A reader and I were recently discussing a group post she had seen about the lack of appropriate diaper changing facilities for children at restaurants. The overwhelming sentiment was that, ideally, restaurants should provide changing areas to improve the customer experience which would, of course, boost profits; but it is ultimately the parents’ personal responsibility to make sure their children’s needs are met. I talk about meeting needs a lot and I fully agree that parents should be consistent and intentional about ensuring that children have everything they need to do the best explorative learning and self-regulation they can.
Parents – who are natural advocates and caregivers for their children – are told to figure it out. Just stay home if you can’t adequately care for your child in public. And, while I do not believe that parents are inherently marginalized for being parents, there are intersections of marginalization between parenthood and gender, ability, race, and so on. In particular, caring for children has traditionally been the realm of women and, misogyny being what it is, parents – including men and nonbinary people by proximity – face disadvantage in USian culture. Things like the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) do benefit parents, but they also benefit many other people. Pregnant people are ostensibly protected from job loss under the Civil Rights Act under a clause that prohibits sex discrimination. It’s not because pregnant people are parents. Considering the lengths cultures worldwide go to in order to support families, the minimal assistance parents receive in the U.S. results in glaring, disproportionate hardships. Parents are not explicitly marginalized, but women undeniably are and, as women are the primary caregivers of children (and elderly parents and disabled family members and anyone else who is vulnerable within a household), we should take great care in rejecting that misogyny is a factor in the way our culture treats parents.
So, no. It is not ultimately the parents’ personal responsibility to prepare for every potential challenge they might face when they go out in public with their children. The public also bears responsibility. And, we have demonstrated an acceptance of our social responsibility to support vulnerable people… as long as they are adults… by enacting laws of protection against undue harm. Back in 1990, for instance, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed after decades of effort by disabled self-advocates. Today, disabled people have the power of the law behind us when we need to address unequal and inequitable treatment. I mention the ADA specifically to draw similarities between the need for disabled people to access protections and the same need for children. How long before the ADA was passed were disabled people and their caregivers told they needed to figure it out when there were differences in access and outcome as compared to non-disabled people?
Today, we recognize why toileting accommodations for disabled adults not only make sense, but also represent the common decency we should have for other humans. Yet, somehow, infants – who are not only medically incontinent but are also physically unable to meet their own hygiene needs – do not deserve accommodations as well. Why might this be?
The lack of changing tables in bathrooms directly impacts children in a way that it does not affect adults. Babies need appropriate accommodations to ensure that they are receiving the best possible support by their caregivers. If a business serves children, as most restaurants do, it is incumbent upon that business to ensure that children’s human rights are upheld, including sanitary elimination. In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly declared that access to hygienic toileting is a fundamental human right. Parents being required to change babies anywhere but a place designated for children with the requisite safety features violates this right, not because it inconveniences the parent but because it endangers the child. Infants are not an extension of their parents. They are their own complete human beings with their own distinct rights that we deny with impunity.
Failure to support the demand that businesses provide for the human needs of children, up to and including litigation and other legal measures, constitutes harmful discrimination in the form of childism. Children need robust, legal protections that they may never get, because unlike other marginalized groups, children do not have the social capital to fight for their own rights. We are the only ones who can.