Is it Time to Rethink the Design of the Toilet Symbol?

Inclusive Sign Design to Meet the Needs of Hidden Disabilities and Transgender People

Published on Thursday 29 November 2018

The focus of this post is inclusive  design – more specifically toilets and the toilet symbol. Over recent years there has been a lot of discussion about hidden disabilities.  The media abound with stories of people being challenged and stigmatised for using disabled facilities. Just because they don’t carry a recognised disability cue such as a mobility aid, cane or assistance dog.

Meeting the Needs of People with Hidden Disabilities

Crohn’s & Colitis UK, the charity that supports people suffering from inflammatory bowel diseases has been leading discussions. Championing a sign featuring the traditional disabled, male and female symbols, with accessible toilet text, qualified by the phrase that not all disabilities are visible. They have succeeded in getting the signs adopted by several high profile businesses. Tremendous credit goes to Crohn’s & Colitis UK for driving this initiative and increasing awareness and understanding about hidden disabilities.

What About Transsexual People?

As a protected characteristic, The Equality Act 2010 states that transsexual people must be treated as belonging to the sex in which they present. This is sparking fierce debate around single sex spaces such as toilets and changing rooms, particularly for transgender persons presenting as a woman.

To identify gender-neutral toilets, some advocate using the symbols for female and male toilets side by side. While others have gone down the route of designing half man/half woman hybrid symbols.

Rather than Adapting Symbols, Do we Need a More Fundamental Rethink?

These developments raise a number of big questions for wayfinding and sign design folk. Are we in danger of extending some well-established symbols so far, that they confuse rather than help?  Has the wheelchair, as the catch-all symbol for disability had its day?  As people with cognitive disorders, such as Alzheimers can find the male and female toilet symbols confusing  – should we use something more representative – such as the toilet graphic suggested by some? Or do we need a more fundamental rethink about the design of buildings, so that toilets are suitable for use by all sexes and abilities.

Want to read more on the subject of inclusive wayfinding?

Inclusive Wayfinding Design 

Wayfinding for an Ageing Population

How Can Wayfinding Assist with the Obesity Epidemic


Other Resources

The Sign Design Guide

Image of showing the front cover of the sign design guide

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Accessible Toilet Symbol Championed by Crohn
Accessible Toilet Symbol Design Championed by Crohn's & Colitis UK
Example of gender neutral toilet symbol
Example of a Gender Neutral Toilet Symbol - Courtesy The Guardian