I was able to speak today in the debate on invisible disabilities and accessibility challenges, and called on the Minister "to consider how the Government could facilitate such important improvements for those living with invisible disabilities". The Minister responded:
My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) led a brilliant Westminster Hall debate just a few weeks ago and carried on today in the same form. Not every disability is visible. He was right to highlight that there is not an immense cost to making a real difference in this policy area... ...I am keen to do everything I can, as quickly as possible.
The debate was secured by Martin Whitfield MP, and in closing he said:
I thank all the Members who spoke and intervened. I finish with the words of the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant)—my hon. Friend— although not the ones he may think I will finish on. He said that this is the kind thing to do. As Grace said, it is about letting people have a heart about our whole society.
Bill Grant (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones). I thank her and the hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) for securing this very important debate.
People are often quick to form perceptions and slow to establish facts. For example, the young person not rising to give their elder a seat may in reality have a life-changing condition that genuinely prevents them from affording such a courtesy. Bowel and bladder cancer patients or persons with inflammatory bowel conditions may have undergone major surgery and be living with a stoma and discreetly concealed bag. The complexities of emptying and changing the bag in a sterile environment are difficult enough out in the community, without persons giving them the evil eye or, worse still, berating them for using an accessible toilet. Those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may not be at the stage of carrying an oxygen cylinder around with them, but they may nevertheless be unable to use a downstairs or upstairs toilet, opting for the accessible toilet on their level.
In 2017, the BBC’s “Newsbeat” ran an article on new signage appearing on accessible—formerly disabled—toilets, which read simply, “Not every disability is visible.” That is a fact; not every disability is visible. At that time, Tottenham Hotspur were reported to be the first football club to feature a revised sign on their accessible toilets. Two years later, I have not observed many such signs bearing that important additional information. Charities such as Crohn’s and Colitis UK are lending their support to have the more informative signs fitted. That would not be an immense cost to many organisations in the United Kingdom and it would be a kindly thing to do for those who need a bit of extra help.
“Can’t wait!” toilet cards have been available for some time to those with incontinence. When discreetly exhibited, the card confirms to others that the holder has a medical condition and needs to use the toilet urgently. That may mean using the accessible toilet, if the other toilets are occupied or there are queues. Those who daily face the fears and stresses associated with their conditions’ symptoms and side effects from treatment should not have to face the potential additional burden of confrontation from ill-informed and often wicked, thoughtless protagonists who believe that they know better.
There is a wider issue: the availability of public toilets in general. Such facilities are on the decline throughout the UK due to financial cuts, inappropriate use by substance abusers or needless vandalism. I have had constituents contacting my office to express concern that they are becoming not quite housebound, but limited in the activities they are able to undertake outwith their homes as a result of the closure of public toilets. Their confidence is affected and there is a risk of social isolation evolving. I think that the closure of toilets is something that applies throughout the UK. We do not really realise that there are invisible victims of these closures. I was a councillor for 10 years and, yes, I too carry the burden of responsibility for being part of the closure programme in South Ayrshire.
Groups such as Inclusion Scotland work to achieve positive changes to policy and practice so that disabled people are fully included throughout all Scottish society, as they should be, as equal citizens. The Disability Rights Commission seeks to ensure that people are aware of their rights. The Government have undoubtedly enhanced legal protection under the Equality Act 2010, which was mentioned earlier. They have expanded their disability sector champions scheme, continue to roll-out their Disability Confident scheme, have announced their inclusive transport strategy and are consulting on a change to English building regulations relative to Changing Places toilets for those with profound disabilities.
However, at a time of concerns over social isolation, for those with the illnesses I have touched on, it is the basic quality of everyday life that must be our immediate focus. Will the theory of the Government policies address the real and practical issues of not being, as people say, caught short, or of having to face the indignity of being refused the use of a facility or challenged in doing so, as it was so eloquently put by the hon. Member for East Lothian?
For the most part, I believe it is the able-bodied across the United Kingdom who require to be re-educated. We must as a Government be proactive in putting the message out there. I ask the Minister to consider how the Government could facilitate such important improvements for those living with invisible disabilities. As has been said, improved signage would be a start and it is low cost. The Government could work together with devolved Governments, local authorities, recognised charities and transport groups to ensure, where possible, that toilet facilities are provided and are accessible to all.
If I may, I will take a moment not to berate bus companies, which give a good service, but to point out that there are terminuses—a point of departure and a point of arrival—where there is no toilet facility. I will simply name Ayr bus station, but I am sure there are such bus stations throughout the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. Is it not important for people to have access to a toilet on boarding the bus and that on their arrival they can be confident of finding access to an accessible toilet? I ask local transport groups, such as the Strathclyde Partnership for Transport, to ensure that this goes on and I plead with bus station operators to go—dare I say it?—the extra mile for their customers.
For the wider community, I have a simple thought: be kind and thoughtful towards accessible toilet users as they may have invisible disabilities and accessibility challenges.