Costa Mesa fourth-grader petitions Newport-Mesa Unified for greater accessibility to restrooms

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This article was published on the Daily Pilot by Lilly Nguyen on June 15, 2021.

Rory Siwula is 9 years old and speaks quickly as if she were in a rush to get all the words out.

She’s confident and happy to answer questions about herself. She’s about to enter the fourth grade this fall. She uses a wheelchair. She is in the special education program at Killybrooke Elementary. She thinks of herself as pretty smart and said she knows generally what people think about when they see her.

And she’s tired of hearing no from the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, which she and her family allege does not provide enough accessibility to restrooms at the Costa Mesa campus.

Rory said she can’t reach the lights, sink or soap dispensers and that there are no stalls that fit her wheelchair in the general education restrooms. While there are special education restrooms throughout the campus, Rory said they’re sometimes occupied, which means she can’t always use them when she needs to.

Other times, she finds herself forced to wait for a restroom monitor to escort her to the restroom or for someone to unlock an unoccupied one — a fact that Rory takes issue with as someone who is fiercely independent, according to her mother, Kelly Siwula.

“I don’t want kids to have anxiety issues because I’ve experienced it, and it’s not great,” said Rory, who has a condition called caudal regression syndrome, also known as sacral agnesis, which essentially means that parts of her lower spine are absent.

“It’s nothing fun. And sometimes, when I use the door, I have to open it with my foot a little and I have to push it open and that’s how I open it,” she added. “What if I have to have a cast? I can’t do that. They’ll have to use a helper. But what if kids don’t want to use helpers? What if kids just want to do it by yourself and stuff?”

“What if kids want to be like everybody else?”

The family said they’ve gone through all the appropriate channels to request accommodations for about a year and a half but have felt they are not being heard.

District officials said in a statement the campus has several accessible restrooms and that all the restrooms on campus are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We have a Class 2 DSA certified [inspectors] on staff who has reviewed restroom and parking accessibility at that school who has determined it is in compliance with building codes and ADA compliance,” said Annette Franco, a spokeswoman for the district.

But the Siwulas contend that even though the buildings and restrooms may be up to code legally, they don’t necessarily accommodate all students with disabilities.

So, Rory decided to protest. Beneath a bright and sunny June sky on Tuesday, the family took to the Newport-Mesa Unified School District office with signs in an attempt to increase awareness of their cause.

“I think people should fix the general [education] bathroom so that special [education] students can use it,” said Rory.

“I want accessibility for all whether you are in general ed or you have any disability … in the whole district so people can have a voice and I want to fight for them,” she said.