A mom of a kid with a disability explains a restroom problem you've maybe never heard of.

Accessibility does not always equal accommodation.

There’s a bathroom secret I think you don’t know about.

And no, this one has nothing to do with transgender people or sex or gender. In fact, it couldn’t be less sexy, which is probably why you haven’t heard about it.

Imagine you’re out and about, maybe at a restaurant with your family or a museum with your kids or a movie with your sweetie. But then you need to use the restroom. Now here’s the tricky part: You’re in a wheelchair.


OK, no biggie. The door is mechanized; the stall is large enough; there’s even room to pivot your chair to the sink. Except ... what if you’re one of the wheelchair users who needs to lay down to take care of business? The fact that a wheelchair user can fit into a bathroom stall doesn’t mean a damn thing if that person can’t maneuver themselves onto the toilet.

Accessibility does not always equal accommodation.

There are about 3.3 million wheelchair users in the U.S.

A third of those folks need help with activities of daily living, one of the most crucial being diapering care. Many wheelchair users also need a changing table and, usually, a caregiver or attendant to get the job done. But, generally, public restroom changing tables only accommodate babies.

You might get lucky with a family restroom — those single-room offerings where, say, a dad can take his toddler daughter. Maybe there’ll be a counter long and wide enough. Of course, that doesn’t solve the problem of getting on that counter. Parents with disabled children often contrive some method that involves going back out to the car or van. That’s what I did until my son got too big, and the awkward transfer from wheelchair to makeshift changing area endangered my back. And that doesn’t even touch on privacy issues or dignity or cleanliness.

Me and my son in a restroom with an actual adult-sized changing table. All photos provided by Carla Christensen.

As a last, very last, very loathed resort, I may have to use that handicap access stall in the public restroom. And that means laying my son on the floor and praying I remembered to tuck some extra mats or pads into his wheelchair backpack as well as a vat of antiseptic gel.

Next time you’re in a public restroom, imagine lying on the floor.

Even if it’s just been cleaned. Aside from the questionable hygiene, how undignified would that be? And not even private — most bathroom stalls are open at the bottom.

While you’re at it, picture me trying to transfer my son from his wheelchair to the floor, bending and contorting to get the job done, and then getting him back up into his chair. I’m getting sweaty just writing about it.

I know what you’re thinking: If this is such a problem, how come I’ve never seen anything like it?

Well, I could say something about the American public’s general squeamishness about necessary functions in the necessary room, but I’ll save that for another article. More to the point, the reason you don’t see us is that we don’t go out. A mom from Wisconsin once wrote to a festival organizer about her family’s difficulties, and she gave me permission to share it:

"Unfortunately, what we are now forced into more often due to my son's age is to go home before the end of the movie, the soccer game, the concert. And he is missing out on what his peers take for granted ... . Families like ours ... don't go out!"

The Wisconsin mom and her family.

My husband and I used divide-and-conquer strategies so our daughters got out to the movies, and a generous aunt took them to Disneyland while I stayed home with my son. But take the family out to dinner? No way. Trip to the beach? Forget about it. There are nature trails with handicap access paths and special spaces for wheelchairs at theaters, but that doesn’t matter if you can’t attend to essential bodily functions.

I don’t care what your gender is or what your body is like or if you have a disability: You should be able to use the bathroom wherever you go.

It’s a basic human right.

If you need to accompany your young child or your elderly parent to the restroom. If you’d like a private place to breastfeed. And especially if you have no other choice for dealing with diapering. You deserve to be able to go to the restroom in peace.

That’s why single-stall bathrooms should be available in every store and every restaurant and every office in America. Single-stall bathrooms are a great way to ensure that everyone who needs to use the restroom can. But special-needs users also need special accommodation: an adult-sized changing table.  

This bathroom is inclusive... except for folks with disabilities.

Now, every time I use a public restroom, whether I’m with my son or not, I scope out the facilities. I’m a mom on a mission.

You’d be amazed how often the single-stall restroom, where it exists, doesn’t have a changing table for anyone larger than a toddler. Or how often the space for the baby changing table is large enough for a bigger table. I’m taking names.

And if you want to help out? There’s a grassroots organization called Changing Spaces, dedicated to literally changing the spaces where wheelchair users can be changed. Find them on Facebook. Start noticing the public restroom facilities and send emails to store and building managers.

Help me be the voice for change.

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