Indian latrines are toilets that require people to squat to use. Unfortunately there are no accessible standards for Indian latrines and older people and people with disabilities are greatly handicapped by their design. While on academic sabbatical in India, Abir Mullick, a Project Director with the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) on Universal Design at Buffalo and a professor of architecture, addressed the issue of access at Indian latrines as one of his projects.
Squat toilets are not unique to India. They exist in Asian countries, from Turkey to Japan. These toilets pre-date biblical times and existed in the Indus Valley civilization, home to the largest of the four ancient urban civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China.
While there is no collected data as to how many people use these latrines, it can be estimated that more than 800 million Indians who practice a traditional way of life use them.
A Typical Indian Latrine
A typical Indian latrine is a small, enclosed space with an in-ground ceramic bowl and two footprints. The ceramic bowl drains into a water trough which collects fecal matter prior to being flushed out. A water source is usually located within easy reach, as it is customary to use water in place of toilet paper.
Latrine use requires entering, turning around, positioning feet on footprints and taking a squat position. Older users and people with disabilities are seriously challenged by the design of the latrine because they do not have any supportive features. People who have arthritis of the knees or hip are inconvenienced by the latrine design and must try to use the wall for support to squat and get up. Cane and crutch users experience similar hardships. People who use wheelchairs, however, do not experience the same problems. Inside the home, they move around in a seated position close to the ground with the help of a pair of upside down wooden handles. In the latrine, they simply slide their body latterly over the ceramic bowl and use their arms to maintain a position for using the latrine.
In his approach to solving this dilema, Mullick chose not to redesign the bowl since it is nearly impossible to specify a single design for everyone. Instead, he pursued the development of environmental standards to provide access to everyone. The standards include stall size, bowl location, faucet position, and grab bar design and location.
Sulabh International, a non governmental organization, was the RERC on UD at Buffalo’s primary partner for this project. With more than 50,000 staff, it is one of the largest social service organizations, dedicated to promote human rights, environmental sanitation, health and hygiene, nonconventional sources of energy, waste management and social reforms through education, training and awareness campaign. In addition to managing many social programs, Sulabh constructs and maintains numerous pay-and-use public toilets with bath, laundry and urinal facilities used by about 10 million people every day.
The latrine access study employed two types of users — older people and people with disabilities. The study addressed: 1) stall size and space adequacy, 2) door size and entering/exiting problems, 3) need for support when sitting down and getting up, and 4) access to the water source.
The first stage of the study examined a newly constructed public latrine block for how well it met the stated objectives. Ten users, five older users and five users with disabilities, simulated use of the latrine. They followed a predetermined protocol and were asked to indicate location of support and water that would help them to use the latrine. Users were photographed to identify environmental barriers and data was recorded graphically to make judgments about distances and space adequacy. Every user was interviewed to document unmet needs. In the second stage, a full-scale latrine mock-up was constructed using the information collected. This mock-up model offered choices of stall size, support and water source location. The users evaluated the mockup for safety, convenience and functional independence. They followed the same protocol that had been observed earlier. Every participant was interviewed for improvements and remaining unmet needs.
The RERC on UD at Buffalo is analyzing the data from the second stage so preliminary standards can be developed. Sulabh International has agreed to construct a working latrine prototype and test the standards with a wide range of users. This will help to fine-tune the standards and revise them. India’s Central Public Works Department, responsible for enforcing building standards, has agreed to promote the revised standards in new and existing construction. Sulabh International has committed to implement these standards in all new construction.