Public restrooms and dignity for all

Roundup
tags: LGBT, transgender



Margaret Storey is an associate professor of history at DePaul University and an advocate for children with medical complexity and disability.

The mid-20th century civil rights movement is famously remembered for dismantling segregated lunch counters, but we forget that protesters also staged integration actions in bathrooms. Under Jim Crow, if there was no bathroom for you, you either did not go, or faced the choice between personal humiliation or arrest.

In 1961, the Chicago Defender reported a story about an African-American woman in Atlanta who was refused entry to the white "ladies room" at the insurance company where she was doing business. Only when she "embarrassed herself" by losing control of her bladder was she finally led to a toilet. Even then she was forced to use the white men's room (reminding us that the idea of forcing people into bathrooms where they don't feel they belong has a history in America).

Jim Crow segregation of this kind eventually came to an end thanks to searing citizens' protest, the power of U.S. Supreme Court decisions and determined enforcement efforts of the federal government. It seems that the latest controversy will be subject to similar action. Earlier this month, the federal Justice Department first sued the state of North Carolina to challenge its legislation insisting that sex at birth determined one's legal access to a bathroom, then asserted that it will use the provisions of Title IX to ensure that public schools allow children to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.

In theory, people with disabilities should have the same recourse thanks to the Americans With Disabilities Act. But as scholar David Serlin has argued, the ADA has never approached meeting this need because policymakers carved out a space within the able-bodied restroom, heedless of the requirements of people they did not consult, or whose needs they could not imagine. Once set in bricks and mortar, the accommodation is supposedly complete, and no one gets — or deserves — any further privilege or consideration.

We need the ADA to do more. Indignity and humiliation are forced upon people when they are not accorded appropriate, private spaces to do what we all must do. Just as the Justice Department has done in the case of Title IX and transgender people's rights, public policy makers must grapple honestly with the realities of bodily functions for many people with significant disabilities. They need to overcome the ignorance, shame and revulsion that has plagued discussions of what happens in the bathroom, and what it means to be dependent upon significant supports or the help of others to go to the toilet.




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