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Advocating for Accessible Changing Tables in Public Restrooms 

click to enlarge Keegan with daughters Penelope and Coraline
  • Keegan with daughters Penelope and Coraline

Last winter, my family of four found ourselves wandering the aisles of Michaels in South Burlington on a Saturday afternoon. We had no particular reason for the trip, other than to get out of the house for a couple of hours in the dead of winter.

My partner, Stephanie, was browsing the toy section with our 2-year-old daughter, Coraline, while I pushed 4-month-old Penelope around in a stroller, hoping she would nap. After a few laps around the store, I started thinking she was close to falling asleep. Then I heard that unmistakable sound erupt from Penelope's bottom:

"PTTTFFFFHBBTT!"

The odor that followed only confirmed my suspicions. I made a U-turn with the stroller, and redirected our flight path to the nearest restroom.

I parked the stroller outside of the men's room and removed Penelope from her seat, trying to ensure that whatever had been captured by her diaper stayed there. With the diaper bag in one hand and Penelope balanced on my hip, I pushed open the door with my behind.

As the door shut behind me, my eyes searched for the changing table. Hmmmmm, nothing in plain sight, I thought to myself. I looked in each of the stalls. Nothing. I did another scan of the small room just to make sure I wasn't missing something. No changing table.

I left the restroom. Maybe there's a family-friendly location set aside for changing diapers, I told myself.

I approached an employee in a room across the hallway.

"Excuse me, do you folks have a changing table?" I asked. The immediate look of embarrassment on her face gave me the answer I was already beginning to suspect.

"We only have a changing table in the women's room," replied the employee in an apologetic voice. "You're welcome to change your baby over here." She pointed to a table in the classroom space that was set up for a crafting activity that was beginning shortly.

I politely declined. And for the first time in my life, I stated the following words: "I'd like to speak with your manager."

I spent the next several minutes talking with an empathetic manager, who admitted the changing table issue was not one she had ever thought about. And I get it. Before I had children, I hadn't thought about the issue either. When you've never been forced to change a baby on a dirty bathroom floor, it's easy to ignore that this is a reality for many people.

Some parents reading this column might recall the image of 31-year-old father, Donte Palmer, squatting in the corner of a bathroom in Jacksonville, Fla., with his 1-year-old son sprawled across his lap as he changed his diaper. That photo, taken by Palmer's 12-year-old son, went viral and inspired the #SquatForChange movement. Diaper company Pampers, changing table company Koala Kare Products, and musician John Legend, a dad of two young children, teamed up with Palmer to create a campaign to install 5,000 changing tables in public restrooms across North America by 2021.

The federal government has also passed legislation regarding access to changing tables. In 2016, president Barack Obama signed the Bathrooms Accessible in Every Situation (BABIES) Act, which requires that changing tables accessible to all people are available on every floor of federal public buildings. In 2018, the New York City Council approved a law that requires new and renovated buildings to have changing tables for everyone, regardless of gender, to use.

Progress is happening. But there's also still a lot to be done.

When changing tables are found predominantly in women's restrooms, it sends a message that it is women's responsibility to take care of children. But in modern families, not only are childcare responsibilities shared more equally, often times parents don't fit the traditional heterosexual, cisgender, non-disabled, cookie-cutter mold.

I think about single dads and stay-at-home fathers, who need restrooms to change their children. I think about same-sex male couples. I think about transgender and non-binary individuals, and the lack of gender-neutral restrooms in general. I think about caregivers with limited mobility, who may have difficulty using your average changing table. I think about children with special needs, who may require larger changing areas as they get older. I think about all those people caring for children who aren't given access to the things required to take care of them.

Today, if you go into the men's restroom at Michaels in South Burlington, you'll find a changing table. After our conversation, the manager ordered one the following Monday. This kind of response, combined with changes in legislation and successful movements like #SquatForChange, fill me with hope that providing accessible changing tables for all is gaining momentum.

And it proves to me that, in ways big and small, people can make a difference when it comes to creating more gender equity in parenting. Sometimes it's just a matter of speaking up.

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