The Velvet Principle

Is it Time to Rethink the Toilet Symbol?

Published on Thursday 29 November 2018


The focus of this week’s post is toilets – more specifically the graphic symbols used to identify toilets. Over the last few years there has been much discussion about hidden disabilities.  The media abound with stories of people with impairments being challenged and stigmatised for using disabled facilities, just because they don’t carry a recognised disability cue – mobility aid, cane and assistance dog.

Crohn’s & Colitis UK, the charity supporting people suffering from inflammatory bowel diseases has been championing a sign that features the traditional disabled, male and female symbols with text identifying the facility as an accessible toilet, qualified with phrase that not all disabilities are visible. They have succeeded in getting the signs adopted by a number of high profile businesses. A tremendous credit goes to Crohn’s & Colitis UK for driving this initiative and increasing awareness and understanding about hidden disabilities.

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 has sparked fierce debate around the use of single sex spaces such as toilets and changing rooms, particularly when it comes to a transgender person presenting as a woman. 

Discussion doing the rounds with wayfinding and sign design folk is what symbol should be used to identify gender-neutral toilets.  Some argue that just featuring the symbols for female and male toilets side by side is sufficient. Search on the Internet for a gender-neutral toilet sign and you’ll see a strange half man half woman hybrid.

These discussions raise a number of broader questions about symbols used in wayfinding. Are we in danger of extending applications of some well-established symbols so far that they confuse rather than help?  Has the wheelchair as the catchall symbol for disabled facilities had its day?  Given that understanding what the male and female symbols mean can be difficult for people with cognitive disorders – should we be using something that is more representative - such as the toilet graphic advocated by some? Or do we need a more fundamental rethink about the design of buildings, so that all toilets are suitable for use by all sexes and abilities.

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Accessible Toilet Sign Championed by Crohn's & Colitis UKExample of a Gender Neutral Toilet Sign - Courtesy The Guardian