The Grassroots Movement to Change the Nation's Public Restroom Laws

Over a million people suffer from inflammatory bowel disease. It may be time to rethink bathroom access.

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Ryg, who retired from the House in 2009,still remembers that call and the subsequent visit from Bain and her mother to her office. "They gave me the background of the story," she recalls. "It is one of those not uncommon things I've experienced where common sense would have dictated that she should have been allowed to use the restroom and that would have been the end of it. But based on my personal experience, the managers in these stores are often young people and they follow store policy and don't always have the ability to make a judgement call."

Ryg, who was in her freshman year as a state representative, embarked on a journey to address this issue with a law, first by determining whether other states had passed such legislation. When it became clear that it would be, for the most part, unprecedented, her office began researching which components would need to come together for such law to become practical, including "who we needed to get input from in terms of making it something that wasn't just a law on the books but a law that could be implemented."

Within nine months, Bain found herself testifying before a House judiciary committee, retelling the story of that dreadful day. Standing in opposition to the bill, not only in Illinois but in several subsequent states, were groups representing both the retail and petroleum industries.

"I can't say that we 100% opposed it," says Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, of the law's passage in his state. "We were concerned why we were being singled out, why the retail sector was being singled out." He points to a number of state government buildings and other types of businesses that weren't targeted by the legislation.

He says they also had concerns about liability, as well as theft.

"Maybe the route to the bathroom goes through the storage room where you're storing a lot of your goods and you happen to be a type of establishment where you have a real shoplifting and theft problem."

The petroleum industry had a similar complaint: It argued that if a station employee were to escort a customer to a bathroom, it would become a security and safety issue, potentially allowing someone to steal from the store.

Because of this opposition, Illinois and other states have carved out exemptions for retail businesses with fewer than three employees, as well as for gas kiosks. Many states have also placed in language protecting businesses from lawsuits for any accidents that may occur in their restrooms.

Once Illinois passed the law, the floodgates opened. Before she knew it, Ally was contacted by other sufferers across the country via E-Mail, Facebook and Twitter to help them lobby their own representatives. National organizations like the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America became involved, and it snowballed from there.

Not everyone is on board with Ally's Law, however, including at least one surprising activist.

Robert Brubaker, a program manager for the American Restroom Association, an advocacy group formed in the 2005 to increase quality and access to restrooms, doesn't like it when there are exemptions carved out for IBD sufferers to use restrooms.

Why?

"Because it makes it sound like you don't already have the privilege," he says.

To understand Brubaker's opposition to laws like this one, one must first consider whether access to a toilet is a basic human right, a right grounded in one simple truth: as animals, we all, at some point, need to dispel our waste, and some of us may not always be able to wait very long. Though many versions of Ally's Law are written to include all conditions affecting the bladder and bowels, he believes it sends a message to retailers that they can ignore the needs of those who fit outside these narrow categories.

"Let's fix it for everybody, even for the healthy person who got food poisoning. They don't normally have a problem but they do today," he says.

What perplexes Brubaker is that there are already laws in existence addressing issue, including many state-based building codes,and he argues IBD activists should focus simply on getting them enforced.