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Jana Serge remembers her father pushing her wheelchair into a men’s room in the late 1970s. “Close your eyes,” he would say, as he quickly wheeled her toward the stalls.
Today, a father who took his disabled daughter into a men’s room in a public building in North Carolina technically would run afoul of the state’s so-called “bathroom bill,” which requires that people over the age of 7 use the bathroom that matches the sex on their birth certificates. While the law is aimed at transgender people, disability advocates worry that it also could affect people with disabilities who, because they need assistance from an opposite sex caregiver or parent, also use opposite sex bathrooms.
Parents like Jennifer Eldredge-Bird of Miami, whose sons, ages 11 and 15, have autism, say their children’s disabilities require that the parent and child stay together at all times.
“They’re not very high-functioning,” she said. “If I’m going in the ladies’ room, they’re going in the ladies’ room.”
Sharisse Tracey, a mother of four in West Point, N.Y., said sending her 8-year-old, who has autism, into a shared men’s room alone is out of the question. “I wouldn’t send him in anywhere alone, let alone a men’s room,” she said.
For Laura Rossi and her 13-year-old twins, using public bathrooms became more challenging as her children have gotten older. Her son, Matt, has Tourette syndrome, accompanied by significant impairment of fine motor and social skills.
“When the twins were little and cute, there were all these smiles and nodding heads,” said Ms. 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 restroom access a topic of national debate, many people with disabilities and their families are hoping that conversation extends to expanding access to public facilities for every person.
For many of the nearly one in five Americans (and about 5 percent of school-age children) with some disability, lack of access to public toilet facilities challenges their ability to take part in ordinary daily life. For some, like Ms. Serge, 46, who was born with cerebral palsy, the challenges are primarily physical.
“The stalls aren’t wide enough,” she said, quickly ticking off a list of problems she faces regularly in public restrooms in Amherst, Mass., where she lives. “If the door swings in, not out, you can’t close it once you’re in there.” The rails or toilet seats are often loose; there’s not room for her and for someone to help her and she has hit her head on a badly positioned huge toilet paper roll more than once. “And by the time I’m done, the motion-activated flush has gone off, like, 14 times.”
For others — parents of teenage and adult children with physical disabilities, some of whom use diapers, or of older children and teenagers with autism or other cognitive and emotional difficulties — the challenges have to do with their ability to assist family members.
Family members of people with disabilities say large, multi-stall public restrooms present the biggest challenge. Some large retailers now offer family bathrooms, which are ideal because they are private but large enough to accommodate multiple family members as well as wheelchairs and strollers. Individual bathrooms also work better for everyone, but space and cost constraints mean that many public spaces don’t offer them.
Some people say that if there isn’t a bathroom that accommodates the needs of disabled family members, they just stay home.
“We plan all our trips around Michael,” said Jean Lucas, whose nonverbal 7-year-old son uses diapers and a wheelchair. “Sometimes I’m in the middle of the floor, changing him while people are washing their hands.” It’s a situation the South River, N.J., mother of four does her best to avoid. “People say, oh, he doesn’t know what’s going on, but he knows. He understands. He deserves privacy.”
Eric Lipp, executive director of the Chicago-based Open Doors Organization, which advocates for people with disabilities in the travel and tourism industries, says there is a slowly growing movement to offer facilities for changing a diaper on an adult or an older child — a large, stable surface, ideally with a lift, like those designed by the nonprofit Changing-places.org
“Family bathrooms have been a really big addition for people with disabilities,” he said.
Jenifer Kasten, a mother of two daughters, one of whom uses a wheelchair, and a lawyer and special education advocate in Scottsdale, Ariz., said that creating accessible bathrooms isn’t just an issue for people who are transgender or disabled, but something that may affect all people as they age or as their health circumstances change.
“Accessibility has unintended consequences that are good for everyone,” she said, “How we think about accessible bathrooms says a lot about how we think of people with disabilities in general.”
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