November 18, 2018

The politics of pee

Who gets to use a public restroom has become a big news story this year. While most of the media attention has been focused on the transgender discrimination inherent in North Carolina’s state law HB2, which requires everyone over age 7 to use restrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate, there are, in fact, many other bathroom-related issues and challenges for people with disabilities and certain chronic health conditions that require legislative remedies. And those solutions could also help address the transgender issues.

One prime example is the Restroom Access Act, also known as Ally’s Law, which requires retail establishments that have toilet facilities for their employees to also allow customers to use the facilities if the customer suffers from an inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease, requiring immediate access to a toilet. The law is named after Ally Bain, a 14-year-old girl from Illinois who suffered a flare up of her Crohn’s disease while shopping at a large retail store and was subsequently denied use of the employee-only restroom, causing her to soil herself. After that terrible experience, Ally’s mother vowed that no one else should have to lose their personal dignity because of a lack of access to a restroom. Mother and daughter met with their Illinois state representative, Kathy Ryg, who then sponsored legislation that ultimately was signed into law in August 2005, making Illinois the first U.S. state to do so, followed by at least 13 other states that have since passed versions of the law.

Most of these state laws mandate that the customer present a document signed by a medical professional attesting that the customer uses an ostomy device or suffers from Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis or other inflammatory bowel disease or medical condition requiring access to a toilet facility without delay. Some states include pregnancy as an eligible health condition. 

California has not passed its own version of Ally’s Law and there’s no current bill pending. Previous bills died in committee when small business representatives expressed concerns about employees getting robbed while permitting patrons to use employee-only bathrooms, especially if there’s only one employee in the store. However the original Illinois law, used as a model for other state legislation, says that business don’t need to allow eligible customers to use the employee-only restroom unless three or more employees of the retail establishment are working at the time of the request. 

Another bathroom-related issue is the growing number of opposite-sex caregivers assisting an older child or teen or an elderly or disabled adult in a pubic bathroom. This could include fathers who need to help their teenage daughters with multiple physical/intellectual disabilities as well as wives of husbands with advanced Alzheimer’s disease who would lose track of what they need to do if left alone in a bathroom stall.

These situations are even worse for persons with “invisible disabilities,” such as autism. In a New York Times article on this subject, Laura Rossi, a mother of 13-year-old twins who are highly impacted by autism, talked about how taking them to the bathroom has gotten more difficult over time. “When the twins were little and cute, there were all these smiles and nodding heads,” said Rossi, a public relations professional who lives in Jamestown, R.I. But as they got older, she began to hear criticism when she took them into the women’s room. “Matt’s needs are invisible and he got tall very quickly,” she said. “If there’s not a family bathroom, we got a lot of looks and comments, you know, meant for you to hear but not really ‘to’ you — like ‘this is not the boys room.’ ”

With close to 20 percent of Americans already dealing with some type of disability, this issue will only grow as our population ages, and the reality is that more and more people will need help from others in performing basic bodily functions. What should be done? A little more creativity and a lot more common sense would be a good start. For example, when I took my son with disabilities to the Santa Monica pool a few years ago, he was too big to go into the women’s locker room with me, but not able to change himself into his bathing suit in the men’s locker room. I asked a lifeguard what to do, and he quickly had a solution: We could use their single-stall employees’ bathroom/changing room, and they unlocked the door for us. Simple.

Whenever possible, accessible one-toilet bathrooms should be open for use by everyone, including a caregiver/relative who can provide assistance. Urinals could be enclosed in stalls, so that all undressing takes place in private, thus addressing both the transgender and father/disabled daughter issues, and hopefully, ending the current “bathroom wars” or at least declaring a cease-fire. 

Michelle K. Wolf writes a monthly column for the Jewish Journal. Visit her Jews and Special Needs blog at special_needs.