The end of ladies and gents? HRM mulls 'universal access' washrooms

Halifax councillors have agreed the municipality should investigate making all its washrooms "universal access." That means washrooms that would be gender neutral, and could accommodate people with physical disabilities, small children, or an attendant.

Washrooms could be gender neutral, accommodate physical disabilities, caregivers

HRM is thinking about making all its washrooms accessible to anyone. (Shutterstock)

Halifax councillors have agreed the municipality should investigate making all its washrooms "universal access."  

That means washrooms that would be gender neutral, and could accommodate people with physical disabilities, small children, or an attendant. 

The motion before the city's community planning and economic development standing committee passed unanimously Thursday morning. Councillors directed staff to draft an administrative order on universal washroom access at municipal buildings.  

Officials have not yet estimated how much this action would cost. Councillors would still have to vote on the administrative order once staff have written it.

Paul Vienneau said the move towards making city washrooms universally accessible is a good step. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

"The fact they're talking about it is good," said Paul Vienneau, a local photographer and disability rights advocate. 

"Being able to use the washroom is, I would say, a human right. And in all these buildings that the city owns, ideally they'd like all citizens to take part, and part of being able to take part is having proper hygiene set up." 

Vienneau uses a wheelchair and said he has seen many situations where lack of proper washroom facilities put users with a disability in an undignified situation. He said accessibility has many aspects.

"Not just for somebody with a disability in a wheelchair, but signage in braille for people, a change table for kids, and also probably gender mixed as well," he said. 

Province also looking at accessible washrooms

The city's move comes at the same time the province is working on Bill 59, legislation designed to make Nova Scotia more accessible. On Wednesday, Nova Scotia Justice Minister Diana Whalen noted her own department does not have accessible washrooms. 

She said her government will work to make sure all spaces occupied by a government department are fully accessible.

Lezlie Lowe is a Halifax author who has spent several years working on a book about public toilets. (CBC)

Local author Lezlie Lowe has researched public toilets around the world and is completing a book on the topic.

She's found that in Halifax and in North America, accessible washrooms are the exception, not the rule. She said when politicians look at accessible washrooms many factors must be considered. 

Many factors of accessibility

"It's really great," she said. "I would caution them to look really carefully at all the complexities of bathroom needs. When you have different sets of users, sometimes it's difficult to get the right fix for specific users." 

Lowe said examples of that include women needing to use the toilet more frequently than men, or users who need help to use a change table. She said although bathroom fittings are improving, some still present problems.

Lowe gave the example of a toilet that flushes using a small button on the wall behind the unit.

"Which is fine, except for someone who has arthritis, or any issues with their hands, it's really, really difficult to flush that," she said. 

"So there needs to be a whole bunch of different options for people when they go into a bathroom, and that is hard for people to wrap their heads around."

About the Author

Shaina Luck


Shaina Luck covers everything from court to city council. Her favourite stories are about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Email: