and companies there. The Accessible Guide’s 2018 study asked ‘mystery shoppers’ to visit a variety of locations, including music events, restaurants, cathedrals, and bars.

Less than half of the venues provided all three essential components of physical access, i.e. a step-free entry, step-free approaches to all areas of the venue, and at least one functional accessible restroom.

And when It comes to these restrooms, they really have to be built for purpose, in that they must have enough space for a wheelchair to be manoeuvred around and have a strong enough floor to take the weight of a wheelchair, its occupant and potentially a carer or other assistant. The first accessible toilets were made from wood or corrugated metal, which were often crude structures. Over time, the material used was changed to fiberglass, but with this change came structural issues, it not being really strong enough to take the loads it had to cope with.

Besides the issue of strength, it also tended to hold bad odours for too long, something that was not appreciated by many of the users.

Today, for the smaller toilets, the main material used is plastic, this having all the strength needed, while also being light enough to allow for easy installation. For the larger units, ones suited for wheelchairs, other materials are used, in some cases this being from a recyclable resource.

Truly accessible toilets, that can often also be ‘changing places’ have to meet he British Standard B58300-2:2018, this requiring that they have at least a 2.4m internal ceiling height (this being needed if a hoist is to be installed) among other things.

If you would like to know more about portable accessible toilets, please see the website.

Sarah Evans