Throughout the 1960s, as the civil rights movement was picking up pace, the disability rights movement was beginning. The leaders of the disability rights movement observed that a threat to human rights for one marginalized group is a threat to all marginalized groups.
The latest instance of a group being discriminated against deals with “bathroom bills.” The premise of the bills — now a law in North Carolina (specifically the “Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act“) — is to prohibit people from using restrooms other than those that match their gender at birth. This bills are aimed at transgender people, however transgender people are not the only ones affected.
Let me explain.
As a woman with a disability, I require assistance in the restroom. I have always required assistance in the restroom. When I was a child out in public with my single-parent father, using the restroom was always a tough issue to navigate. Family, or unisex, restrooms have only recently become more common.
Whenever I would go out with my father and I needed to use the restroom, he would have to sneak me into the men’s restroom, or I would have to sneak him into the women’s restroom. In extreme circumstances, we would need to ask one of the employees of the facility to put up a sign on the door to prevent people from entering.
Going into the opposite-sex restroom became the norm for us. It was either use the restroom or end our outing and return home.
I couldn’t help but find it entertaining when former Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz said that “the idea that grown men would be allowed alone in a bathroom with little girls” was unsafe. Why did I find it entertaining? Because that was my experience when I was a little girl. The only thing that happened to me was that I relieved my bladder.
Family restrooms are wonderful creations, but only a minority of businesses have them.
I can tell you countless stories of parents needing to accompany their opposite-sex child (whether disabled or simply too young to be on their own) to the restroom. However, parents aren’t the only ones.
Spouses have difficulty figuring out appropriate restrooms to help their significant others. Kim Lackey, Public Policy Team Manager at Paraquad, runs into issues assisting her husband with public restrooms. While attending a recent conference for people with disabilities, Kim had to ask someone to block off the women’s restroom while she went in to assist her husband. This particular occurrence happens frequently for Kim, and it’s always a concern to take into consideration when she is out with her husband.
Another type of relationship affected by the bill is the one between personal care attendants and the person being assisted. According to Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, 89 percent of personal care attendants are female. The U.S. Census Bureau reports just over 17 percent of American men have a disability compared to almost 20 percent of women. This means that men with disabilities are more likely to get attendants who are women. What happens when a man with a disability is out with his female attendant and he needs to use the restroom? Does he hope that there is a family restroom nearby?
Matt Brock, an independent living special at Paraquad, experiences this when he goes out with his attendant. He mentions that the best way of navigating the situation is for her to come into the men’s restroom when there are no family restrooms available. It may be uncomfortable for the other people in the restroom, but it’s necessary for Matt.
While the aforementioned bill does have an exception for assistance in a restroom if a person requires it, the concept of using a strictly separate facility adds to the stigma people with disabilities must already manage. It may be permitted by law to have my dad come into the bathroom and help me, but it won’t change the opinion some people have about a man in the women’s restroom. The damage will have already been done.
If we allow restrooms to be more fluid and accommodating for different life experiences, we include transgender people, people with disabilities who may require “unconventional” assistance and parents with young children. There are multiple ways of examining a social justice issue, and I encourage you to look beyond your personal experience and consider different walks of life.
Anna Corbitt is the Youth and Family Specialist at Paraquad. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Jeffrey Beall