If you have Crohn’s disease, you’re likely familiar with the stressful feeling of having a flare-up in a public place. The sudden and extreme urge to use the restroom when you’re away from home can be embarrassing and inconvenient, especially if you’re somewhere without a public bathroom.

Luckily, thanks to legislation passed in a number of states, there are measures you can take to gain access to employee restrooms without having to explain your condition to a stranger. Read on to find out about how getting a restroom card can be a game-changer when it comes to living with Crohn’s.

The Restroom Access Act, also called Ally’s Law, requires retail establishments to grant customers with Crohn’s and certain other medical conditions access to their employee restrooms.

The origin of Ally’s Law stems from an incident where a teenager named Ally Bain was denied access to a restroom in a large retail store. As a result, she had an accident in public. Bain contacted her local state representative. Together they drafted a bill declaring that employee-only restrooms be made accessible to anyone having a medical emergency.

The state of Illinois passed the bill unanimously in 2005. Since then, 16 other states have adopted their own version of the law. States with restroom access laws currently include:

  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Illinois
  • Kentucky
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • New York
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

To take advantage of Ally’s Law, you must present a form signed by a healthcare provider or an identification card issued by a relevant nonprofit organization. Some states — like Washington — have made restroom access forms available online. If you’re unable to find a printable version of the form, you can ask your doctor to provide one.

The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation offers an “I can’t wait” restroom card when you become a member. Membership costs $30 at the base level. Becoming a member has additional benefits, like regular news bulletins and local support services.

The Bladder & Bowel Community recently released a free mobile app for iOS that functions in the same way as a restroom card. Called the “Just Can’t Wait” toilet card, it also includes a map feature that can help you locate the nearest public washroom. Plans to create an Android version are currently in the works.

Once you get your restroom card or signed form, it’s a good idea to keep it inside your wallet or phone case so it’s always with you.

If you’re somewhere without a public restroom when a flare-up comes on, calmly ask to see the manager and present them with your card. Most restroom cards have key information about Crohn’s written on it, so you don’t have to explain why you need to use the restroom.

If the person you show your card to denies you access to the employee restroom, remain calm. Stress that it’s an emergency. If they still refuse, politely remind them they may be subject to fines or legal action if they don’t comply.

If you live in one of the 17 states covered under Ally’s Law and are turned away after presenting your restroom card, you can report noncompliance to your local law enforcement agency. Punishment for not complying varies from state to state, but ranges from $100 fines to warning letters and civil infractions.

If you live in a state without Ally’s Law, it can still be useful to carry a restroom card with you at all times. Although those businesses aren’t legally required to let you use the restroom, presenting the card can help employees understand the urgency of your situation. It may encourage them to grant you access to their employee washroom.

It’s also worth contacting your state representative to ask about any progress they’re making on passing a bill similar to Ally’s Law. Slowly but surely, legislators at the state level are starting to recognize how much a simple card can improve the quality of life for people with Crohn’s disease.