CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — If the phrase “road trip” makes you think of a carefree outing, you’ve likely never been a caregiver traveling with someone who has disabilities.

Nancy Baker Curtis, a mother of two from Johnston, recalls one trip home from Chicago when the family couldn’t find a bathroom along Interstate 80 that worked for her 7-year-old son, so they had to empty out the car to make enough room for Baker Curtis to change the boy’s soiled clothes there.

“I literally plan our outings by where our restrooms are and where I will be able to change my son,” said Baker Curtis. “What do you do when your son is 30 and he’s not a little boy, but he still requires daily assistance with those tasks?”

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The Iowa Department of Transportation heard these concerns and is adding adult changing rooms to four interstate rest areas this year, including rest areas on Interstate 380 northbound between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids and on Interstate 80 westbound near Tiffin.

Each room will have an adult-size changing table that can be raised and lowered with a remote control so caregivers can safely change a dependent child or adult. The fully-enclosed rooms also have a toilet, sink and hand dryer and lock from the inside.

Within a few years, all 20-plus modern rest areas in the state will have adult changing rooms, said Steve McMenamin, Iowa DOT rest area administrator.

“Now that we understand the situation, we’re trying to do what we can to accommodate these needs,” he said.

Baker Curtis, 45, a Spanish language teacher in Johnston, said she first became aware of the problem when her son was 2 and she was driving back and forth from Chicago to Des Moines and couldn’t find changing tables that fit her son, Charlie.

When the weather was nice, she would do it on the seat of the car, which wasn’t private, but at least it was clean. When winter came, she could no longer stand in the open car door and change her son without exposing him to cold and wind.

“I realized my only option was that dirty bathroom floor,” she said. “You would never choose that for someone you loved.”

Meanwhile, Baker Curtis’s father was caring for her mother, who had experienced multiple strokes and needed help using the restroom. Larger adult changing rooms make it easier for a caregiver to provide that assistance while maintaining privacy.

“This is an issue that bookends our population,” Baker Curtis said.

More than 60,000 Iowans age 5 or older require assistance with completing daily life tasks, including toileting, according to the 2022 Iowans with Disabilities report. Without bathroom accommodations, many people with disabilities just stay home, becoming isolated socially.

Adding adult changing rooms to Iowa DOT rest areas wasn’t without concerns.

The four changing rooms to be completed this fiscal year will cost a combined $292,000. The height-adjustable adult-size changing tables cost $10,000 to $12,000 each. McMenamin hopes that as the department hires contractors for future jobs, it will learn ways to be more efficient with the rooms, which have a similar blueprint.

“The other fear is they could be used for inappropriate actions,” McMenamin said of the changing rooms.

Because the rooms can be locked from the inside, people could have sex in the rooms or use them for illegal activity, such as for human trafficking or drug transactions. Rest area attendants have keys, but it’s hard to detect trouble in a room with a locked door.

“I’ve seen a lot of stuff,” McMenamin said. “We had to lower the stall walls in other restrooms because of things going on.”

The Iowa DOT had these same concerns when the adult changing stations were used only for family restrooms, which also locked from the inside. Leaders decided to move ahead with adding the adult changing rooms despite the risk a small percentage of visitors might misuse the spaces.

Iowa’s 38 rest areas, which include 22 modern ones and 16 that are older, are visited by more than 17 million people a year.

The first rest area to be adapted, in December 2021, was I-80 eastbound near Victor. This month, the height-adjustable adult-size changing tables are being added at the Tiffin and Cedar Rapids rest areas with rest areas on I-80 by Adair and I-35 by Story City to follow.

The Iowa DOT plans to complete five other changing rooms in fiscal 2024 and five more the following year.

Baker Curtis is part of a group called Changing Spaces Iowa, which is advocating for more height-adjustable adult size changing tables across the state. The tables are 6 feet long and 36 inches wide and can hold more than 400 pounds. The Iowa Children’s Museum in the Coral Ridge Mall will be among the places with this type of table after an update this spring.

From amusement parks to zoos, all attractions should have restroom facilities that work for all visitors, Baker Curtis said. The national Changing Spaces Campaign is working to create a computer app that will let users find restrooms that meet their needs, she said.

“I’ve been bugging Google,” she said. “If you can tell me there’s a McDonald’s, you should be able to tell me where there’s a height-adjustable adult-size changing table.”

© 2023 The Gazette
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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