The struggle for official ethnic status recognition for my community took the guts of 40 years. Many people believed ethnic status for Travellers was ridiculous, divisive and delineating to Irish Identity.
It happened on March 1st, 2017. The sky didn’t fall in. Our lives didn’t change much. Settled people didn’t lose anything. Settled people weren’t asked to give up anything. Irish identity in all its hues remains intact.
Ireland has a shabby record in honouring and respecting human rights. Diversity or atypical bodies, and the notion of self-identification or self-determination continue to be received with patronising infantilised scepticism.
My intersectional experiences of ableism, racism and sexism recognise the difficulties for people who don’t feel safe in mainstream gendered specific spaces. The context of accessible bathrooms and changing rooms is ever-evolving, similar to identity politics. Racism taught me many things about loyalty, friendship, solidarity and the need to feel physically and psychologically safe.
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The anxiety of searching for a publicly accessible toilet is horrendous. Then its locked, or used as a store room for mops and buckets. These have always been a forgotten space. It’s worth noting that gender symbols are a rarity on accessible bathrooms. Often there are no sanitary products or bins available. The assumption is that either people with impairments are genderless or we are all male.
The lack of recognition for feminine products is part of the accumulating ways of denying people with impairments our gender and ignoring disabled girls’ and women’s rights. Our vocabulary is ever-evolving, the term non-binary is rarely used in the context of symbols in relation to accessible bathrooms. The call is for changing places in public areas. These places are much larger than standard accessible public toilets. They have space for a hoist, changing table, and a shower. Changing places provide people with significant impairments the right to enjoy a level of comfort and participation in the cultural fabric of Irish life. There are only 18 changing places in Ireland.
My reproductive organs don’t define my gender. Bathroom spaces for people like me became gender-neutral or non-binary by accident rather than design. Slapping a symbol on the door should not be the only signifier of who and what you are. This space has always been understood as a third space. Neither male nor female. These spaces are void of any sense of human aesthetic. In the current climate, these bathrooms are viewed as safe spaces for people who identify as non-binary or transgender.
Disability politics, like feminism, is ever-evolving. Beyond the toilet door, we revert to convention and convenience. The dynamics of patriarchy, hierarchy of impairment, sexism, racism, class, homophobia, transphobia, inclusion and exclusion are at play. There are those who believe, just like the women’s movement, disabled spaces were hard fought for. Ideological values become rigid and righteous. Also, territorial positioning on identity politics must have a singular reductive category. Identifying as a male or female. Similarly, you have an impairment or you don’t. Intersectional lives are considered problematic and threatening. My feminism and embodiment have brought a certain experience. This is firmly located in my Traveller ethnicity and my cerebral palsy body.
These contrary elements of feminism are still very much alive. In mainstream gender politics, we are the appendage, the quota, and occasionally the invited guest.
Our bodies and particular circumstances have always been held to ransom. It has become the norm to charter women’s progress in terms of waves. Traveller women or women with impairments don’t have the cohort of women to be counted into the specified waves of feminism. For the majority of women with impairments, access to toilets and other basic human rights such as education and healthcare remain a struggle and often out of our reach. This also applies to Traveller women who live on sites or on the roadside. Underspent budgets, families living many years in temporary overcrowded sites, where sanitation and refuse collection are non-existent or ad hoc.
In my younger years, when attending women’s groups and meetings, most venues were not accessible. If they were accessible, there was no disabled toilet. Diverse realities or issues pertaining to racism or ablism were deemed to be a nuisance, unsisterly. Intersectional concerns were understood as confusing or devaluing what was considered the central tenets of certain women’s rights. There was a sense that women with impairments, deaf women and women who were black or from minority ethnic communities had no real business intruding on issues and concerns of “important women”. Equal pay, safe access to reproductive healthcare and the right to bodily integrity were not considered important concerns in our small disabled lives.
Then Black women introduced us to Black feminism. It acknowledged class, colonialism, poverty, racism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia. This shift in the feminism of intersectional lives and simultaneous discrimination liberated all women.
History tells us a dangerous and violent story regarding toilets. This agenda was about power and superiority. Exclusion is a form of sewage. It has blocked up many toilets and delayed the progress of many lives.
As a Traveller woman who has lived in many temporary sites, a working toilet will always be a luxury. An accessible bathroom or changing room in political rhetoric is understood as a human right. For me, access is much more than a ramp or a disabled bathroom. Universal access is about citizenship, dignity and respect. All of us who have been othered, find acceptance and recognition on the other side. Context and choices are fluid and fundamental as to how we live and whom we share our spaces with.
The trans and non-binary community are always welcome in my accessible bathroom.