Kerrie Nicholson is a freelance theatre blogger and podcast host, who works under the banner ‘Wheelie Stagey’. As well as contributing to publications in the arts and beyond, she is particularly passionate about raising awareness of and championing better accessibility and inclusivity in theatre due to having a disability – Cerebral Palsy. Kerrie lives in Bristol with her cat Milo and is soon to start a new marketing job in her dream industry: the performing arts.
Kerrie has kindly shared an intimate account below of her personal experiences when visiting theatres and the impact the lack of Changing Places facilities around the country, has on her and unquestionably, other disabled theatre goers.
At 32, I like to think I’m generally at peace with my Cerebral Palsy and the various ways it impacts my life. Travel, day-to-day outings and socialising with friends, take a level of planning that borders on military-style precision due to multiple factors: access to buildings, availability of wheelchair accessible taxis (if I don’t have a carer who can drive that day), my carers’ shift times… it does get wearing, but I always strive to make the best of it.
One area that I still struggle with personally though is toileting and the ramifications of the issues it creates for me physically and mentally, as I am unable to transfer from my wheelchair to a toilet without support.
When I was growing up, this was less of an issue as I was lifted by my parents and other family members. Now I’m older and simply heavier, that’s not an option, as my transfers from my wheelchair require a hoist. Therein, I’m unable to use standard accessible toilets; as are over 250,000 others with disabilities both similar and different to my own, who require adjustments to enable us to go to the toilet safely, comfortably and with dignity.
I’m a huge theatre fan and a massively important part of my social life has been going to London to see shows with friends there. Two years ago, a change in my family’s circumstances and a move from private to agency care, means I make the vast majority of these trips solo. I enjoy them and having that independence hugely and am confident to make them, but they aren’t without difficulty: namely, because I’m unable to use the toilets!
I live in a semi-permanent state of dehydration and only drink the bare minimum of one 250ml travel cup before I head off on my train journey. I usually arrive in London just before midday and more often than not, I won’t drink again until 5:30 or 6pm, after the end of the show and I’m heading back to the station to get my train home.
If I have arranged to meet a friend for lunch before a show, or if it’s a particularly hot day, I may break my rule and drink more, but I generally prefer not to as needing the toilet when you’re not able to go is excruciatingly painful. For me it manifests itself as a burning sensation in the kidneys and pain in my stomach. And the more intense the urge gets, the more difficult I find it to keep my body relaxed and still! Not drinking properly also plays havoc with my body the day after a theatre trip: I have an intense headache and struggle with feeling nauseous.
To help mitigate the potential for accidents if my bladder wins out, I wear continence pads that are designed to absorb the liquid. But even these aren’t completely fool proof, so I tend to wear dark clothes in case of any show-through and keep my bag on my lap as it would hide it if necessary. I’ve never really liked wearing pads as an adult, as it’s not a case of me being unable to control my bladder, but rather an accessibility issue creating a barrier. But I’m working through those feelings and appreciate change doesn’t happen overnight. The feelings of embarrassment and self-consciousness around this are always nagging in the back of my mind, and it gets tiring having to explain to well-meaning theatre and train staff why you can’t use their toilet facilities. But this and the physical consequences are the price I have to pay to live a happy, fulfilled life.
Theatre is where I have found my community and a sense of joy that, as a disabled person, I admittedly struggle to find in other aspects of my life at times. There have been occasions when the pain and the self-consciousness have been such that I’ve considered giving up going and even explored the possibility of a catheter, purely for peace of mind. But given that I’d need support handling that, an operation with my circumstances feels a tad extreme.
That’s where Changing Places have come in and have a massive positive impact. These toilets are bigger than standard accessible toilets, which allows for ease in manoeuvring my wheelchair. They also have ceiling-hoists, so when I’m with my mum, or friends who are comfortable helping me with personal care, I can use them to be lifted from my wheelchair to access the toilet. They also have other elements, like privacy screens and changing beds, for those who need them. That sense of relief and release l feel knowing that I can use the toilet just like everyone else with these facilities in place, is immense. They mean I can go about my day pain and anxiety free. Because there are still not enough Changing Places around, it takes forward-planning to find one and it often means we have to factor in extra time to make a detour to use the facilities before we can go ahead with our theatre plans, but I’m all for taking that extra time if I can use the toilet and keep hydrated. The issue is, should I have to do this when everyone else can access the toilet when at the theatre?
Yet, despite all the extra planning, and the mishaps that can occur, I’m reminded that life with my disability is already restricted in a whole manner of ways that I can’t control. So I’ve learned over the years to be flexible, adaptable and above all: resilient. To have facilities like Changing Places gives my life back a sense of control, freedom and peace of mind that I don’t have in those situations when they aren’t available. I’ll hold on to those positive feelings with both hands. I’ll also continue to keep advocating for more Changing Places across the country, as contrary to what a song in the musical Urinetown suggests, it shouldn’t be a “Privilege To Pee”.
The arts industry prides itself on being accessible and welcoming to all; I’ve seen that in practise. I’ve also seen where things can be improved, and installing a Changing Places toilet is an important step in that direction to continue the mission of better inclusivity. Doing so, will open the theatre world more widely to both disabled audience members and creatives, which will have a ripple effect towards better disability representation onstage as well as behind the scenes!
Claire Haymes, Changing Places coordinator at Closomat says: “Theatres are venues that can sometimes find it difficult to work out how to incorporate a Changing Places toilet, be that due to limited space, listed building status or simply not knowing where to start or that they are so desperately required. We are experts in helping venues realise their access goals and can work with theatres to find a way to add these vital facilities and make theatre accessible to all”.
Read Ella and Luda’s thoughts on what it is like to socialise with your friends in a world that doesn’t ensure everyone has access to a safe toilet here.
Brody, Laura, Sarah and Hadley say healthcare settings are disabling the patients they are supposed to support, here.
And Shelley and Fraser, share their experiences of using the toilet at the cinema when it doesn’t cater for their needs, here.