If I’m completely honest I wasn’t really looking forward to the very first Changing Places Conference in Chesterfield. It involved a 5am start the morning after a night out, which is never good.

I landed at East Midlands airport collected my hire car and made the short journey down the motorway to Chesterfield. I arrived in plenty of time, my plan was to get a coffee and sit in the corner. I soon got chatting to a Physiotherapist, I was interested to find out why she was at the conference. She explained to me that she was working on an accessible cycling project in the Forest of Dean. They would like the centre to have a Changing Place facility and she was wanted to learn more about raising money to fund the facility. The same therapist also owns an adapted coach to allow children with severe disabilities to enjoy days out.

Two lovely ladies called Jane and Gillian then sat down beside me, and although I didn’t recognise them, their organisation certainly rang a bell – Accessible Derbyshire. It’s fair to say that Accessible Derbyshire is fairly synonymous with Changing Places. In any of my conversations with Clos-O-Mat, they’ve encouraged me to get in touch with ‘the two ladies’ from Accessible Derbyshire. So I was feeling a little awestruck when Gillian introduced herself and her colleague Jane to me.

Gillian Accessible Derbyshire & Claire Firefly Garden
Gillian Accessible Derbyshire & Claire Firefly Garden

Being around people doing amazing things in their local communities can only make you feel invigorated and motivated and I was beginning to sit up straighter and look forward to the first speaker. Jane and Gillian spoke of their family experiences and why they had begun campaigning for better changing facilities for people with disabilities long before the campaign even had the official name of Changing Places.

Jane delivered an amazing sensory workshop to us. It’s provided me with a very useful tool in enabling people to truly appreciate what it must be like for a disabled person to be changed on the floor of a public toilet. Matt and Katie from Visits Unlimited spoke to the conference about what a great day out really looked like. The group shared experiences of family days out and what has made them so special including help from staff on the ground, accessibility at a venue and of course, good changing facilities.

During the morning session, we also heard from Martin Jackaman, founder member of the Changing Places Consortium. We learnt about the requirements needed to provide a full Changing Place facility. He also warned that Changing Place facilities are not necessarily required in every venue and in fact an unused Changing Place facility could be detrimental to the campaign quoting a library example. However, this should not discourage venues from providing better toilet facilities even if they can’t provide a full Changing Place facility.

Before lunch we had a short quiz, which our table won despite the fact I didn’t know George Best Belfast City Airport was the first UK airport to have a Changing Place toilet – I think I let the side down a bit.

Changing Places Conference 2015
Changing Places Conference 2015

After lunch we heard from two more mums, famous in the world of toilets for disabled people – Samantha Buck and Dawn Fidler. I first heard about Samantha from her Change.org campaign a few years ago so was delighted to have an opportunity to meet her and her son Alfie. Dawn Fidler is mum to Joshua. Joshua sadly died last year, but during his short life he and his family campaigned tirelessly for Changing Places and his legacy lives on with The Joshua Wilson Brain Tumour Charity.

My only disappointment was not getting to say hello to the Clough family but hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to meet them at future events. So what did I learn? That there are amazing families all over the UK doing fantastic work for the Changing Places campaign, making real differences in their local communities.

However, it can take some time to install a Changing Place facility and that they aren’t right for every venue. This is where I see Space to Change playing an important role – smaller venues aimed at young children should provide at the very least Green Space to Change but ideally Orange Space to Change. Existing larger venues that cater for the whole community should provide Pink Space to Change where they don’t have the space for a full Changing Place facility. For more information on Space to Change levels click here.

Every venue can make small changes right now that will make the lives of families with disabled children easier – from providing large changing mats, nappy bins and private rooms for changing while the venue works towards improving its toilet facilities in the longer term. If you would like to get involved in the Space to Change campaign, become a Champion and talk to your favourite venues about the improvements they could make.  Also from a personal perspective I realised how far behind my home city and country are in terms of facilities for disabled children and adults. With only 9 Changing Places and very few toilets providing better than average facilities in Northern Ireland we have a lot to learn from our neighbours across the Channel.

If you live locally in Northern Ireland please get in touch email me at [email protected] Together let’s make change happen. I really left that day feeling totally inspired and motivated. It was an amazing opportunity to hear about organisations and individuals all over the country working so hard to make life better for their families and the thousands of people with disabilities living in the UK.

Additional information

Perhaps you’re reading this and don’t know what a Changing Place is. Changing Places toilets are different to standard disabled toilets with extra features and more space to meet these needs. - a height adjustable adult-sized changing bench - a tracking hoist system, or mobile hoist if this is not possible - adequate space in the changing area for the disabled person and up to two carers - a centrally placed toilet with room either side for the carers - a screen or curtain to allow the disabled person and carer some privacy. - wide tear off paper roll to cover the bench - a large waste bin for disposable pads - a non-slip floor.

We’d love you to sign Samantha’s Change.org petition today and help her get to 25,000 Accessible Derbyshire Clos-O-Mat Visits Unlimited The Joshua Wilson Brain Tumour Charity

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