Restroom Access Act

Some of the best ideas occur to people while they are in the bathroom.  In the case of Allyson Bain, it was a lack of restroom accessibility that helped launch critical legislation, websites, and several iPhone apps.

It all started a decade ago, when a then 14-year-old Bain was out shopping with her mother at Old Navy.  Three years prior, the Vernon Hills, Ill., teenager was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, a chronic illness that affects the digestive system.  While out shopping, her Crohn's flared up and she had only minutes to find a restroom.  Unfortunately, employees denied her the use of their restroom—even after Bain and her mother explained that it was a medical emergency—and the young girl suffered an embarrassing accident. 

Vowing that this would never happen to anyone again, Bain and her mother contacted Illinois State Representative Kathy Ryg, whom the young Bain had met on an eighth grade field trip to the State Capitol in Springfield just months before.

Check out the Top 13 Apps for Crohn's Disease

Soon, Allyson Bain found herself helping to write a bill and testifying before the House Judiciary Committee.  The bill passed unanimously in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and was signed into law by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich in August 2005.  Known as the "Restroom Access Act" or "Ally's Law," this groundbreaking bill, which requires businesses to make employee bathrooms accessible to those with IBD, chronic medical conditions, and pregnancy, has since passed in 11 other states and is pending in several more.

Currently, Minnesota, Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Colorado, Ohio, Michigan, Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin, and Connecticut have all passed this act or one like it.  

Most recently, a bill (H-2366) similar to Ally’s Law is making the rounds in Massachusetts and is only waiting on the signature of Gov. Deval Patrick to pass.  H-2366 was drafted by the father of Catherine Rutley, a Sharon, Mass., teenager and ulcerative colitis patient, who in the past had found herself in uncomfortable situations similar to Bain's.  Before making its way to Gov. Patrick, the bill had gone through several changes to help address concerns brought up by retailers and the following will be required in order to access an “employee-only” restroom: written documentation from a doctor or identification card, and at least two employees have to be present in the store at the time the request is made.  There will be a $100 fine for not complying. 

A supporter of this act, The Foundation for Clinical Research in IBD, has created the Medical Alert Restroom Access Pass to help those affected by Crohn's and colitis around the nation.  The card, available on the organization's site at myibd.org reads:

“The holder of this card has Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Colitis is painful and requires immediate access to a toilet facility. This patient cannot physically 'hold it.' Please make your restroom available.”

IBD, the ADA, and How to Report Noncompliance 

Some of you may be curious as to why legislation such as the Restroom Access Act and Ally’s Law needed to be passed if Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (IBDs) are now covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The reason is twofold: IBD protection under the umbrella of the ADA only recently went into effect (January 1, 2009), and the public is more familiar with the ADA’s purpose of protecting employees with disabilities and is not necessarily familiar with the ADA’s other functions.

With that said, the ADA explains its secondary function is to guarantee “equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, State and local government services, and telecommunications.”

But if you think about what goes on in those critical moments between finding someone who will grant you restroom access to having them deny it to you and then trying to appeal to their moral compass that how you are a disabled individual with an invisible disease, time is of the essence. This is why legislation such as Ally’s Law is crucial.

Now with the law in effect, all you will have to do is identify if there is more than one person working in the facility (the law’s stipulation in most states), tell the clerk you need to use the facility and show them your IBD card or doctor’s note. If you feel uncomfortable or guilty about using a facility without patronizing it, look for something small to purchase like a bottle of water or pack of gum.

For those who live in one of the states with the Restroom Access Act already in effect (MA’s will go into effect in October) you may be wondering what to do if you are still denied access to a restroom. Call the police (non-emergency) and file a complaint. Denial of access to the restroom is considered a petty offense or misdemeanor.

Yes, it may feel a tad like tattling on someone. Think of it this way, you are tattling on someone for doing wrong against a person with a physical ailment and possibly helping someone else with IBD face a similar situation if not worse. Also, if you are feeling up to the challenge you can contact your state’s attorney general’s office to file a complaint. According to the MA attorney general’s office’s civil resources division, they welcome these types of calls to track incidences and are open to researching the matter to see if mediation with the facility is necessary.

Find Out If Your State Is Potty Friendly

While little data exists on most public restroom-friendly cities, it's widely accepted that New York City is the least, while Portland ranks the highest.

Whereas San Francisco and Seattle fair somewhere in between, both cities rolled out automated public toilets (in 1995 and 2004, respectively), only to see the majority become dirty, unsafe, and inoperable within a few years.  Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Washington DC, and San Antonio have also experimented with APTs with various degrees of success.

Chicago restaurants received criticism last year after an exposé showed that they violated city code by not providing customers with restrooms.  On the other hand, the Windy City also houses the most acclaimed public restroom in the country. In fact, the Field Museum's public restroom boasts a ceiling, decorated with renderings of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, which also happens to absorb sounds, lending an air of tranquility.  The women's bathroom also provides a nursing mother's room and special tot-friendly toilets, according to Cintas, a restroom facility supplier, that also ranks the best lavatories in the country.  

Portland is considered a model city, offering adequate signage for restrooms in public buildings, several freestanding, open-space comfort stations, and a number of innovative, sustainable, solar-powered, vandalism-resistant, regularly-cleaned, and (most importantly) safe Portland Loos.

No matter what city you live in, popular food chains such as Starbucks and McDonalds, department stores including Macy's and Bloomingdales, and big box stores like Bed, Bath & Beyond and Wal-Mart, as well as a myriad of hotels are typically a sure bet if you're experiencing a flare and need to find a restroom quickly.

Yep, There’s a Website and an App for That, Too

For Crohn's sufferers who don't live in cities with adequate public washrooms, there are still several websites and apps devoted to discovering accessible toilets to help you when you need to “go!”

NYrestroom.com provides users with public restroom information for The Big Apple with hours and amenities information for each location.

The Bathroom Diaries has provided users with the locations of thousands of bathrooms worldwide, since 2000.  Readers submit their favorite bathrooms and can even rank them according to spotlessness, safety, and beauty.  Additional pertinent information such as handicap access and changing table availability is also included.  Top toilets—think ultramodern, eco-friendly, LED-lit, and even gold leaf-painted—receive the site's top honor, the Golden Plunger Award.

The Bathroom Diaries' accompanying iPhone app, Toiletocity (still unrated) is just one of several mobile applications that help users locate available restrooms in their hometown or while traveling.  With this app, you can search for bathrooms near you, tap for features like changing tables, handicap access, cleanliness, family restroom, unisex, 24 hours, and more, and browse user-submitted reviews and photos.

Other similar apps include

- Charmin’s SitOrSquat (1.5 stars): a website and app, which boasts 100,000 bathrooms as well as searching, mapping, rating, bookmarking, and sharing capabilities

- Best Bathroom (3.5 stars): promises step-by-step directions to the best bathrooms in New York City

- Restroom/bathroom/toilet finder (2 stars, and yes that’s really its name): 60,000 toilet listings worldwide

Sharing your latest and greatest loo experiences with fellow Crohn's sufferers is tremendously helpful. 

For those of you looking to do more, especially if you live outside the 12 states that have already adopted the Restroom Access Act, you can contact your state representative or senator and explain how such legislation will benefit IBD sufferers living in and regularly traveling to their state. If you do not live in one of the 13 states with legislation like Ally’s Law, why not become an advocate for IBD sufferers? Although it may seem like an overwhelming concept, getting a bill drafted doesn’t have to be any harder than getting in touch with one of your State Representatives. After all, sponsoring and drafting bills to help constituents is part of their job description.