From the staff

Column: Nature's call becomes wake-up call at NC Museum of Natural Sciences

cmiller@newsobserver.comMay 9, 2013 

MILLER,CAROLE.NE.051006.PLM

Carole Miller

PAUL MAGANN

We had waited almost a year for the crowds to die down before my husband and I finally visited the new Nature Research Center at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh.

It was early February when we packed Joe’s wheelchair and headed downtown with plans to make a day of it.

The place was everything we’d heard it would be – breathtakingly beautiful and filled with fascination. We were thrilled that our adopted state had made such an enlightened investment.

Until Joe heard nature’s call, that is.

Like many people whose mobility is limited, my husband needs assistance in the restroom. So we set out in search of a family bathroom, the unisex facility we’re accustomed to finding at public places such as airports, arenas, shopping malls and museums. Family bathrooms make life easier for parents whose tots need help going potty, but they’re essential for those of us with grown family members of the opposite sex who need assistance.

We searched floor to floor in this 80,000-square-foot, $56 million addition. No family restroom to be found. Anywhere.

Certain we’d overlooked it, I rolled Joe to the customer service desk and asked for directions. The nice woman pointed to a corner. “Over there,” she said.

We wheeled across the floor. We found the men’s room. And the women’s room. Both accessible. Neither unisex.

I hesitated. But Joe was antsy. So I opened the door with the skirted figure on it, and we forged ahead – cautiously peering inside lest we startle an unsuspecting female inside. (No way was I venturing into the men’s room.) The place was empty. I rolled Joe into the accessible stall and whisked him out as fast as I could.

He was embarrassed. I was steamed. The women at customer service were apologetic. We misunderstood, they said, there is no unisex restroom. “I’ll stand outside the door if your husband needs to use it again,” one offered.

It didn’t seem possible that this groundbreaking science center that our tax dollars had helped build lacked a restroom that a man needing a wife or an aide’s help could use without asking a stranger to stand guard.

Dignity destroyed, we called it a day.

At home, I emailed NRC director Meg Lowman expressing our surprise at the oversight. Her answer came swiftly.

“Your email is such a wake-up call for me and all of our staff,” she wrote, vowing to remedy the problem and keep us posted.

I’m happy to report she has done just that. An accessible bathroom near the Daily Planet’s first-floor theater originally marked “Staff Only” is now the NRC’s family restroom.

The oversight was more than a little ironic.

Lowman has long worked to make science accessible. She built the nation’s only handicapped-accessible tree canopy walkway in Florida in 2000 to celebrate the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And she recently won federal funding for a summer program that will allow her to take youngsters with mobility limitations into the canopy to do biological research. They don’t call her “Canopy Meg” for nothing.

Signs identifying the family restroom are now in place, well before those young scientists visit the NRC in August to share their discoveries.

“We obviously need bathroom facilities to cater to them, and more importantly, to our visitors,” she wrote in response to my initial email.

Thanks to “Canopy Meg,” we have them now.

Miller: 919-829-8901 or cmiller@newsobserver.com

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