THE BLOG
03/26/2013 12:34 pm ET Updated May 26, 2013

Time for New York State to Pass the Restroom Access Act

Ally Bain was 14 when she experienced the humiliation of having an accident in public. She was out shopping with her mom when the urge to use the bathroom struck. As a patient with Crohn's disease, she knew she had a matter of minutes before she would lose control of her bowels.

Her mother sought out the store manager, explaining the situation and her daughter's need for a bathroom. However, the store did not have public restrooms and the manager denied Ally access to the employee restroom, causing her to have an accident in the store.

This is a fear that the 1.4 million Americans who suffer from Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis live with every day -- not being able to find a restroom in time. According to the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America, these diseases cause debilitating pain and extreme urgency, which often causes IBD patients to need a bathroom at a moment's notice before a mess is made.

I have witnessed the urgency that comes with inflammatory bowel disease. While I do not have Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis, my husband does. There have been many times that he has had to search for a public restroom or a friendly patron who will let him use an employee one. While he hasn't been denied access to a restroom, there are many others who have been and subsequently had embarrassing public accidents.

Following her accident, Ally and her mother lobbied the Illinois state legislature to enact the Restroom Access Act, also known as Ally's Law. This law requires retail establishments that do not have a public restroom to allow people with inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, other chronic conditions, and pregnant women access to employee restrooms. Twelve other states have enacted the Restroom Access Act, including Colorado, Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin.

The New York State legislature is currently considering passing the Restroom Access Act. Proposed by Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D-Westchester), the bill would allow people with eligible medical conditions, including Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, other forms of inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or any other medical condition immediate access to a toilet facility.

The proposed bill stipulates that:

A place of business open to the general public for the sale of goods or services that has a toilet facility for its employees shall allow any individual who is lawfully on the premises of such place of business to use that toilet during normal business hours, even if the place of business does not normally make the employee toilet facility available to the public.

There are several conditions that must be met, according to the proposed bill, in order to allow access to the restroom, including:
  • The individual must have an eligible medical condition or an ostomy and ability to provide evidence of the condition;
  • Two or more employees are working at the time of the request for toilet access;
  • The employee restroom isn't located in an unsafe or unsecure area;
  • Use of the employee restroom wouldn't create a health or safety risk to the requesting person; and
  • A public restroom isn't immediately accessible.

There are many uncertainties surrounding this law and its enforcement in places where it isn't enacted. These uncertainties, like the notion that allowing employee restroom access would increase crime and put employees in danger, are unfounded.

In instances in other states, like Connecticut and Colorado, the law specifically states that the customer requesting restroom access must be able to provide written proof of having an eligible medical condition.

Proof of having an eligible medical condition is already available through the Medical Alert Restroom Access Pass. This wallet-sized card reads:

The holder of this card has Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis. Colitis is painful and requires immediate access to a toilet facility. This patient cannot physically 'hold it.' Please make your restroom available.

While these cards are available nationwide, in states where the Restroom Access Act isn't law, it's up to each establishment whether or not they honor the card and the person's request.

This isn't the first time the Restroom Access Act has been proposed in New York State -- it was proposed in 2011 and 2012 but died in committee each time.

There is already a stigma around inflammatory bowel disease. Many patients who live with it every day are ashamed of the disease and the side effects and try to avoid talking about it publicly. Asking for bathroom access and having it denied causes them further emotional pain, anguish, and, in some cases, public humiliation.

It's time for New York State to pony up and pass the Restroom Access Act. The quality of life of the thousands of New Yorkers living every day with inflammatory bowel disease depend on it.