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.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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