Blue Badge Style is on a mission to improve the social life of people with disabilities by rating bars, restaurants and hotels for their style, accessibility and facilities. The founder, Fiona Jarvis, says the key to getting out is knowing what to expect before you arrive somewhere; knowing you can not only have a drink, but use the loo too.
Unfortunately, too often Fiona arrives to find the so-called ‘disabled toilet’ is being used as an extra storage room. It’s full of boxes of beer, spare chairs or signage. This is probably just thoughtlessness; restaurants and bars are always pressed for space and if the loo doesn’t get used very much, the space is likely to be requisitioned.
But our words nerds think that behind the thoughtlessness may be a language problem. There’s something about ‘disabled toilet’ which sounds broken and not something a guest would use.
‘Disabled’, it turns out, can be used in three ways, as a verb, an adjective or a noun.
As a verb it is inflected for tense and refers to an action or state; ‘she disabled the bell’, meaning she took it to pieces so it didn’t work; it’s temporarily broken.
In ‘the disabled bell’ we see ‘disabled’ functioning as an adjective (although it could be argued that it is a participle). It is in the right place, in front of the noun, and referring to the property or state of that noun. It could also be replaced with another adjective and the phrase would still make sense; ‘the loud bell’.
But it is this adjectival use which makes ‘disabled toilet’ sound like it is the toilet that’s disabled (adjective), rather than being a toilet for the disabled (noun). ‘Disabled bell’ means a bell that doesn’t work, it is not a bell for people with disabilities. ‘Disabled’ could almost be a synonym for ‘broken’ here. Our words nerds think this underlying meaning could be part of the problem. Does the meaning of ‘disabled’ as ‘broken’ rather than ‘people’ have an effect on how a disabled toilet is used? Is this why it’s often used as a storage room rather than a useful space?
But if ‘disabled toilet’ means ‘a toilet for the disabled’ (and not a broken one), then what’s going on grammatically? Perhaps ‘disabled’ is not an adjective, but a noun functioning as a modifier. Or it started out as an adjective which became nominalised. In this case, rather than referring to the property or state of the noun, ‘disabled’ is adding information to the head of the phrase, the noun ‘toilet’. In this version of ‘disabled’ we can replace it with a noun like ‘guest’ or ‘ladies’. It’s probably the influence of this usage which lead to ‘disabled toilet’ in the first place.
But if ‘disabled’ is a noun (a thing or conceivable entity), functioning as a modifier (adding to the head noun), then isn’t it a pretty ugly usage? Would we use this elsewhere? We might say ‘the guests are here’, but we wouldn’t say ‘the disabled are here’. Rosalind Tulloch makes this point in Pos’Ability magazine; “Using outdated and, quite frankly, offensive phrases like ‘the disabled’ is unacceptable”. She suggests we wouldn’t do it about any other group. But we do say ‘the British are here’. Would we also say ‘the gays are here’, ‘the Muslims are here’? Some of these are more excruciating than others, for pragmatic rather than grammatical reasons.
But what can the rest of us, and the hospitality sector, do about this? Does the choice of language really make a difference? We think it would help to stop talking about impairments, of people or toilets, and start thinking about guests and customers. We think ‘toilets for guests with disabilities’ is an improvement. It’s more of a mouthful, but it makes us think about the guest first, rather than the state of the toilet. After all, isn’t this what all hotels, restaurants and bars should be doing; thinking about their guests first? Or perhaps they could just be referred to as ‘toilets’ and be accessible to all the guests and customers in the venue? That would definitely improve all our social lives.