BROOKFIELD, Wis. — Many Wisconsinites want to be able to take their loved ones with special needs to more places without having to worry about finding a place to change them.
A Brookfield mom, who often has to change her son on the floor of a public restroom or in the back of the family van, helped shape a proposal in the Wisconsin Legislature that would put more adult-sized changing tables in public places and businesses.
When it comes to leaving the house, the legislation could make a big difference for the Knowles family. From the places they can go to how long they can stay.
Matthew Knowles is 22 years old and has Cerebral Palsy.
“He's got an intellectual developmental delay,” Sarah Knowles, his mother, said. “He's nonverbal. He relies on someone to take care of most of his needs.”
Matthew Knowles uses a wheelchair but can bear weight. Even so, Sarah Knowles said they can't leave the house for long periods because there are so few places to change him.
“Days out are very tricky, and we have to do a lot of planning,” Sarah Knowles said. “We have blankets. What we do is we move the front seats forward, we move the middle seats back, and we have to, unfortunately, a lot of times, lie Matthew across the car.”
That's not an option during Wisconsin's frigid winters though, so whether or not a place has a table to change Matthew Knowles on often decides where the family goes.
“It gives us a freedom to stay for a whole day,” Sarah Knowles said. “It gives us a choice to leave. We currently probably only drive maybe 30 minutes because that traveling time is added on to the time, so if we can only be out for three hours and we go somewhere that takes an hour to get there, then we only have an hour at the actual place, and it's just not worth going sometimes.”
Sarah Knowles knows of about a half dozen adult-sized changing tables in the Milwaukee area. Most of which were installed through advocacy efforts, which she has dedicated herself to since 2016. However, State Rep. Robyn Vining, D-Wauwatosa, doesn't think it should be that way.
“Sarah came to one of my first office hours in Wauwatosa, when I was first elected, and told me that she had this concern,” Vining said.
Vining's proposal would create a tax credit for small businesses that decide to put in an adult-sized changing station and require them in certain newly built and remodeled public buildings.
“So we're talking about 40,000 square feet,” Vining said. “We're talking about 3,000 people or more going through in a day. We know that if the buildings don't work for the people, then the people aren't going to the buildings, and so we have things like museums or Summerfest, outdoor activities, recreation, parks, and we need spaces where people can be changed, which is both a public health issue and a human dignity issue.”
That's something parents like Sarah Knowles wish more people would understand.
“Just because Matthew and others like him are disabled, it doesn't mean that they shouldn't have somewhere safe, private and dignified to take care of their needs,” Sarah Knowles said. “I don't think we should be expected to be in our house the whole time. He deserves to be able to go out.”
Sarah Knowles hopes more places will be accessible to everybody someday soon.
A universal changing table bill was first introduced in late 2019 but did not get a public hearing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vining hopes her bill will go through the committee process sometime in November.