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Disabled Women Take Action: Sign up to the Community Toilet Scheme!

Disabled Women Take Action is a partnership project from WECIL and Bristol Women’s Voice (BWV), who are proudly coming together to campaign for the importance of the Community Toilet Scheme in Bristol. The scheme, set up by Bristol City Council in 2019, aims to increase access to bathrooms across the city after many public toilets were closed, an issue that disproportionately affects women and the Disabled community.

With 56% of the public deliberately dehydrating themselves over concerns about access to public toilets, there is a real need for change. As well as significantly affecting Disabled people, those with long-term health conditions and women, this issue also has an impact on the lives of older people, children, and homeless people. To date, 156 businesses have signed up to the Community Toilet scheme, but we have found a number of issues with how it is running. Often, staff at the venues are unaware of the scheme, preventing non-customers from using the toilets and the venues sometimes aren’t even displaying the signage.

Read on to discover why this scheme is so critical for women and Disabled people, why you should sign up today to do your bit for customers in your local area, or if you’re already signed up, what you can do to better engage with the scheme!

Gender Equality (Bristol Women’s Voice)

Women are more likely to need access to a toilet than men when out and about; we know that women take 2.3 times longer than men, on average, in the toilet for reasons including menstruation, pregnancy, menopause, clothing and baby changing. This makes the lack of open access and closure of public facilities an issue of gender equality which affects how women are able to go about their daily lives. Men are more likely to feel confident urinating in public, and women can feel unsafe when they don’t have access to proper facilities. For one in five people, fear of or knowledge of a lack of facilities nearby can tie them to within a small distance of their home. This rises to two in five for those with medical conditions that require more frequent toilet use. 

For Disabled women in particular, this is a huge barrier, and many don’t leave the house without mapping where the nearest toilet is, limiting their independence and options of where they can and can’t visit. For people like Debbie, who has a long-term stomach illness leading her to urgently need the toilet when she has episodes of it, this means she plans where she goes depending on how near public toilets are.

With limited open access toilets, it also means that people have to pay to use hospitality facilities. Helen Ince, co-project lead at Bristol Women’s Voice says, ‘there is also a financial burden when we cannot access free toilets. Having to spend £3 on a cup of tea or coffee whenever we want to use the bathroom becomes extortionate as well as perpetuating the cycle of needing a bathroom.’ 

With an astounding 700 council-run toilets in Britain closing since 2010, women’s additional toilet needs mean that their health and overall quality of life can be significantly affected. The Community Toilet Scheme supplements these closures by providing open access toilets at local venues which are free to use, and these make a real difference to the daily lives of women and Disabled women, increasing their independence, removing barriers and helping to create a more equal city. You can watch the film from Disabled Women Take Action (DWTA) to find out more about the campaign.

Access and Inclusion (WECIL)

Disabled people are more likely than others to need access to a toilet when out and about, with 13.1% of Disabled adults reporting difficulties accessing toilets in a survey by the ONS, compared to 2.2% of non Disabled adults. With public facilities closing, Disabled people are facing increased barriers in their daily lives. For people with chronic health issues or mobility issues, planning when and where they are able to access a toilet can dictate where they are able to go or not, and may prevent some people from going to new places or even leaving the house. And for Disabled women especially and women in general, the need to access a toilet is also amplified – whether that is because of pregnancy, childcare, menstruation or long term health conditions.

With limited open access toilets, it also means that people have to pay to use hospitality facilities. Helen Ince, co-project lead at Bristol Women’s Voice says, ‘there is also a financial burden when we cannot access free toilets. Having to spend £3 on a cup of tea or coffee whenever we want to use the bathroom becomes extortionate as well as perpetuating the cycle of needing a bathroom.’ With Disabled people disproportionately affected by the cost of living crisis, having an available amount to spend that is about 44% lower than that of other working-age adults, this only creates further barriers.

The ​​Community Scheme calls for businesses and organisations such as bars, restaurants, and cafes to open their toilet facilities to members of the public when needed, without them having to purchase anything. This gives Disabled people more independence when going out and about, removes financial barriers and helps them to better plan when and where they are going without stress or worry. The Equality Act 2010 also means that it is not only a moral duty but a legal obligation to be inclusive and avoid direct and indirect discrimination based on ability, gender, race etc. The Community Toilet Scheme is a brilliant way that businesses can ensure they are being as inclusive and accessible as possible in their practices.

Benefits for your business

Providing open access toilets is not only a positive thing to do to support the people in your community, it can greatly benefit your business as well. By being open and inclusive of everyone in your area, more people are likely to come into and use your business, including new customers that otherwise might not have come into your venue. This also has a knock on effect on other businesses nearby, as more people will visit your area of the city knowing that there are accessible toilets nearby. By participating in the scheme, your business premises will also be added to an interactive online Community Toilet Scheme map available to tourists and residents, providing free publicity. It is also a great way to show your community involvement, create a good reputation for your business and ensure you make a great first impression.

The spending power of the Disabled community is estimated to be £274 billion – and making your business more inclusive and accessible will help to attract this customer group. Not only this, you will be helping parents and the elderly get out and about, as well as supporting those who don’t have access to toilet facilities such as the homeless.

Some local businesses like The Watershed have commented on the necessity of the scheme, saying ‘we think it’s an important part of our public service to make our toilets available to everyone whether they are a customer or not’.

Despite the wealth of benefits of joining the scheme, there have been some issues with uptake so far. In a report by ACORN, staff at participating venues often didn’t know that they were part of the scheme, or weren’t publicising it adequately, with less than 10% of the listed venues in Bristol displaying the poster. To make the most of the business benefits, it is important for participating venues to promote the scheme through accessible and legible street signs and window displays, and train staff to ensure that they don’t prevent non-customers from using the toilets.

Debbie commented on the positive impact of the scheme, saying ‘it would help ease some of the stress when I do go out’. Another Disabled woman highlighted that the scheme ‘benefits people’s mental health as well as physical health’ by helping people get out and about and meet people.

Available funding

Some local councils will fund businesses who sign up to the Community Toilet Scheme, supporting the participating venues to maintain or install accessible toilets. However, if your local council doesn’t, there are other grants available to apply for to help with these costs:


To improve access and inclusion and gender inequality in your local community, share the scheme with your local venues, or if you’re a business owner, sign up today! 

Disabled Women Take Action is a partnership project, being delivered by Bristol Women’s Voice and WECIL (West of England Centre for Inclusive Living). It provides a valuable opportunity for Disabled women and those with long-term health conditions to connect, gain new skills, share their experience and work with others to influence practical and policy changes across Bristol. Get in touch with us if you’d like to get involved with the group, and speak up on issues like this that matter to you!

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