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By Fiona Slater on

Toilets for all: Joining the Changing Places network

To mark Changing Places Awareness Day, and the opening of three new Changing Places facilities at our museums, Head of Access & Equity Fiona Slater explores the importance and impact of toilet activism.

Today (19 July) is Changing Places Awareness Day and to mark this, we are talking toilet activism and the politics of ‘spending a penny’.

This year, the Science Museum Group has opened three Changing Places facilities, one at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester and another at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, with a third now open at the Science Museum in London.

Changing Places toilets are designed to meet the access requirements of a quarter of a million disabled people across the UK. They are usually larger in scale and have a number of features, such as hoists and changing benches, which are not found in other accessible toilets.

Our three facilities will join the current national network of 1,600 toilets on the Changing Places UK Toilet Map.

We worked with Marta Salamonowicz and Karen Hoe OBE from the Changing Places Consortium who commented that ‘both facilities shine a light on how collegial planning, design and input from disabled people can ensure that high quality Changing Places toilets become an intrinsic feature of all existing and new build designs.’

Changing Places toilet at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford.
Changing Places toilet at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford. Credit: Innova

The campaign for more Changing Places toilets has been picking up pace, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak MP’s announcement of £30 million investment for Changing Places toilets in the March 2020 Budget and changes to building legislation which will make them a requirement for all new large public venues.

It’s important to note that any progress is built on decades of advocacy, activism and lobbying by disabled people and their allies who know, all too well, that the toilet is a political place.

In her brilliant essay Bursting the Balloon, Inclusion Specialist Sarah Rennie describes how her politics were shaped by listening ‘to older women, trans women and women of faith [who] articulate similar experiences of pain, discomfort, exclusion, shame and discrimination’ around toilet accessibility.

As a disabled woman Sarah discusses her experiences throughout university and working in the corporate sector, at conferences and panel discussions, to break the silence around ‘exclusive design’ in toilets. It is this silence, she says, which creates another barrier for disabled adults.

The essay features in a wider paper on toilet activism which notes that the facilities we provide are a statement about ‘who is welcome and expected’ in a particular space.

Changing Places campaigners are rallying against a situation where ‘days out to a museum, or tourist attraction need to be planned meticulously to ensure that there are functioning and accessible facilities on route’.

Tony Clough MBE is a consultant for Changing Places toilets. Over the last decade, he and his mother have campaigned to raise awareness for CP toilets; a facility which means his sister Julie does not have to lie on the floor, to be changed, whenever they go out.

As Tony notes; ‘wherever there are no Changing Places, we all need to be asking the question – why not? If there’s somewhere near where you live or where you want to visit that doesn’t have one then contact them to raise the question.’

When I asked Tony what has given him hope about progress made, he said; ‘there is so much more awareness of the issue thanks to campaigners, social media and disability groups. Companies are now seeing that it is the right thing to do for inclusion and it does help generate income for venues. In the last decade, the number of Changing Places has gone from 0 to just over 1600.’

Marta Salamonowicz agrees that ‘a dynamic and positive change has taken place over the last decade with how Changing Places facilities are perceived… More still needs to be done. If we take a look around our civic, transport and retail networks, we can still see vast expanses of areas where improvements need to be made at speed in order to ensure the disabled community is included within all aspects of life.’

We know we still have a lot of work to do.

The improvements we make to the buildings and infrastructure across our museums is ongoing and never fully complete, but as we strive to uphold our core value of being an organisation that is open for all, the launch of these new facilities is a move in the right direction.

As Marta notes; ‘serving local communities has never felt better and with the unlocking of lockdown, it’s the best first step to a fully accessible future.’

Discover more about the history of toilets and sewers through our online stories.

Read more about our work to be open for all through our regular blog series.

This article was updated on 1 September 2021 to include the newly opened Changing Places facility at the Science Museum in London. Facilities at the National Science and Media Museum, and Science and Industry Museum opened on 21 July 2021.