WALKER, Mich. (WOOD) — It’s the kind of emergency you hope to have behind closed doors. But for people with inflammatory bowel disease, or I.B.D., painful flare-ups can come anywhere, anytime.

That’s exactly what happened to a Walker family enjoying an ice cream treat at the Double Dip Depot Ice Cream Shop Sunday afternoon.

“I could see my family member was in obvious distress,” recalled Michael, a husband and father who wanted to be identified by his first name only.

“Who wants to talk publicly about having a bathroom accident? Soiling themselves in the middle of a public place?” he said, explaining that his family suffers from I.B.D., a hereditary condition that includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

One in 100 people suffer from I.B.D, which is characterized by chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. Despite I.B.D.’s impact on millions of Americans, there is very little awareness of restroom access laws, including Michigan’s statute, which was passed in 2008. The Restroom Access Act (PDF) requires retail businesses with toilet facilities for employees to allow customers with specific medical conditions to access them if the need arises.

“I got together (my relative’s) documentation, including a copy of his (medical emergency) card and presented that to the (Double Dip) window saying, ‘Please, we’re having an emergency, can we use your restroom?” recalled Michael, who said the employees went to get the shop’s owner, who was not familiar with the state law.

A medical alert card for those with Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis. (July 14, 2022)
A medical alert card for those with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

“I actually pulled up the law, showed it to him on my phone, and he said, ‘I don’t see any protection for us. What if you’re just making it up? We have no way to know if this is the truth… Anybody could just come to us and say, “You know, we need to use your private bathroom,”‘ Michael quoted the shop’s owner as saying.

In addition to the medical card and state law, Michael said he also tried to show the owner a signed letter from a doctor.

“We were begging,” he said. “I said, ‘Please, sir, this is a medical emergency… This isn’t something we can just hold. You know, my family member is going to have an embarrassing accident here in a minute if you guys don’t help.'”

The owner refused and the predicted outcome occurred.

“My family member ended up having that emergency right there, right in the middle of their outdoor dining area amongst a bunch of people. The poor guy had to drive home in soiled clothes,” Michael said.

SEVERAL STATES HAVE ‘ALLY’S LAW’

The owner of the Double Dip Depot, James DeWinter, declined an on-camera interview with Target 8 but explained he had never heard of the state law.

He also pointed out the ice cream stand has no inside access. Instead, customers order at a drive-through or front window. Even after he read the law, DeWinter said he remained concerned about the health and safety risk posed by someone entering the one small room where his employees work and prepare food.

There’s a caveat in the law that exempts businesses in which public access to an employee bathroom would pose a risk. The statute also protects retailers from liability due to public use of their bathroom unless the business “knew or should have known of the condition that caused the injury or death.”

About one-third of the nation’s states have passed bathroom access laws, often dubbed Ally’s Law. They’re named after an Illinois woman with Crohn’s disease who advocated for legislation after a store denied her use of its bathroom when she was 14 years old.

“I was crying, doubled over in pain. We talked to a fitting room employee and he said the store did not have any public restrooms,” Ally Bain explained in a YouTube video sponsored by the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation.

In eighth grade, Bain’s class went on a field trip to the state capitol, where she met a legislator who explained how laws are made.

“I knew from the beginning to the end that this was the right thing to do,” Bain said. “My family raised me to be my own advocate on top of them being advocates for me. When you’re sick, you need to be ready to advocate for yourself.”

Michael is grateful to Bain for her advocacy.

“She’s a hero. A brave gal,” he said, noting he hopes his own advocacy will make a difference.

“If we reach one person with this and in five or 10 years down the road that person says, ‘Yeah, you can use my restroom’ to someone in a situation like we were, that’s all that matters. That one person who didn’t have that embarrassing experience. They’re going to remember that and appreciate that,” he said, choking back tears.

VIOLATION IS $100 CIVIL CITATION

Several state agencies told Target 8 that enforcement of the Restroom Access Act would fall to local law enforcement. If Michael decides to file a complaint and police determine the Double Dip Depot is not exempt, law enforcement could issue the shop a $100 civil citation.

“It can be difficult for small business owners to stay on top of the many state and federal laws, rules, and regulations they’re required to follow,” Amy Drumm of the Michigan Retailers Association wrote in an email to Target 8.

“In the case of Ally’s Law, a retailer is only required to allow access to a non-public restroom if all six of the law’s criteria are met. It’s quite possible that customers may not be familiar with all the details of the law and are therefore frustrated if they’re denied access for not meeting the law’s requirements. Most businesses want to accommodate customers the best they can and would allow access so long as it’s safe. Businesses may hesitate to allow customers access to non-public areas since that could expose them to additional liability,” Drumm concluded.

The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation recently launched an open restrooms movement to push for better access nationwide. Cassie Ray of the foundation said there are far too few public bathrooms nationwide and urged people to get involved in the campaign to push for change.

She also encouraged people to download the foundation’s new app. It’s called We Can’t Wait and it offers a database of publicly accessible bathrooms. It also helps people identify sympathetic businesses because retailers are encouraged to partner with the foundation and list their facilities on the app.