Thank you, Lisa

[Content Note: Death, grief]

It’s with great sadness that we share with you the passing of our wonderful friend and colleague, Lisa Procter. Lisa was one of the original plotters of the Around the Toilet project back in Summer 2014, and has been key to the project’s success and our enjoyment along the way. She brought creativity and vision, a determination to include the voices of children and young people, a knowledge of many disciplines, so much energy, stacks of enthuasism, and, of course, a lot of laughs.

Although we already miss Lisa greatly, we are left with memories of her excitement over new technologies and unusual materials that could be used in workshops; brightly coloured masking tape falling off walls; getting stopped by fashion students in Manchester to take Lisa’s picture (definitely not Jen’s – however much Jen wished it was!); paddling in fountains in Bristol; an eye for perfection – cringing and then re-doing Jen’s wonky attempts at folds and lines; stories of her adventures; and chats over coffees, ciders and beers.

Lisa had a way of getting people doing and thinking without always needing to use words. Somehow she would turn messy ideas into a clear concept in under 3 minutes (preferably with the aid of some sharpies and big paper). She was very willing to take risks and try new things, and always seemed prepared and confident, even in the most precarious or uncertain of circumstances. It was with her encouragement and bravery that we made many of our most exciting and creative decisions in the project.

We can say with certainty that the Around the Toilet project would not have become what it is if it was not for Lisa – and we’re not sure where it will go without her… but wherever it goes, it will be with her in mind, and her influence will always be in our work. For now we will remember Lisa and thank her for her generosity and friendship, and for shaping our ideas and the work that we will continue to do.

Jen and Charlotte x

[An image of three people standing in a row with their arms in the air, looking into the camera with big smiles. They all hold toilet accessories: a toilet brush, signs, wet wipes, body spray and a urine sample cone. L-R: Jen, Lisa, Charlotte]

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Activists in Reykjavik launch the new Around the Toilet film

This post is written by Jen Slater and also available on their blog.


Around the Toilet has gone through several phases to date. One of its current aims is to take our conversations of toilets, disability, gender and access to grassroots disability and queer arts and activist spaces internationally. This is particularly exciting as it means touring our new animation, The Toilet, to different spaces, including film festivals and activist groups. Last week, the tour began as Gemma Nash (disabled artist, and Community Co-I on the project) and I travelled to Reykjavik, Iceland for our animation’s WORLD PREMIERE. This blog post summarises the event.

We were hosted by three organisations: Tabú (a disabled women’s activist organisation), Trans Ísland (a trans people’s advocacy and activist organisation) and Samtökin ’78 (Iceland’s national queer organisation). The event itself took place in the building of Samtökin ’78 – and we were excited on arrival by the rainbow unicorn greeting us on the wall!

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Gemma and Jen stand under the ‘rainbow unicorn’ before the event.

I spoke first about the origins of the project. I drew on Alison Kafer’s book, Feminist Queer Crip, to talk about the (not always easy!) relationships between queer, feminist and disability movements. Kafer uses the toilet as an example of space that is sometimes contested between (and indeed, within) these movements.

For example, some trans and other gender non-conforming people have and continue to fight for a greater provision of gender neutral toilets. Although we often don’t think of it as such, the most frequently available gender neutral toilet space is the ‘accessible’ or the ‘disabled’ toilet. In 1998 Sally Munt, discussing her experiences as a butch lesbian, named the ‘disabled toilet’ a ‘queer space’ – “‘a stress-free location […] in which I can momentarily procure an interval from the gendered public environment, and physically replenish”.

Some disabled people, however, have argued that disabled people should have access to binary gendered (men’s/women’s) toilets. They say that gender neutral accessible toilets contribute to the positioning of disabled people as a ‘third gender’. Furthermore, disabled woman scholar and activist, Kay Inckle critiques Munt for “co-opting limited accessible facilities”, or, in other words, using toilets which weren’t made for her. Inckle argues that although gender neutral toilets may be considered progressive by some people, “for many disabled women, to be considered female and/or as sexual at all would be a major stepping-stone on the rocky and inaccessible road to human status”.

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Jen presenting on the origins of the Around the Toilet project

Despite critiques such as Inckle’s, it’s important to note that many disabled people (trans and cis) want to retain the gender neutral space of the accessible toilet. There are many reasons for this, including having a personal assistant of a different gender. Indeed, in the talk, I discussed how the workshops that we’ve held with trans, queer and disabled people have provoked a range of emotions and responses. Many non-disabled trans people have spoken to us about feeling guilty if they use the ‘accessible’/’disabled’ toilet, despite being scared to use the binary gender men’s and women’s bathrooms. Furthermore, some trans and disabled participants said we should use labels for toilets which tell us what is in them, rather than who should be allowed to use them.

