Written by: Christine Serdjenian Yearwood
As an advocate representing pregnant women and families for almost five years with UP-STAND, I’ve listened to countless pregnancy horror stories about a lack of accommodations - women desperately trying to find a store that would offer a restroom while out buying groceries, stress from having to carry loads of laundry up and down multiple flights of stairs, standing in long lines with circulation issues, not getting a seat while waiting at the DMV or a doctor’s office, fainting from exhaustion or motion sickness while on the bus, and being shoved onto crowded trains. If you’ve been pregnant in New York City, some of these things have probably happened to you.
Our spaces and transportation are incredibly inaccessible for families as well. The accommodations that parents and their children need to safely take part in everyday life - changing tables, high chairs, stroller parking, ramps or elevators, lactation spaces, a place to sit – are so rarely provided. Although many individuals are helpful, too often families, seniors, and people with disabilities here can’t get around, inside, or participate because of a lack of support on a systemic level.
We cannot be expected to stay at home and raise children behind closed doors. Not everyone can afford a private car service, to get their laundry washed and folded for them, or their groceries delivered. Nor should we have to – we need to be able to go to doctor’s appointments, get a haircut, go to the library, and travel; and to be engaged, contributing members of our society, each of us and our children should have the opportunity to experience museums, theaters, restaurants, and educational classes. Our economy and communities are better for it! Yet there’s evidence that women pay the Pink Tax financially and physically as childcare providers, even for transit.
We want to change this. Our movement encourages business owners, community leaders, and organizations to be more inclusive and improve accessibility however possible. Sometimes that means designing a whole new space with us, sometimes it means adding a changing table to a gender-neutral space, or a portable ramp to a storefront; it could be as simple as adding a toy box or offering free lactation supplies, putting accessibility information onto websites, posting a priority seating sign, or even training staff to be prepared for particular requests from families with a policy to back it up.
UP-STAND is a small organization, but we’ve made a lot of change. If you see something that needs improvement in your community, we encourage you to take the lead! Here are a few tips for self-advocacy, learned the hard way:
If your focus is on a particular business or location, try to build rapport. Individuals are most likely to be amenable to your suggestions if they know and value you. If this isn’t the case, it’s best to make an in-person visit first. We often get told that whoever we’re speaking with isn’t the decision-maker. Request to speak with the owner or a manager who has the power to affect change. If that person isn’t there, ask for a specific time when they will be back or for their direct contact information. Go back. If you still can’t connect with that person, leave a letter explaining your cause and include your contact information and follow up with a call.
A great way to draw attention to an issue is to post on social media. Make a specific request and ask for a response. The Squat for Change movement started this way!
Demonstrate support for your initiative. People can say no, but unless they do something to address the issue, ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. Start a petition, rally, or create a call-in campaign to pressure your target. Data and numbers talk – show them that being more inclusive will make their business significantly more profitable because there are a whole lot of people who are paying attention and care about the issue alongside you, and they’re ready to become patrons (or not).
Offer solutions. People make excuses as to why they can’t do what you’re asking them to do. They don’t have the permits. They don’t have the space. There are always ways to provide inclusive environments even with limited time, a small budget, and minimal effort - if they say they can’t fit a diaper changing table, having a changing pad and supplies in the back will do the trick. If they can’t fit a play area, a toy box helps.
I’ve applied for funding as an individual community member and been awarded two Citizens Committee NYC grants with another local mother. This is how we started our Community Ramp Project to make single-step storefronts more accessible with custom-made, FREE, portable ramps that can be used when needed and don’t require a permit. Some people still say no (you’d be surprised!), but most initiatives are easier to sell when you’re offering the solution.
Don’t let it be about the money. They say they don’t have the funds, right? Donate the money or set up a crowdfunding campaign. Many accommodations aren’t outrageously expensive considering their value – a wall seat is just $60.00, and a changing table is less than $200.00. It doesn’t take a lot of $5.00 donations to reach a goal like that.
I once had a friend offer to purchase 20 of our Breastfeeding Welcome Here signs because she had the idea to donate them to local businesses as part of an initiative to make our neighborhood more welcoming for lactating mothers. I loved the idea and did the leg work to survey where women in our community wanted them displayed, approached the establishments, and created and delivered the products.
Attend community meetings. We’ve begun working with the Parks Alliance to try to push the Parks Department to make the Astoria Park redesign as family-friendly and accessible as possible. At a Park Alliance meeting, we met our Local Development Corporation leaders and they have since hired us to offer accommodations at their festivals in the park. Meeting other people who care about your community, learning from them, and forming partnerships is far more powerful than trying to work in isolation.
Meet with your locally elected officials. This one is actually way easier than most people think. Even though your Council Member, Assembly Member, Congressperson, or Senator is sometimes at their other offices, there are always days and times when they’re local. Find out when they’re in and ask to meet with them about your concerns. Tell them about your issue, why it’s important to you, connect it to their platform (the environment, pedestrian/traffic safety, seniors, schools, etc.), and ask them for something specific (funding, a bill or resolution, to speak about it, etc.). They almost always say yes. Remember, they work for you and they want your vote!
Want more support?
Check out our list of 2018 family-friendly winners for ideas to improve accessibility.
Download our sample letter.
Please join us to change norms around what it means to accommodate and support pregnancies and families:
Look out for our upcoming workshop on advocating for change at LIC Kids Gymnastics.
Suggest our upcoming free workshop on improving accessibility to a business near you, available via webinar.
Follow us on social media to join our advocacy efforts and to vote for your favorite family-friendly businesses of 2019 in the fall.
And please feel free to reach out to us anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org!