Locked, unused, unclean: The struggle to access a disabled-friendly toilet in Kerala

Even the availability of disabled-friendly toilets does not guarantee accessibility.
Man in wheelchair
Man in wheelchair
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On October 16, Meera U Menon, a person with disability, wanted to use the toilet ahead of her exams at the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) in Ernakulam. However, she couldn’t find a disabled-friendly toilet on the second floor of the main building where she was writing her exam. She ended up using an Indian toilet which was on her floor. This, however, proved to be difficult, and Meera had to sit for the exams with her wet pants. After her exam, she did find a toilet for people with disabilities on the ground floor, but it was locked. When Meera asked the office for a key, the staff didn’t know where it was. The toilet had been unused for years. So even if it was broken open, it would be unclean.

Meera wrote to the authorities at IGNOU and the government to look into the state of affairs. Dr Mohammed Asheel, executive director at Social Security Mission, acknowledged Meera’s message and said they will resolve the issue. Biju Prabhakar, secretary to the Social Justice Department, also wrote back saying they will look into it. IGNOU replied that there was a toilet for people with disabilities in the new block (different from the building Meera went to).

“The office I enquired at didn’t seem to know this,” Meera says. It would also mean that she would have to go all the way to the other building and get back before her exam began. Meera’s experience is one that will echo with many people with disabilities.

The problem of ‘locked’ toilets

“This is the same situation in many public places. I was at the beach one day, where a disabled-friendly toilet was locked and had not been cleaned for years. In my case, I can walk even with my disability, but there are people who use wheelchairs. It will be so much harder for them to use Indian toilets. If not disabled-friendly toilets, at least western toilets should be made available at public places,” Meera says.

Public places are often devoid of a usable toilet for persons with disability, agrees Krishnakumar, founder and chairman of the NGO, Mobility in Dystrophy or MIND. Krishnakumar, an IT professional, has muscular dystrophy, a genetic disorder that weakens one’s muscles over time.

“There are no issues in the IT Park I work at. But in most public places – government offices and many private sector offices – there are no disabled-friendly toilets or even western ones. The problem with an Indian toilet is that people with disabilities may slip and fall when they try to hold on to something for support. The disabled-friendly toilets that are available are for namesake, and locked up and unused for a long time,” Krishnakumar says.

Toilets in public places

The toilets in public places such as beaches and movie theatres are worse. Paresh Palicha, a wheelchair user, has been reviewing Malayalam movies for 20 years now. “Whenever I get out, I use adult diapers to avoid using toilets. But if I forget to do so, the day is ruined,” he says.

Paresh had trouble when he went for weekend classes at the St Albert's College in Ernakulam as part of an IGNOU course in the late 1990s – so much so, that he was compelled to drop out.

While his father was alive, he used to accompany Paresh everywhere and carry him to toilets. After his father’s demise, friends would accompany him to theatres and other places he visited.

He once had a joy ride with friends on the Kochi metro but on getting down at the Aluva station, had a difficult time searching for a disabled-friendly toilet. The one they found was locked and the person at the enquiry made them wait for a long time to find the key.

“That’s always the case even at the latest malls in the state. It’s always locked and we have to go and tell them we are people with disabilities. Then, they go to ask other people for permissions. It takes a long time just to get the key,” says Jeevan B Manoj, a person with osteogenesis imperfecta or brittle bone disease, who moved out of Kerala some time ago and works as a software professional in Bengaluru.

Laws for accessibility not implemented

There is a law in place that says public toilets be inclusive of people with disability, says Sangeetha, a Mumbai based social work student who did a project on the right to pee campaign for clean and safe public toilets for women. “There is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) which India agreed to in 2007. India passed the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act in 2016, which was introduced as a bill in February 2014. It replaces the earlier Persons with Disabilities Act of 1995,” she says.

But how far the laws are implemented? Sangeetha says that the toilets for people with disabilities should have specific signboards and proper lighting. “They should also have the proper door type – either sliding or opening outwards – so that the person can come out easily. There should also be enough space inside. Toilets in certain countries have alarms that disabled persons can use if they get stuck inside.”

The Kerala government website mentions a state-wide survey in the Social Security Mission conducted in 2015, estimating 7.94 lakh people with disabilities in Kerala – which is 2.32% of the total population. The government enacted a policy for Persons with Disabilities in 2015 with a detailed agenda and action plan. Among the many policy objectives are 'access to assets, facilities and services', 'full and equal opportunities for participation in public life' and 'barrier-free access.’ The latter specifies that all public places such as roads, road junctions, railway and bus stations, offices, hospitals, markets, shopping places, recreational areas, cinemas etc should be made accessible for all.

However, as Sangeetha says, even when the laws and policies are in place, it is a question of how far these are implemented. 

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