By Kevin G. Nunez, NJCDD Council Member
Let me tell you a little bit about myself so you understand why I am writing this blog post. My name is Kevin G. Nuñez I am a thirty-year-old Puerto Rican male living with Cerebral Palsy. I immigrated with my family to New Jersey at the age of four. Due to the nature of my disability I use a wheelchair as my primary tool to live my life. I have been serving on the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities (NJCDD) for about a year and a half now. I have been advocating for people with disabilities pretty much my entire life, but never in a formal setting until now. This position holds a lot of significance for me and it gives me a sense of purpose. I still have my daily struggles to overcome and try to live my life the best way I can. This is how I solved one of those struggles.
Like most individuals with disabilities I use the assistance of a Direct Support Professional (DSP) with my personal needs on a daily basis. When I want to visit my family, I must take a three hour and twenty-five-minute flight. Most people like to use the restroom before they board the plane. I MUST use it because I cannot relieve myself until we land again – despite what Hollywood movies might have you think, the bathroom on the plane is not large enough to fit two people, or even one person using a wheelchair. The process is very straightforward. After I use the restroom at the airport, I am the first person to board the plane. I do not move for the duration of the flight. Finally, I am the very last person to get off the plane. I can guarantee you it is not comfortable at all. By the time everyone gathers their belongings and get off the plane another thirty-five to forty-five minutes has gone by. At this point Mother Nature has my full attention saying “You must find the bathroom urgently.” When I get to the next accessible bathroom, there is always someone in the handicap stall; peacefully stretching their legs in a space they don’t need to be using because they don’t have a disability. This leaves me with two options. The first is wait until they’re done and at best get a halfhearted apology. The second choice is not a glamorous one. I am forced to relieve myself in the corner of the restroom.
I know the anecdote I just shared was not polite, but it is a situation that occurs in the life of many people with disabilities. Many non-disabled people like using handicap stalls because they are comfortable and usually clean. However, for those like me it is a necessity not a luxury. For a long time, I’ve felt that this was a problem with no solution. It’s just one of those things that will never change for us.
This year, however, I decided I’d had enough of these unfortunate scenarios, and set about trying to find a way to actually do something about it. When I began to do my research on how to solve this problem, I was presented with another: You cannot see every disability. Just because a person does not use a wheelchair, crutches, or a walker does not mean they should not have access to the stall. There will always be inconsiderate people and you cannot see every disability with the naked eye. So, my problem became how can I, as an advocate, discourage people from using the handicap stall if they don’t need it, but still keep it available for those who do?
I decided to do something I had never really done before – contact my elected officials. In doing so, I had the same concerns most people do. “They don’t care about disability issues unless some lobbyists are giving them money to care about it. If I did write them a letter, my letter would just end up on the bottom of some pile and I would never get the solution I was looking for. The NJCDD is an advocacy organization not a lobbying organization so we’re not on the top of any legislator’s call list.” I still figured I’d give it a shot; to be an example for the next person and maybe they’d have better luck. My hope was that one voice would become many voices and slowly grow a movement.
I proceeded to write an email to my State Assemblywoman, Carol Murphy from New Jersey’s seventh legislative district, finding her contact information by visiting www.njleg.state.nj.us and clicking on the “find your legislator” link. My email was concise and to the point. I told her who I was, what the problem was, and how I suggested solving the problem. I used the same anecdote as the one I shared with you above. Just like Santa Claus, I checked it twice before I hit that “send” button. I expected a form email saying, “Thank you for your inquiry and we are working diligently to solve the problem.” Then I would never hear much after that. Two days went by with no response. Just like I had imagined my email was at the bottom of the pile. I actually proceeded to write a blog post about this failure and bring awareness to this issue in the hopes that someone else will follow up with another email.
To my complete surprise I received a phone call from her Chief of Staff offering their support and their willingness to draft a bill. Still in shock, I quickly asked to arrange a phone conference to have an exchange of ideas. I wanted to capitalize on any momentum I had, in case they changed their minds. I was still apprehensive throughout the entire process. Within three weeks a bill was drafted that would require business owners to put up signs on these specific bathroom stalls to hopefully discourage people from using them inappropriately.
When I sat down with the Assemblywoman earlier this year to discuss the progress of the bill I realized there was nothing to fear at all. She is just a person like I am. We often say “look at the person, not the disability.” I was doing just that, but in reverse. I was allowing stereotypes – that non-disabled people don’t know or don’t care enough about disability issues – to make my opinion for me. The conversation could not have been more open and productive. I can honestly say it was an eye-opening experience for all of us at the table.
I am proud to say that the Accessible Restrooms Sign Bill (A3946) was successfully introduced on May 10, 2018. Since its introduction, two more Assemblymen – Bob Andrzejczak and R. Bruce Land (both from District 1) – have signed on to sponsor the bill. I know this piece of legislation is not a fancy one and it will not be seen on CNN anytime soon. I cannot guarantee that this bill will be signed into law. And even if it does, it still won’t stop every inconsiderate person from using the handicap stall. But if we can slowly change the consciousness of the general public, then we slowly begin to see real change. I can only hope that by sharing this with all of you, it shows you that one person can make a difference. Don’t let fear stop you from your goals.