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San Antonio is home to first-of-its-kind Mobile Changing Unit

The need for accessible public restrooms for people with disabilities is crucial. Standard bathrooms don’t offer things like low changing tables for people with incontinence issues. This barrier for the disabled often leaves many of them feeling isolated.

But that soon won’t be the case thanks to two nonprofit organizations that have made San Antonio a trailblazer for the nation.

Traci Lewand understands more than most the need for a specialized bathroom for people like her son, Mason — a surviving twin with multiple disabilities.

“Mason was getting older,” she said. “I realized that one of the challenges that we were facing — primarily myself, because I'm 5'2" on a good day — was that he was going to be taller than me rather quickly, and I was running out of spaces that I could change him when we were out in public together, so I was utilizing park benches and chairs put together or ... myself and one of our daughters spreading him out across our laps. And so that made it really difficult.”

Lewand recognized the need for proper changing stations in the community, and she was determined to make them a reality. She founded a non-profit in 2019 called ChangingSA (SA for San Antonio). There are now permanent units at various businesses around the city, like at LegoLand, the Discovery Center, and Six Flags Fiesta Texas.

“So a variety of places have adopted and recognize the need for the patrons or customers who come to their places of business,” she explained.

Working together

Another local organization, disABILITYsa, also realized how important these units are. They set up tent changing stations for one-off events. Melanie Cawthon, executive director of disABILITYsa, said Lewand told her they need changing stations in all public spaces.

“And it's like, 'of course we do,' ” Cawthon said. “And then the state started doing some work on getting building codes changed so that we can have them as a normal part of our restrooms here in Texas. And when I was doing research to write my support letter, I came across the mobile [bathroom] in the UK, and I'm like, 'of course, we need to put it on wheels.' ”

Cawthon and Lewand’s organizations worked together to create the mobile changing unit, or MCU. It took three years of fundraising and months of construction but the first prototype is now in use. It recently stopped at the Fiesta Especial Celebration at the Alamodome.

“The mobile changing unit has a wheelchair accessible toilet,” Lewand said. “Also, if you're in a motorized wheelchair, we have a space with an outlet so you can recharge your wheelchair because maybe you're out, and you've needed a little more juice to power up. And so we've got an outlet that you can plug in your wheelchair as you come into the left hand side.”

Executive Director of disABILITYsa Melanie Cawthon in front of the MCU
Kayla Padilla
Executive Director of disABILITYsa Melanie Cawthon in front of the MCU

This mobile unit is a repurposed 24 foot trailer. It’s still being tweaked. Lewand said an adjustable changing table will soon be mounted at the back of the trailer.

“It'll be motorized, and you'll be able to move it up or down, depending on where you're at,” she explained. “Level for transfer, also important for the person, not only for the person who needs to be placed on the table, but also for the caregiver. ... I'm 5' 2", so for me it's lower. For my husband it would be higher. So you'll be able to adjust that. ... It also has a shower wand to the left of the mobile changing table. So in the event that we have a biospill or we need to clean something up, you'll be able to use that and rinse it down, and then we'll be able to sanitize the entire space.”

Lewand said there’s also a hoyer lift for additional assistance. There's also a way to regulate body temperature, especially during hot Texas summers or the occasional winter freeze.

“And so for my kiddo, he cannot regulate his body temperature," she explained. "So it's really important that if I need to take him into an area that you can cool down — the MCU can also do that. So it can serve as a cool-down zone, and ... if we get another ... cold weather snap, you can come in and get warm if you need to.”

There is another similar effort in Los Angeles to provide this service. The nonprofit Momentum4all all has created what it calls a mobile resource that has a lift at the entrance of the unit. The founders of both the San Antonio and LA efforts hope to spur more of this kind of innovation across the country.

'Turn it into something positive'

JoAnne Serna used the MCU with her daughter, Vanessa. Vanessa has a neurological disorder that affects muscle movement. Her mother called the MCU a godsend.

“This unit has everything. It has a changing table. It has a Hoyer, has a toilet, and it's secure, it's private, and it's wonderful.”

Lewand beamed when she heard those comments.

“My mother in law is here from Michigan, [and she] came out and saw it for herself. And we teared up inside the mobile changing unit because it means something to the people who honestly have some of the hardest struggles, who battle to get just the basic necessities … that you can toilet in privacy and dignity like any other person. [It] should be happening for everyone.”

Lewand hopes to build a fleet of MCUs. She wants to help create a national system where event planners can request one, and each MCU in San Antonio will have a name. She said the first will be named Mason, after Lewand’s son, the inspiration for it all.

“I struggled for so long when I lost our son, Miles — Mason's brother — with the why? 'Why us? Why him? Why me?' And I really needed to take the darkness that came with it and turn it into something positive.”

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