Universal access, a universe of complexity

Universal access. Sure sounds great, huh?

I mean, no sensible human would argue against equitable access for all to something as necessary to human dignity as a public bathroom.

And neither should Halifax Regional Council.

So, good news, then.

This week, the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development Standing Committee approved a motion asking staff to draft an administrative order on universal access to all municipal bathroom facilities.

There wasn’t even debate when the motion was tabled.

“Yep. Do it,” Deputy Mayor Steve Craig said. To which committee chair, Coun. Waye Mason, replied: “Get ‘er done.”

Gung-hos aside, let’s walk into this with open eyes. Universal access takes time and money and more — it takes mastering a universe of ever-shifting bathroom complexity.

Universal access is a technical term from the design world. At root, it’s about inclusion — making things and places so that anyone, anytime, can seamlessly use them.

I bet you can pull to mind a quick handful of examples: curb cuts on city streets, stop announcements on buses, changing tables in public bathrooms.

But those are only some basics. And — more good news! — the Community Planning and Economic Development Standing Committee gets that.

The committee report calls “design to minimize barriers associated with physical, auditory, visual and cognitive challenges” a mere “starting point.”

While “a broader consideration of access to public facilities proposes that washrooms be equitably available to all.”

So far, so good.

But whether Halifax Regional Council as a whole, which will eventually find this thing in its lap, has the appetite for real change remains to be seen.

True universal access is in part about options for all genders, which, to the committee’s credit, the report mentions.

But universal access won’t be achieved if gender neutrality means the same-old same-old catch-all cramming of trans folks into single-user family bathrooms. Universal access demands better.

Universal access is also about adult change tables for people with severe mobility restrictions. It’s about providing for Haligonians with immediate, urgent bathroom need — like those with Crohn’s, an inflammatory bowel disease that, along with its intestine-mate, colitis, affects one out of every 150 Canadians. It’s about designing spaces to help alleviate paruresis — bladder shyness. How about people who need shelves in cubicles to lay out the gear to change colostomy bags? Don’t forget that women need twice the number of stalls as men. And little toilets and urinals for children. Oh! On-street directional signage for pedestrians.

And, top of mind: Halifax has no 24-hour on-street public bathrooms to speak of, which would serve tourists, bar-goers, downtown lunch-seekers and shoppers, plus, crucially, the population of street-involved Haligonians who have meagre alternative options. We could start there.

A lot to think about, huh? It gets even more complex.

Because beyond all this granular stuff, universal access means shifting the big-picture understanding of public bathrooms from planning encumbrance and budget suck to essential municipal infrastructure. As necessary for a healthy downtown and vibrant tourism industry as sidewalks and trash cans and street lights.

Montreal, for decades, hasn’t had a single on-street public bathroom. They were shuttered in the ‘70s as a cost-cutting measure. On April 12, 2017, Ville-Marie borough council allotted $3.6 million to build a dozen new ones as part of a project to rejuvenate downtown.

Granted, they might not get them right, but that decision is a good sign.

Let’s hope Halifax sees it the same. ~~

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