In her talk which followed, Gemma highlighted how disagreements about toilet space don’t just occur between different movements and groups of people, but also within them. Gemma discussed her experiences as a disabled mother. She talked about how some disabled people actively campaign for the removal of baby changing tables from the ‘accessible’ (or ‘disabled’) toilet. Their argument is that as changing a baby can take a long time, it prevents disabled people using the toilet. Some people also say that it infantilises disabled people (positions them similarly to babies). However, Gemma told us the importance of having accessible baby changing facilities. When her daughter was a baby, having the baby changing in the accessible toilet was the only way that she could comfortably change her child, whilst also using the toilet herself. She said that most people don’t consider that disabled people may too be parents.

The themes above are a snapshot of some of the difficult, and often painful, barriers to access that are covered in our new film, The Toilet. The film illustrates how inaccessible or unsafe toilets affect people in a range of ways, stopping some from leaving the house, and leading others to lose their jobs, or avoid food and drink, and taking day trips and holidays. Through the stories of trans, Muslim and disabled people, we show how current toilet provisions prioritise some people’s needs at the expense of others.

Toilet access is an important social and political issue and we need to fight for change.


Thank you SO much to Tabú, Trans Ísland and Samtökin ’78 for hosting this event and to those who attended for the fascinating discussion. Keep an eye on our blog for an updated list of where you can see screenings of, The Toilet. We’ll also be announcing them on Twitter (@cctoilettalk). The Toilet will also be available online to be used by groups and organisations in early 2018 (watch this space!).

Storying School Toilets Workshop Summary from the Sheffield Hallam University Primary and Early Years Conference

On the 12th January 2016, Lisa Procter (University of Sheffield) and I (Jenny Slater, Sheffield Hallam University) ran a workshop as part of the Storying School Toilets project, at the Sheffield Hallam University Primary and Early Years Conference. The workshop was based upon work we had done for the ESRC Festival of Social Science late last year; working with Primary aged children and artist Nicky Ward from The Bower Wirks to create comics of children’s toilet stories. You can view all the comics here (get in touch with j.slater@shu.ac.uk if you want any physical copies sending your way!).

The first thing we noticed prior to the workshop was that only two participants had signed up (whereas other workshops had 40+ people in attendance). This sent a message to us about the perceived importance of the toilet space in a school or early years setting. However, over lunch somebody informed us that toilets had in fact been brought up as something that children were worried about in the transition from primary to secondary school – the scare stories of having heads and bags flushed down the loo prominent in children’s minds. Toilets are clearly a space that pupils think about – something which only became clearer as our workshop went on!

Indeed, when it came to the workshop there were only two participants. Both Amy Ambler and Jane Loader were from Rainbow Forge Primary – Amy a TA in the Early Years setting, and Jane the head teacher. Rather than detrimental, the small group led to really interesting and productive conversations. We have themed these below, and shared them with Jane and Amy’s permission.

Working in early years

We discussed how the toilet is often the first thing that children want to see when they visit a new school or home. Amy pointed out that when working with nursery age children, toilets are such a big part of the day. The importance of talking about toilets in relation to early years settings and schools  was then clear from the outset.

Toilet Training

We talked about the very strong social and cultural ideals that  inform perceptions of at what age children should be able to use the toilet independently, and result in toilet training being an  emotive subjects for staff and parents. Both Amy and Jane pointed out how they are often talking to parents who are very anxious if their child isn’t viewed as using the toilet ‘properly’. Assumptions around what it means to use the toilet ‘properly’ seemed to be defined around being clean at a certain age. It can be really difficult for parents whose children don’t meet this expectation and not all school staff can be very empathetic.

There was a conversation about the perception that some parents take less responsibility in their children’s toilet training, so it becomes the job of the teacher/TA to toilet train. This can be difficult for early years staff as it can be the case that the lessons taught at school are unlearnt at home in evenings, weekends and holidays. Yet, as we’d discussed, these perceptions aren’t always fair on the parents either.

We also talked about disability and toilet training – how not ‘getting’ using the toilet related to certain impairment labels. This led to reflections about how although there is an expectation for us to all use the toilet in the same way, some of us don’t and can’t!

We were left with a number of questions: Do we all use the toilet in different ways anyway? Are we all taught how to use the toilet differently? [Do you flush before you pull up your pants, or the other way around?] Should school and early years staff talk to parents so that the messages delivered to children about how to use the toilet are consistent? Or should we be discussing the fact that we may all use the toilet differently  more openly? What do we teach about hygiene and the toilet seat? Hovering? Putting toilet paper on the seat in a public loo?

