I was speaking at a conference in Poland recently and found, to my immense irritation, that the disabled loo was permanently locked. This meant that I had to locate the cloakroom attendant, wait in line behind medical school students who were handing in or retrieving their outdoor clothing, and then ask to use the loo
I haven’t encountered this demeaning situation since I was at school and - as I was the conference’s opening speaker - wasn’t prepared to put up with this indignity in my fifties. Come to think of it it’s an indignity that no disabled person should have to put up with, speaker or not.
Of course, I made a massive fuss, the conference organisers apologised to me and the accessible lavatory was left unlocked for the duration of the three day event. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the status quo ante has been restored - meaning that any student or member of staff at the University of Poznan Medical School would have to request the key from the rather frosty young woman who looks after the coats. I nicknamed her ‘Smiler’.
This set me thinking - there has to be a better way. I have every sympathy with those responsible for ensuring the smooth running of the building: as those of us who need to use accessible toilets are all too aware, they are all too often commandeered by people who fancy a crafty fag, to indulge in various types of drug abuse or by amorous couples who can’t contain their lust until they get home.
Thankfully, the better way to which I referred was pioneered by a British charity, RADAR which is now part of Disability Rights UK. The National Key Scheme is a godsend to those of us who need to use accessible toilets without having to wait for non-disabled members of the public to vacate them. It involves an extra large key - I refer to mine as ‘the big key’ - which will open any one of around 10,000 facilities all over the UK.
Disabled people simply have to send a modest sum to DRUK (I think the last one I bought cost £3 but they are now £4.50 for UK customers) in return for which a big key and a hardcopy directory containing the locations of all of the loos is sent by return.
You will have spotted the limitation of the scheme already: it only covers the UK. Surely, such a brilliant idea needs to be shared with our EU partners? If you could get the key adopted in the EU and EEA, North America and Australasia might soon follow and the rest of the world would cotton on eventually.
The other drawback of the big key is that you need reasonably strong hands and wrists in order to make the lock mechanism function. In these days of key card entry and even smartphones that can open hotel rooms, maybe it is time to develop a fob and/or app that can simply be swiped against the lock in order to gain entry.
It’s time that disabled people’s organisations like DRUK shared their expertise with disability groups in other countries. Why, after all, reinvent the wheel when there is a perfectly good one across your next international border?
So I’d like to make a proposal - one for which disabled people in many nations would be relieved to see happen.
Firstly, DRUK should find four or five partner DPOs in other EU member states prepared to form a consortium to apply for EU funds. The buy-in of the European Disability Forum would also be essential. Then, the consortium would need one or two tech partners - big companies like Siemens, O2 or Vodafone.
The tech partners would develop a simple fob and an app that would lead you to your nearest accessible facility. Once the pilot was proved successful, the consortium would then roll out the Universal Key Scheme - UKS for short - to a grateful 80 million disabled people in the EU.
In return for a modest subscription, disabled people would have a fob and access to the application. The app would almost finance itself by carrying advertising, as would the fobs which could carry advertising on one or both sides.
Just like hotel key cards, the fob or app would cease to function once the subscription had expired.
No system is completely watertight: people would obtain fobs and/or access to the application simply because they wanted to use accessible facilities for their own nefarious purposes. The thing is, the existing keys are prone to exactly the same abuse - they apparently change hands online for as little as £2.50.
What I am proposing would bring dignity and independence to millions of disabled people, would save on maintenance costs because the facilities would only be used by those for whom they are intended, and the EU could show to the rest of the world that it has a social dimension that is often lacking in other societies.
So what are we waiting for?