Chapel Hill: Opinion

The untold bathroom story this election season – Ashley Thomas

Are you ready for some potty talk? There has been a lot of conversation about bathrooms in North Carolina lately, and I would like to add the perspective of the members of our communities with disability.

To set the stage, 19 percent of our national population lives with a disability, and 24,000 to 25,000 children in the North Carolina public school system have a disability Our state has nine military bases, and often these communities become home to veterans after an injury or accident And can you believe that 1 in 4 20-year-olds in today’s population will become disabled before they retire?

What does this have to do with bathrooms, you might ask?

One of the most common complaints among people with a variety of disabilities who use some sort of mobility device is the lack of accessible bathrooms. Many citizens don’t believe this to be true because ADA rules protected disabled people over 25 years ago. I believe that the discrepancy between the ADA rules and reality is due primarily to a lack of understanding from businesses and the community as to what really constitutes an accessible bathroom.

For example, there is a reason that wheelchair accessible bathrooms are larger: they allow space for individuals to position their wheelchairs to maximize their ability and strength to go to the bathroom.

This space also enables an assistant to position themselves in the best possible ergonomically safe way to assist a transfer. In airports, often there is only one wheelchair accessible stall in the bathrooms. I have gotten off a plane that didn’t have an accessible bathroom, only to find someone changing clothes or having a conversation with a friend in the larger stall. They ignore my knocking and don’t understand that I don’t have another option.

In businesses, often these spaces are used to store additional bathroom supplies, high chairs, coat racks, unused chairs and a myriad of other items that need to be “tucked” away. These items become obstacles, and when I have to use these stalls, I often feel like I am in a pinball machine: I am the ball and am banging my way through the obstacles!

When I do make it to the bathroom and find I cannot get in or position my wheelchair properly, I panic knowing that I have no way to manage my bathroom need. I must confess that there are times when this has caused me to have an accident. Yes, I am mortified, and, sadly, it happens not only to me, but to many others who have mobility limits.

What is the solution? We need to educate businesses, the public and our policymakers that the need for accessible bathrooms is still real. We must empower one another to advocate and speak up when we discover the lack of an accessible space, and we must do our part on an individual level and respect the reason that the space is there.

And remember that the need for accessible bathrooms expands beyond the disabled population! More stalls with higher toilets and grab bars to assist people with hip and knee replacements, pregnant women, the very tall and those who are aging gracefully but getting weaker would help so many people across the state.

Join the movement! #everybodysgottago!

About the writer

Ashley Thomas is the founder and executive director of Bridge II Sports. She is a mother of three grown children, has represented the U.S. as a member of the USA ParaKayak Team, and she is a passionate advocate for access to physical recreation and sports for those with disabilities. Learn more about Bridge II Sports by visiting