Inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) can cause the sudden and sometimes painful urge to have a bowel movement — and this urge doesn’t always happen when a public restroom is available.

This is what Ally Bain learned at age 14 when she was in Chicago shopping at a popular retail store. Having been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease for three years at the time, Ally was with her mother when she experienced the sudden urge to use the restroom. However, no public restroom was available. Ally and her mother asked an employee and store manager to use the employee restroom but were denied. This resulted in an embarrassing and public accident for Ally.

Instead of allowing this incident to discourage her, Ally used her experience to advocate for herself and other IBD sufferers through creating the “Restroom Access Act,” also known as “Ally’s Law.” This law has since been passed by several states. It says that if a retail establishment does not have public restrooms, those who experience medical conditions that require immediate bathroom access (such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, pregnancy, or conditions that require use of an ostomy bag) must be allowed access to employee restrooms.

An estimated 1.6 million people in the United States have IBD. When these people need to use the restroom, it is not out of convenience. It can be a medical emergency. The Restroom Access Act raises awareness and protects those with IBD.

Ally’s Law falls under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects people who may require special accommodations. The Act protects people who may experience barriers to their health, education, and employment. Because the symptoms involve a sense of urgency, those with IBD are protected.

States that currently recognize Ally’s Law include:

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

States have created some exemptions for certain businesses, including those who have fewer than three employees. This is because an employee escorting a person to the restroom could leave a retail space vulnerable to theft or destruction.

Retail stores also don’t have to perform new construction or alter their facilities in any way to accommodate the law. They can also refer a person to an immediately accessible public restroom. The retail store is also exempt from liability if the person using the restroom is injured while using the restroom, unless the business is negligent in some way.

Fines and punishments for noncompliance vary from state to state. For example, in Massachusetts, storeowners can be fined $100 if they don’t comply with the law. A second violation involves a $200 fine. In Washington, first-time offenses are punishable by a warning letter. Second offenses are a class 2 civil infraction.

If you or a loved one has experienced difficulty in obtaining access under the Restroom Access Law, contact your local law enforcement agency.

Different states have varying requirements for the availability of public restrooms. For examples, Illinois Plumbing Code requires buildings with 5,000 square feet of gross public area or with more than 100 persons in occupancy to have a public restroom. The requirements can differ based on where the building is and how close it is to other public restrooms. If a building or business has already been in existence for some time, the business isn’t required to alter the building.

If you or a loved one suffers from Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, you can carry a card to show to a business owner or employee that explains that you need access to a restroom. You can obtain a card from the following sites:

A doctor can provide a card or a note to carry with you as an alternate option. Note that fraudulent use of this form is considered a misdemeanor offense.

In a perfect world, people with inflammatory bowel diseases wouldn’t have difficulty gaining access to a restroom when the need to go occurs urgently. However, as Ally Bain learned, this difficulty can and does happen. When it does, being prepared with a restroom access card can help cut down on time spent explaining the law and your needs. Especially for younger people who experience these conditions, having a card can reduce feelings of embarrassment because it makes it less likely they’ll have to explain their condition at length.

The Restroom Access Act has helped bring awareness to the needs of people with IBD and let those with this condition know they aren’t alone.