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Helping Virginians With Crohn’s Disease

January 10, 2013

By Allison Landry
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginians suffering from Crohn’s disease or similar medical conditions would have the right to use a store’s employee restroom when they have an urgent need for a toilet, under a bill before the General Assembly.

House Bill 1375, sponsored by Delegate Rob Krupicka of Alexandria, is called the Restroom Access Act. It’s nicknamed Ally’s Law, after Ally Bain, a young woman with Crohn’s disease who was humiliated after she was denied access to an employee restroom several years ago in Illinois.

“It’s personally important to me because I think human dignity matters,” said Krupicka, a Democrat serving his first term in the House. He represents House District 45, which includes parts of Arlington County, Fairfax County and the city of Alexandria.

“Legislation doesn’t always have to solve big problems, but sometimes it can have a very profound impact on an individual’s life. And this is the kind of legislation that doesn’t have a lot of downside and can help a large group of people live much better lives.”

Virginia would be the 14th state to adopt such a law. On Wednesday, the opening day of the General Assembly’s 2013 session, a subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee heard testimony about the issue.

Several people told the civil law subcommittee about their struggles with irritable bowel syndrome and other diseases. They said HB 1375 would help Virginians who suffer from those disorders.

Jacob Landa, a student at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, was among those who testified. Landa, who has Crohn’s disease, publically advocates for educational training and research toward curing the syndrome.

“They say 1.4 million people have this disease, and there’s also the rest of my family that’s affected because they cannot travel as much because they have to worry about me getting sick,” Landa said.

“If this bill is passed and we are allowed to use the restrooms, it would give [assistance to] people with Crohn’s and other diseases, irritable bowel diseases, and that will really help us go out there and live normal lives.”

HB 1375 would apply to retail establishments that have employee restrooms but no public toilet facilities. Such businesses would have to let a customer use the employee restroom if the customer has Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis or other medical condition that requires immediate access to a toilet.

The proposal would not apply to service stations, banks or certain other businesses where security would be an issue.

Businesses that violate the measure could be fined up to $100.

Thirteen states, from Connecticut to Washington, already have adopted such a law at the urging of Bain, who now lives in Virginia.

“When it passed in Texas in 2007, it showed that no matter who the people are in the state or who the majority is, this is really truly a bipartisan issue,” Bain said in a telephone interview.

“Having some sort of disability or medical condition has no boundaries or brand names; it could affect anyone.”

Proponents of Ally’s Law describe bowel disorders as embarrassing and a barrier to living a normal lifestyle.

Tammy Gabriel is the facilitator for a Richmond-area support group for people with Crohn’s disease and colitis. She said the legislation would offer Virginians with such conditions a sense of dignity and lessen their fears of what would happen without immediate access to a toilet.

Opponents say Ally’s Law could hurt businesses by opening then to lawsuits and raising concerns about security and intellectual property. However, Krupicka said he hopes to allay such concerns.

“Texas, Tennessee and Kentucky, for example, have passed this, and these are conservative pro-business states that have found a way to use language very similar to this and be comfortable with it,” said Krupicka, a business consultant.

“This law has been in place in a number of states for a number of years, and there haven’t been any negative issues with retailers that I’m aware of.”

Krupicka’s proposal would help not only thousands of citizens but even a fellow legislator.

Delegate Gregory D. Habeeb, R-Salem, has Crohn’s disease. He is a member of the subcommittee that heard testimony about HB 1375.

Habeeb ended the meeting by thanking the people who testified for their courage in coming forward. At the same time, Habeeb said he is worried that the measure could negatively impact businesses.

“There are significant barriers making this workable,” Habeeb said. “But you will not find anybody more understanding of what you’re going through than someone else who suffers from Crohn’s disease.”

HB 1375 is awaiting a vote by the civil law subcommittee. If it clears that panel and the full committee, the bill would go to the House of Delegates for consideration.

Update on Jan. 22: Restroom Access Act Killed by Subcommittee

On the Web

The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America has support groups throughout Virginia and in other states for people who suffer from those diseases. The foundation’s Web address is www.ccfa.org

A website called IBS Impact, which advocates for people with irritable bowel syndrome, has more about Ally’s Law at http://ibsimpact.wordpress.com/tag/allys-law/

To monitor or comment on House Bill 1375, visit the Richmond Sunlight website at www.richmondsunlight.com/bill/2013/hb1375/