Toilets as a gendered social space

It was noted that small children do a lot of ‘hanging out’ in the toilets – yet this is more usually thought of (as a problem) in relation to pupils in secondary schools. At Rainbow Forge this happened especially after the toilets had been refurbished as they were a nicer space to both go to the toilet, but also be sociable!

Amy and Jane noted that although the staff see the toilets as separate to the classroom, the children don’t see it that way. When children are asked why they are in the toilet (if not going themselves), they say that they have to be there because they’re playing with somebody that is going to the toilet. We discussed a preferred classroom layout where the toilets would be in the classroom (but this would be expensive).

When children are young there isn’t much gender divide around who uses the toilets as a social space, but this changes as children get older (boys stop using them socially – something we discussed more widely with adults in Around the Toilet).

At Rainbow Forge, the toilets are not gendered for the younger children, but become gendered as the children get older. The toilet cubicles are coloured very traditionally – bright pink for the girls and a bluey grey for the boys (chosen by the children when they were re done!)

There was conversation around whether disabled children have the same opportunities to be social in using the toilets – at Rainbow Forge the disabled loo is in with the other toilets for young children, but is separate for the older children.

Hygiene

Lisa and I talked about how handwashing kept coming up in previous toilet workshops with children – but that it felt quite ‘adult’ imposed. We all agreed that we might have had different stories told in our workshops in schools if staff weren’t present (so children didn’t feel that they had to say the ‘right’ thing). Interestingly, when we ran the same workshop in a coffee shop with children, hand washing wasn’t a part of any of the stories told!

There was a conversation about whether children learn that hands should be washed as a social etiquette thing (e.g. in public toilets and in schools), and that children might not bother at home.

We discussed the ways that children are taught about hygiene. Amy mentioned a nursery rhyme/video that showed different types of germs as different colours. If a child hadn’t washed their hands the TAs would say to them, ‘I can still see the red germs’ and they go and wash them off with soap.

Jane and Amy told us about scuba diver toys in a splash play area. If they got dirty children didn’t just rinse them in the water in the play area (which has bubbles and glitter in it), but take them to the toilet to wash properly in the toilet sink with soap, which they felt was reflective of the importance children attach to these toys.

Privacy/Visibility

There was an idea that the toilets may become gendered as the children get older because of fear of sexualisation/toilets can be perceived as a sexual space.

The toilet cubicles for small children are often low in order to allow adult surveillance, but there were issues of privacy here, especially for the girls (and particularly privacy from adults).

Discussion that as adults we also want privacy when using the toilet – but that this is about cultural/social norms/what you are used to and see as ‘normal’.

We talked about the idea of poo and wee being visible – young children want to show adults when they’re had a wee or poo in the potty, but we learn to become ashamed of it later in life.

There was a discussion of whether the pupils ever kiss in the toilets as they are private spaces.

Roles of teacher/TA/cleaners

Whose role is it to clean up the toilets was a big issue in the early years classroom.

Cleaners didn’t want to clean up poo on the wall of the toilet, and there were question marks over whose job this should be. Rainbow House has developed a practice where there are ‘kits’ to allow TAs to clean it up straight away. However, there were also some issues over whether the job of cleaning toilets, and helping children to go to the toilet should always be the job of the TA. Amy said that if you work with 5 year olds, and it was only you helping the children use the toilet, you’d be doing that all day! The consensus was that it should be split between TAs and teachers, but the teachers don’t always like that.

We left with the thought that if we don’t like toilet related jobs, should the person doing them be paid the most money?

The final comment of the day was that Amy, Jane and the others at Rainbow Forge didn’t get enough time to talk about toilets. We very much hope that we’ll be doing more work with them in the future!

Making Space for Intimate Citizenship – Presenting findings from the project so far

Next week Jenny Slater (Jen) will be travelling to Toronto to take part in three days of workshops called, Making Space for Intimate Citizenship. You can find out more about the workshops, here, including a great easy read summary, and loads of other great resources. You can also follow what’s going on using #makingspace

Jen will be presenting some of the findings so far from the Around the Toilet project. She has 2 minutes to present, and for the rest of the time she will be learning from other academics (who also have 2 minutes )to present!), and workshops run by people with labels of learning difficulty. Jen is going to use some of the Tweets from the project so far to do her 2 minute talk.

You can see a (not yet short enough!) version of Jen’s talk here, which was made using Storify. Feel free to share it about!

https://storify.com/cctoilettalk/around-the-toilet-for-the-makingspace-workshops

Jen will report back from the workshops on her return!

