Has needing the toilet ever endangered your life? Michaela Hollywood, who uses a wheelchair due to spinal muscular atrophy, posted as much recently on Facebook from her hospital bed. Hollywood, 28, can use only a “Changing Places” toilet – which, unlike standard accessible toilets, has a hoist to get on to the loo. Because there are so few of them nationwide, she routinely has to go up to 12 hours without weeing. Regular bladder infections are the end result and her current one is so severe it risked kidney problems and sepsis. “This is life threatening,” she wrote. “If I die from a urine infection, I want everyone to know that it was, in all likelihood, preventable by Changing Places toilets.”
Last month, I reported that a number of disabled women are being forced to have unnecessary surgery simply due to Britain’s lack of fully accessible toilet provision. (Hollywood tells me she would have the surgery but it is too risky for her health.)
However, access to safe toilets is only one part of a bigger picture of disabled women’s health inequalities.
In the new book Can We All Be Feminists?, a collection of essays edited by June Eric-Udorie, I look at how disabled women in the UK and US are routinely excluded from basic healthcare. For example, Cancer Research UK last year found that disabled women are a third less likely to participate in screenings for breast cancer than non-disabled women, due to many reasons including lack of accessible transport and the fact that wheelchairs can’t reach the traditional mammogram machines.
We miss out on smear tests for similar reasons – and it can be hard even to get contraception from your GP if you are disabled. This is partly because cultural prejudice means some medical staff still assume disabled women do not have sex or relationships. This month it emerged that thousands of autistic women in the UK are missing out on diagnosis due to gender bias, taking a stark toll on their mental health.
Austerity measures are making access to healthcare even harder, particularly cuts to social care. I have spoken to a number of women with disabilities in recent years whose local councils have suggested they take medication to stop their period or wear adult nappies rather than providing a personal assistant to help them regularly wash and get to the toilet.
This is inhumane but it is rarely talked about. Whether it is British awkwardness or a wish for privacy, many of us are typically uncomfortable discussing personal healthcare – something that is only increased by sexism that wants to hush away period blood and ableism that too often ignores disabled lives. Anything from more access awareness in town planning for toilets to NHS disability-centred smear campaigns could help address these problems. The first step is simply to start including disabled women’s needs in the conversation.
Can We All Be Feminists? is out now