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So Much More Than Innovative Exhibits at The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation

For many of us, summer break is a great time for family vacations, and we love to travel! Our son has cerebral palsy and is a full-time wheelchair user, which makes traveling a little more challenging. We take advantage of the longer days and warmer weather to make our family trips a little bit easier.

When our son was a toddler, we learned that he would never walk independently. When his rehabilitation physician gave us this news, she told us that our son’s disabilities shouldn’t prevent our family from doing things we love. She said something like, “If you want to go to the Grand Canyon, you should go to the Grand Canyon. But you need to envision your family life as one with equipment.”

Our son is fifteen years old now. So far, our family’s experiences have shown us that doing what we want and going where we want is easier said than done. Our son is non-ambulatory and unable to stand independently. He has significant high tone, incredibly tight muscles, and serious balance difficulties. We must assist him with every activity of daily living, including his version of toileting, which means changing his medical briefs.

As for our summer get away, we decided upon a trip we’ve been wanting to do for a very long time. My husband and I are big fans of museums, and we enjoy learning about history. My husband studied aerospace engineering in college, so flying machines have always intrigued him. We’ve always wanted to visit The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, Greenfield Village, and Ford Rouge Factory in Dearborn, Michigan. I could still hear my son’s doctor and the advice she gave to us that day so we decided to take the trip!

Our drive took us from Charleston, West Virginia, through the state of Ohio and then into Michigan. Along our long route, there were no adult-sized changing tables. As a teenager, our son is now the size of a grown adult, and we struggle with assisting our son with his toileting needs.

When we’re in a public restroom, we do everything we can to avoid transferring him from his wheelchair to the bathroom floor to be cleaned and changed. Unfortunately, without adult-sized changing tables, this is one of the few options we have. Not only is the floor dirty and undignified, it’s not safe. The transfer from the wheelchair to the floor and then off the floor back to the wheelchair is dangerous for all of us. This type of transfer increases the risk of injury to our son and us as his caregivers. It is even more difficult when we are hot and sweaty during the summer. I wish we had better options to ensure our son’s dignity and safety.

Our trip to The Henry Ford was every bit as inspiring as we had hoped. We learned so much about innovators who dreamed big. We saw many machines that have changed humankind. We learned about the tiniest of tweaks that made some machines even better than their original versions.

The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation housed two pieces of equipment that had a profound impact on our trip. These two pieces of equipment were not part of any exhibit, but were life changing for our family. I am referring to the two powered, height adjustable adult-sized changing tables that were located in each of the two companion care restrooms inside the museum.

Most of us have experienced that feeling of exhaustion after walking extensively in direct sunlight at an amusement park on a hot summer day. The weather was extraordinarily hot in Michigan during our visit, and the indoor and outdoor property at The Henry Ford is the same size as or even larger than many amusement parks. When you are trying to see as much as possible at The Henry Ford, you’ll be very tired at the end of the day. Now imagine that several times throughout your visit, you also need to transfer your adult-sized teen to the public restroom floor. It’s even more tiring.

The companion care facilities with the adult-sized changing tables at the museum made our trip much safer and more enjoyable for our entire family. We used the universal changing tables multiple times each day, and we were thankful to have a safe, private and dignified space to help our son. We were also permitted to use the restroom at the end of our visit before leaving. This allowed us to go out to dinner at a restaurant in Dearborn and gave us more time to explore the area before returning to our hotel room.

Based on reviews, our initial plans for our trip to Dearborn included spending three days at The Henry Ford and then a day in Detroit before moving on to our next destination. By the end of our third day, we still had not seen all of the exhibits at The Henry Ford. We were also unsure if we would find any adult-sized changing tables in Detroit. We decided to skip Detroit, and we returned to The Henry Ford for a fourth day. The access to companion care facilities with adult-sized changing tables made that much of a difference for our family.

My only wish is that The Henry Ford would consider adding a companion care restroom in the rear of Greenfield Village at some point in the future. The long walk from the back of the village to the companion care restrooms inside the museum building was extremely difficult. With all of our son’s equipment, we were pushing 200 pounds in the blazing heat across the village. Despite the long walk, we were still grateful for the two height adjustable adult-sized changing tables that were available to the public.

During Henry Ford’s lifetime, he was an innovator. Like its founder and namesake, The Henry Ford treasures innovation. The Henry Ford is taking a more innovative approach to guest services by providing companion care restrooms. We hope more museums and tourist attractions will follow their lead by installing universal changing tables in private restrooms. This will promote community inclusion and accessibility so that all families feel welcome and included while enjoying the local exhibits and activities.

Written by Allison Bungard

West Virginia Chapter Leader, Changing Spaces Campaign


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