Rebecca Scherpelz (Uganda)

Rebecca Scherpelz (Gulu Disabled Persons Union – GDPU): Rebecca is from Indianapolis, Indiana. She graduated in 2008 from Butler University with an undergraduate degree in International Studies and Anthropology/History. During her studies Rebecca led service trips to Uganda, where she lived and volunteered in Gulu and Kampala. Prior to her AP fellowship Rebecca spent over two years working with Best Buddies, an international non-profit that supports people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. After her fellowship Rebecca wrote: “I think I found what I want to do long-term. I’d like to go into a long-term career of recipient-donor relations, empowering recipients to speak up for what they need the most... It really made me think about what we give, from dollars to second-hand things, and how recipient organizations deserve the very best…not just leftovers.”

The (in)accessible toilet: when nature calls and society hangs up

08 Sep

The toilet. The latrine. The bathroom. The washroom. The WC. The commode. The john. No matter what you call it and no matter where you are, the fact of the matter is, you use it. So why an entry about toilets? It might not be glamorous, but goodness knows it’s essential.

Consider how many trips you make to the restroom each day. At least two or three? Think of any public restroom in an airport, movie theater, office, etc, built or renovated in the last 20 years; since the American with Disabilities Act of 1990 (for my US readers), we likely take for granted that lone stall at the end with the wider door, strong handrail, and turning space for a wheelchair.

Now shift your imagination to Gulu and the life of a wheelchair user. It’s the middle of the day; you’re busy at work; and it’s time for a “short call.” Out the door and down the hall, right? Not quite. Imagine if that most simple and essential of tasks was interrupted by any number of obstacles: steps, narrow doors, ditches, carelessly placed items…you know—discrimination and exclusion.

Gulu's only public accessible pit latrine - at GDPU.

In Gulu, GDPU has the ONLY public bathroom that is accessible to people in wheelchairs or tricycles. It is a small, 6-stall pit latrine located on the GDPU compound. Not only is there a ramp, but several stalls have handrails and cement seats for people who are unable to squat. With that in mind, consider the possible scenarios:

Scene 1: You work in downtown Gulu as a tailor, maybe 1 kilometer from GDPU. Nature calls and you prefer the 15-minute outdoor commute in your wheelchair or tricycle to use the facility at GDPU. You enter GDPU, greet the staff, wheel your way to the latrine, and head back to work after a 45-minute bathroom break.

Scene 2: You don’t have time to head to GDPU and spend nearly an hour of your day on the road. Instead, you opt to use one of the public bathrooms, maybe paying 200/=. Since it is a public pit latrine, it’s likely incredibly filthy from who-knows-what by who-knows-who; since your disability does not allow use of your legs, you slide to your hands and knees to crawl into the latrine and balance yourself as best as possible before crawling back outside, climbing back on your wheelchair, and returning to work.

Take your pick.

Here in Uganda, the 2005 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Article 9 on Accessibility) argued that the state parties would “Develop, promulgate and monitor the implementation of minimum standards and guidelines for the accessibility of facilities and services open or provided to the public.” These are standards Uganda has committed to but has yet to meet, as implementation has been sluggish or policies have been ignored.

Seeing as Gulu and the Northern Region in general is in the midst of post-war reconstruction, it seems timely for newly built or renovated structures to keep these policies in mind. Yet Gulu remains largely inaccessible, especially but not limited to areas of personal hygiene.

One of my first assignments when I got to GDPU in June was helping to draft and polish a grant for UNDP (United Nations Development Programme). If approved, the $7,000 would go towards the renovation of the public toilet in the Gulu bus-park downtown. Additionally, seven homes in select Gulu sub-counties will receive updates to make homes – especially latrines – accessible. In addition to training the engineers and construction teams, these spaces would serve as models for future structures.

Meanwhile, GDPU has embarked on an “accessibility audit” with support from World Vision. Visiting seven structures in three sub-counties (Paicho, Bungatira, and Unyama), members of the Accessibility Audit Team checked out 2 schools, 3 health centers, and 2 public offices. Though seven is a small sampling of the district, it’s a start…

Honorable Adong Caroline and GDPU staff Ojok Patrick conduct an accessibility audit of local buildings.

The findings were neither surprising nor inspiring, as most buildings did not meet or barely met requirements. None of the places had policies on accessibility, and one person surveyed had no idea what “accessibility” means. Still, that’s why the audits were done, to lend fodder to the fire that accessibility is an ISSUE, and whether it’s due to ignorance, money, discrimination, or any other number of factors, GDPU is taking a stand.

An example of an accessible pit latrine. Note the wide doorways, firm handrails, and adaptable seat. And thank you for getting over the fact that it's a picture of a toilet.

Along with the audit, GDPU is doing a seven-day blitz of trainings and workshops, including: 2 days with service providers to discuss accessibility; 2 days of advocacy training for disability leaders; 1 day with teachers to learn how they can be better equipped to work with children with disabilities (CWD); and 1 day with parents of CWD to offer guidance on how to be supports and champions for their children.

And that’s how change happens – one connection, one workshop, one encounter, one empathetic moment that makes an able-bodied person stop, think, and realize. Will Gulu have ramps in every building before I leave on Monday? No. In a year? No way. In a decade? That’s pushing it…but will people be aware? Will they consider spending the same amount to build a ramp instead of steps? Will they consider accessibility a right and not a favor? Will change happen slowly but surely?

For now, I’ve gotta run…nature calls. I’m just glad I can make it past the three steps, narrow hallway, slippery floor, and high door handle to get there…

Posted By Rebecca Scherpelz (Uganda)

Posted Sep 8th, 2011


  • Scarlett

    September 8, 2011


    What a great blog post, Rebecca! I am pleased that I, myself, had the opportunity to use one of GDPU’s accessible toilets! I sure hope that the UNDP grant is approved!

  • pegah

    September 10, 2011


    I’ll have to admit prior to this post I don’t think I ever realized just how significant wheel accessible restrooms are. I’m also sure most people are forced to pick Scene 2. Spending that much time away from work each day will reduce the already limited amount of money they earn to support themselves and their families. Really puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

  • Rebecca Scherpelz

    September 16, 2011


    Interesting addition, too – check out this article from earlier in the summer about “reinventing the toilet.”

    Interesting approach to encouraging innovative design…

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