Reflections on the project so far…

I was asked by Sheffield Hallam’s Press Office to write a blog post about the Around the Toilets Project. Here are some thoughts so far (by Jenny Slater):

Mention toilets, toilet practices, or indeed toilet politics and you’re bound to be met with a titter and a giggle. Yet, the topic becomes less funny when you’re in town, searching with a full bladder for a place to pee (or a place for your five-year-old to pee), as you notice the diminishing numbers of free toilets in public places. Government and council cut-backs mean that public toilets are being shut, whilst other public places where we may choose to spend a penny, such as libraries, are also facing closures. On top of this, for some, finding a suitable, accessible and safe toilet space is more difficult than for others.

Around the Toilet is a research project which uses the arts to highlight the importance of having access to a safe toilet space. Furthermore, we are exploring the relationships between toilets, identity and belonging – starting with the experiences of those for whom access to a toilet may be difficult (perhaps increasingly during a time of austerity). Funded by the Connected Communities strand of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), researchers from three universities (Sheffield Hallam University, the University of Sheffield, and the University of Leeds) are working with three community organisations (Queer of the Unknown Arts Collective, Action for Trans* Health and Greater Manchester Coalition for Disabled People) to think particularly about experiences of toilets in relation to gender and disability.

Between now and September 2015 the team are running a series of workshops and events around toilets and access (find out more here). The first workshop took place on Saturday 30th May. We met with participants who identified as queer[1] and/or trans*[2] to share experiences of toilet use. Participants discussed problems of the gender binary reflected in ‘male’ or ‘female’ toilets. Stories were shared of being harassed or thrown out of venues when others made oppressive and violent assumptions around gender, and therefore presumed that participants were in the ‘wrong’ toilet. The need for gender neutral facilities was stressed.

We also thought about other anxieties around toilet use – worries about being overhead or walked in on when toilets don’t offer enough privacy (especially when in school). We discussed how perceptions of ‘normal’ are reflected in the built design of toilets: a lack of accessible toilets for disabled people reflecting the expectation of an ‘able’ body; and presumptions that only women will require baby changing facilities. We talked about who is welcome in public toilets, and the closure of public toilets due to use by homeless people, drug users and sex workers. We juxtaposed anxieties around queer sex in public toilets with the upper-class and heterosexual trend of the ‘mile high club’. It was stressed that removing toilet facilities doesn’t make these perceived ‘problems’ disappear. Although we started with what is often assumed to be mundane conversations of toilets, the topics covered highlighted a much broader range of social issues of inequality.

Furthermore, engagement through Twitter (check out @cctoilettalk and #cctoilettalk) has highlighted other issues around toilets and access. For example, the blog toiletaccess.wordpress.com states that “one of the biggest restrictions in daily life, for disabled people, focuses around the toilet”. The Changing Places campaign shows that the standard ‘accessible’ toilet for disabled people isn’t appropriate for thousands of people who require a hoist to use the toilet (you can find out where there is a Changing Places toilet near you, here). The Period Positive team also got in touch and we joined them at their event for Menstrual Hygiene Day – decorating the toilets and asking guests to get involved by responding to our toilet questions. One delegate, a sex educator, explained that many young they speak to at school still believe that you can catch HIV/Aids from a toilet seat – highlighting that there is much work still to be done!

The stories from our first workshops were drawn ‘live’ by graphic artist Sarah Smizz. They’ll be displayed and available as postcards at future events. Our next event, Toilet Talks: A speaker event on bodies, identities and design, is free and open to the public. You can sign up to come along via the Eventbrite page. Speakers will be discussing:

– What makes an accessible toilet?

– What can toilets tell us about social constructions of gender identity and disability?

– How have designers approached this most private of public spaces?

– What do the hidden histories of toilets in the city reveal?

You can also get involved by joining the conversations on Twitter – follow us @cctoilettalk or Tweet your toilet stories and pictures using #cctoilettalk. We’ll be holding another participatory workshop event in July – this time run by Queer of the Unknown, using performance as a method of exploring toilets. If you’re interested in attending the workshop, please get in touch with us (contact details here). All of these conversations will turn into a brief which, between October and December 2015, will be handed over to a team of Masters Architecture Students at Sheffield University to create a public installation, asking others to think about what makes a safe and accessible toilet space? Keep an eye on our blog to find out more.

[1] The term queer is used deliberately and transgressively as an umbrella term to recognise those who are not heterosexual or cisgender (identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth). It is used in this particular instance as it is the term used by the participating organisation, Queer of the Unknown.

[2] Trans (without an asterisk) may refer to trans men or trans women. I use trans* (with an asterisk) to refer to all people who do not identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth, including those who may not identify as trans men or trans women (e.g. genderqueer people, non-binary people, and so on).