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I Can’t Wait: Restroom Access Victory For Crohn’s, Colitis Sufferers

(Chatama/Wikimedia Commons)

Catie Rutley was eight years old when she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a painful, chronic condition marked by abdominal pain, fatigue, weight loss, diarrhea and bloody stools. For Catie, one of the most notable symptoms was a frequent, powerful, out-of-the-blue need to use the bathroom.

That’s what happened when she was shopping with her mom at an Ocean State Job Lot shortly after her diagnosis. “I had a really sudden, strong urge to use the bathroom,” said Catie, now 16 and a senior at Sharon High School in Massachusetts. “I went to an employee to ask — I was really nervous, I didn’t know what to say because I was embarrassed and terrified that I’d have an accident in the store right then and there. She told me the bathroom was for employees only and I couldn’t use it.”

Ultimately, Catie’s mom intervened and explained her daughter’s condition – diarrhea attacks and all — in front of the mortified child. “It was definitely embarrassing,” Catie said. She went home and recounted the story to her father, Canton attorney Jonathan Rutley, who felt “embarrassed for my child and what she had to go through.”

It wasn’t Catie’s “first instance of a bathroom emergency,” said Rutley, “but it was the last. I said enough, we’ve got to do something.” He immediately sat down to draft legislation so that no other child or adult suffering from an intestinal or similar disorder would face such public humiliation.

That began a years-long political and emotional odyssey. During that time Rutley gained more and more support — including from lawmakers whose constituents suffered with similar conditions and celebrities who began to speak out. Still, he says, his efforts were blocked by state and national retailers and business groups who said the measure unfairly burdened store owners. “Why single out only retailers?” Retailers Association of Massachusetts President Jon Hurst told the Boston Herald in June. “Why not banks, why not office buildings, why not government buildings? I walk into the State House and see a lot of locked bathrooms…We’re certainly sympathetic…We just don’t think we need a law that ignores the fact that one size doesn’t fit all.”

“I have had embarrassing incidents with my Crohn’s on stage…having to listen to my band open for the Rolling Stones from a Port-a-Potty.” — Mike McCready, lead guitarist, Pearl Jam

Last week, Gov. Deval Patrick signed the co-called “Restroom Access Bill” into law, making Massachusetts part of a trend taking hold across the nation: 12 other states have passed some version of the legislation (Illinois was the first).

Under the new Mass. law, businesses with at least three employees on duty must allow anyone with Crohn’s, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, a colostomy bag  — or with any other medical condition involving urgent toilet needs — to use an employee-only restroom if public facilities aren’t readily accessible. One catch: sufferers must have a valid doctor’s note or approved ID card verifying their disorder. Shopowners can be fined $100 for failure to approve a valid request. Continue reading