In the United States, we do accessible bathrooms differently than much of the world. Here, accessible toilet stalls are located inside gender-specific restrooms. Some businesses also provide a separate family or gender-neutral restroom. Accessible facilities in the U.S. are available for use by anyone, and wheelchair users often find nondisabled people using accessible stalls. For some reason, able-bodied Americans feel entitled to the extra space those stalls provide. 😠
Europe has taken a different approach, securing many disabled toilets so that they can be reserved for use by the people who need them. Standalone accessible toilets are the norm outside the United States and access is often restricted to those with a disability, or at least to those who have a universal key to unlock disabled toilets.
What is the universal key for disabled toilets?
The principle behind a universal key is that, if local authorities or businesses decide to lock toilets in order to prevent misuse, they should use a standard lock. Disabled people are issued with a universal key to open these locks, allowing for independent access to toilet facilities. If you have a key, you won’t have to track down a staff member to unlock the loo.
Two major locking systems have been implemented across Europe, the Euro Key and RADAR Key.
Euro Key was developed in 1986 by CBF Darmstadt, a German organization for the disabled. According to their website, the Euro Key now opens more than 12,000 toilets across Europe. Euro Key locks are used in Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland and potentially other countries. A number of databases identify the location of Europe Key toilets on a country-by-country basis, available on the No Barrier website.
RADAR Key, formally known as the National Key System (NKS), is a universal key and locking system for disabled toilets in the United Kingdom. Administered by Disability Rights UK, the National Key System has expanded to secure more than 10,000 toilets across Britain. The Great British Public Toilet Map lists public toilets in the UK, and it provides filters for showing only accessible toilets and toilets accessed with the RADAR Key.
Keys may not be necessary, but they are convenient
In my own travels around continental Europe, I don’t recall very many occasions where I encountered a locked toilet facility. When I have, there has typically (though not always) been an attendant or staff person nearby with a Euro Key.
Conversely, in the United Kingdom, toilets protected with a RADAR lock are much more common, with more than 1,100 in London alone. You’ll frequently encounter locked toilets — in restaurants, at the train station or even on the street — and having a RADAR key can eliminate the stress of finding an attendant. You’ll put the RADAR Key to use much more frequently in a city like London than you would use a Euro Key in cities like Amsterdam, Berlin or Paris, so it’s definitely worth having.
Where to buy a Euro Key or RADAR Key for disabled toilets
Before you purchase a key, remember that the Euro Key works for toilets on the European continent, while the RADAR Key works on the island of Great Britain. They are NOT interchangeable. Details on how to purchase the keys is provided below.
- Euro Key — Available for purchase via the CBF Darmstadt website. The cost of the key is €23,00 EUR, or €30,00 with a copy of DER LOCUS, a printed directory of handicapped toilets. Purchase of the key is restricted to those who are entitled to use accessible toilets, and the organization requires that proof of disability be submitted with each order.
- RADAR Key — Available for purchase from the Disability Rights UK store. The cost of a key is £4,75 GBP, or £5,70 with VAT. You can also purchase a more stylish version with a keychain from the Blue Badge Company for a bit more. No evidence of disability is required to purchase a RADAR Key.
Note that the cost of shipping may be high for customers outside of Europe and you may be able to get a better deal by purchasing keys from eBay.
Although many Americans are frustrated when they encounter a locked accessible toilet while traveling abroad, there are benefits. The toilet is almost always cleaner than the filthy stalls we have in America and, more importantly, they are almost always available. No waiting for that able-bodied frat boy to finish perfecting his hair gel in the accessible loo!
The Euro Key and RADAR Key systems have been effective at limiting use of accessible toilets to those who need them, and I hope the programs will continue to expand. Before traveling to Europe, consider ordering a key to make accessing the toilet just a tad bit easier.