Disabled Toronto Woman Barred From Bar Bathroom, Files Human Rights Complaint

A Toronto woman has filed a human rights complaint against the Pentagram Bar and Grill, a restaurant serving Chinese-Canadian food in Toronto’s east end, after she was allegedly refused access to their bathroom.

Haily Butler-Henderson, 24, has spina bifida, a congenital disability resulting in permanent damage to her spinal column. She uses forearm crutches to help her get around, and has been since age six. According to her complaint, was denied access to Pentagram’s basement bathroom on the grounds that she might fall and injure herself, and sue the bar.

A little over 5% of the population has some form of spina bifida.
A little over 5% of the population has some form of spina bifida. [Image by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images]

Ms. Butler-Henderson said that she made repeated requests to use the bathroom, and at one point was physically blocked from the stairs by a member of the wait staff.

They eventually relented, and allowed her to use the bathroom, but Haily feels that her rights have been violated.

“I was definitely being denied dignity,” she told CBC, echoing language in the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, “and I was definitely embarrassed.”

“Having somebody yell in your face about your disability and whether or not you can use the bathroom is never really a pleasant experience.”

The incident occurred on August 19, 2016, while Butler-Henderson was waiting for friends at a nearby coffee shop. Lines for the bathroom there were long, prompting her to go down the blog to Pentagram, where she asked permission to use their bathroom as a non-paying customer. The waitress she asked allegedly denied her access, specifically citing her crutches. When pressed, she repeated her claim several times, adding that Butler-Henderson could fall and sue.

After five attempts and a reminder that, legally, she couldn’t be denied access based on her disability, the waitress allegedly brought the rest of the bar into the discussion.

“She said, ‘well, everybody in this bar is my witness that I told you not to go down the stairs in case you fall.”‘

The 24-year-old called it “humiliating.”

The complaint states that the waitress was out of line in assessing Ms. Butler-Henderson’s ability to navigate the stairs on her own. It notes both that Canadian law protects the right of those with disabilities to assume a certain amount of risk, and that access to a bathroom is a fundamental human right.

According to the AODA, services "must be provided in a manner that respects the dignity and independence of persons with disabilities."
According to the AODA, services "must be provided in a manner that respects the dignity and independence of persons with disabilities." [Image by by Matt Cardy/Getty Images]

Butler-Henderson’s complaint, filed with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, has not yet proceeded to a hearing, and Pentagram has not yet responded to the complaint or otherwise provided comment.

According to Metro News, Sheila Cavanagh, professor of gender studies at York University and author of the book Queering Bathrooms, commented on the case. She said that bathrooms always seem to end up serving as battlegrounds for progressive activists. Societal issues ranging from racial segregation to transgender rights have historically always been the line in the sand where reactionary groups and individuals try to force out those who don’t conform to the status quo of the time and added that disability rights might be the next fight.

“When there is some kind of prejudice or anxiety about a group of people, stated or not, it tends to manifest itself in the bathroom.”

“People like to think that they’re supportive of people with visible physical disabilities, but what we find is the lack of comfort manifests itself in an unwillingness to make these spaces user-friendly.”

Butler-Henderson, meanwhile, said that she filed the complaint in the hopes that it will lead to better standards for bathroom accessibility and raise awareness of how important the issue of bathroom access is for those who can’t take it for granted.

“To find oneself in a situation where you are unable to relieve yourself without breaking the social conventions that surround the act itself is a denial of the right to participate in social life with dignity. As a person with a disability, I must carefully plan where I shop, work, and socialize around access to restrooms.”

[Featured Image by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images]