DISABLED Hunter residents are being forced to pay to use public toilets, as councils put loos in lockdown in an effort to curb vandalism.
At least two of the region’s councils have introduced a controversial policy of locking disabled toilets, forcing residents to prove they have a disability and pay a fee for a master key to access public amenities.
Both Cessnock and Lake Macquarie councils say the measure is aimed at curbing vandalism, allowing access to public toilets 24 hours a day, and ensuring only disabled people access toilets.
But the news has sparked waves of outrage on social media after one Cessnock resident highlighted the practice.
Kate Burgess said she was made to feel ‘‘small’’ and ‘‘like I’d done something wrong’’ after she was told she had to purchase a key from the council in order to access a disabled toilet at Plaza Central in Cessnock.
Ms Burgess, who uses a wheelchair, was told by a council staff member she would have to obtain a letter from her doctor to prove she was disabled and pay a $25 fee in order to obtain a key.
‘‘I told them that I refused to pay money to use a public toilet just because I’ve got a disability,’’ she told the Newcastle Herald on Thursday.
‘‘I feel like I’ve been discriminated against, after I left the council I was in tears because I felt so belittled and so small.
‘‘I’m not whinging that it’s $25 ... It’s the principle of them doing that to people.’’
On Wednesday after the incident an angry Ms Burgess posted the application on Facebook.
It sparked an instant reaction and by Thursday night it had been shared more than 1000 times by others shocked at the move.
It also saw a break out of finger-pointing between the council and the shopping centre.
In a statement posted on its Facebook page council said the toilets in question ‘‘are not council-owned and operated but are owned and operated by the management of each centre, one of which has chosen to lock the toilets to minimise anti-social behaviour and damage’’.
But centre manager Eric Leslie pointed out it was up to the council to decide how much they charged for the key.
He also said disabled people could ask a security guard or cleaner for a key, something Ms Burgess said she was not made aware of.
‘‘And there’s never anyone who hangs around there anyway ... the sign on the door said if I wanted to use the toilet I had to go to council,’’ she said.
And it is not just toilets the policy applies to.
In its statement the council also said the key ‘‘enables people with disabilities to gain 24-hour, seven-day-a-week access to a network of public facilities across Australia’’.
‘‘It has been fitted to elevators at railway stations, accessible toilets in a range of facilities and in adaptive playground equipment (like the Liberty Swing at Peace Park).’’
Asked if he thought it was fair for disabled people to pay for 24-hour access to facilities not otherwise restricted, such as swings, Cessnock mayor Bob Pynsent said he thought the cost should be reviewed but said some assets needed to be protected.
‘‘I think we need to re-examine the charges for the key, the general fee is about $15 [and] to me that would be more equitable,’’ he said.
‘‘[But] the swing at Peace Park is designed specially for disabled people and to have a key on it is fair, it needs to be looked after.
‘‘It costs $25,000 to $30,000 to have it installed, that’s why you need to preserve it.’’
Lake Macquarie also lists a policy for a disabled master key on some of its assets on its website.
‘‘The introduction of the MLAK system restricts usage to eligible persons and organisations,’’ it states.
‘‘This system reduces vandalism and increases the standard of public amenities that Council can provide for people with a disability and disability support groups.
‘‘Keys can be purchased from a member of a Master Locksmiths Association for a fee.’’