When you’re living with an autoimmune disease, going shopping or trying a new restaurant isn’t always a breezy day on the town. Managing your disease may require quick and easy access to a bathroom, checking your blood sugar in public, finding a step-free route into a store, or knowing that safe foods will be on the menu. Fortunately, resources abound when it comes to planning your trip and ensuring accommodations for you or your loved one.

Read on for five tips to remember when patronizing businesses in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) while managing your autoimmune disease. We’ve also included recommendations for how businesses can ensure they are including all abilities in their designs and procedures.

1. Check online.

Social media and the internet make it easier than ever to research stores and restaurants that accommodate your needs.

Websites like AbiliTrek, developed in Bellingham, allow users to share information about whether a business has steps up to its front door, if a wheelchair can navigate between tables and where to find accessible parking spaces. For example, one user posted the following about a sandwich shop: “I would be very careful because of the entrance; it is very steep.”

The Seattle Department of Transportation’s Seattle Accessible Route Planner is another handy tool to prep for a journey out. The app rates curb ramps, sidewalk conditions and street slopes for all Seattle streets, making it easier to find the best routes for people with mobility concerns. That can be especially helpful for the estimated 12,000 people with multiple sclerosis (MS) living in the Northwest who may use a mobility aid.

If you are going out to eat, you can often check a restaurant’s menu on its website ahead of time to plan your meal and not feel rushed when it’s time to order. If you have celiac disease, check out our roundup of gluten-free establishments in Seattle where you can enjoy a meal without worry.

2. Know where you can go.

For people with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, going out in public can be especially challenging because the disease can require sudden and frequent trips to the bathroom. Former Edmonds resident Lois Fink, who was diagnosed with Crohn’s as a teenager, was instrumental in passing a bill in Washington state that ensures people with inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) and other qualifying conditions can use employee restrooms in retail establishments, regardless of whether they buy anything.

The Restroom Access Act, also known as Ally’s Law, lets people with IBD shop and dine out with the comfort of knowing they can use a business’s restroom if they need to. That’s critical for the estimated 50,000 people with IBD living in the Pacific Northwest.

“There were times where I thought I would have an accident in public, and that was very humiliating,” says Fink, an author and public speaker. “And nobody should have to go through that.”

Washington passed the bill in 2013, and 15 other states — including Colorado, where Fink now lives — also recognize Ally’s Law. The law requires people to show a signed form or identification card to verify their medical condition.

3. Know what you can do.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is written to protect the rights of people with disabilities, including in places open to the public. This means restaurants, movie theaters, museums, gyms, stores and more must make their facilities equally accessible to all.

For more information about legal rights when it comes to autoimmune disease, consult local chapters of advocacy organizations such as the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation or the American Diabetes Association.

For those with celiac disease, Beyond Celiac is a valuable resource for information and support. As a member of the Digestive Disease National Coalition, the organization is helping to improve public policy and raise awareness for people with digestive diseases.

4. Get comfortable with being shameless.

Frequenting businesses with an autoimmune disease may require doing things differently than your fellow shoppers or diners, and advocates say that’s more than okay. If you have type 1 diabetes, for example, you likely have had to test your blood sugar or inject insulin while out in public. Writer and diabetic Laura Kronen asserts that  people with diabetes should “live your life out loud” and get comfortable managing the disease around others without shame and embarrassment.

While “shameless public displays” of managing diabetes or other autoimmune diseases may not be for everyone, they do underscore that federal laws provide protection from discrimination for these public displays. If you need to administer insulin or test your blood while dining out, you have the right to do so.

“People with diabetes have the right to participate fully in our society without sacrificing their medical safety or facing discrimination because of misunderstandings, fears and stereotypes about diabetes,” according to the American Diabetes Association. This includes children at daycare, camp and those participating in recreational activities.

5. Talk about it.

Chances are, business owners and employees who don’t have first-hand experience with autoimmune diseases are curious, unsure or simply unaware of how their establishments can and should accommodate you. That’s where support groups and advocacy organizations can help. The organizations mentioned above provide resources for how you and other advocates can help educate businesses on being inclusive for all abilities. And posting customer reviews on platforms like Yelp can be effective for letting businesses know where they can improve or how they are excelling. 


Retail and restaurant owners can go above and beyond to ensure all people can access and enjoy their spaces.

Fink, who advocated for Ally’s Law, suggests businesses can lessen the burden on customers by putting a small sign in their window stating they support the Restroom Access Act and ensuring staff are trained on what that means. Businesses can also post information on their websites, social media or inside their establishments to highlight how they support customers’ autoimmune-related needs.

ChrisTiana ObeySumner, a disability rights consultant and advocate in Seattle, suggests business owners start by understanding how disabilities can be complex and invisible. Then, she recommends making a scan of their store’s physical space to see where they could improve access and inclusion. For example, if a business has a long corridor or ramp, does it offer benches for people to sit and rest along the way or at the end?  

“Once that scan is done, do something about it!” she advises.

Businesses should also pay attention to customer reviews and feedback, ObeySumner says. Let customers know that you are open to feedback so you can continue to improve their experience.

In Seattle, groups like the Northwest Universal Design Council provide information for making commercial spaces and landscapes accessible for all abilities. And local chapters for the MS, diabetes, Crohn’s and colitis, and celiac organizations listed above can also advise on how businesses can better support patrons.

The bottom line: People with autoimmune diseases should be able to shop and dine out without worry. There are plenty of steps businesses can take to help them have a positive, inclusive experience.

Living With A Disease

August 30, 2019

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