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This is Eating voiceswhere chefs, restaurateurs, writers and industry insiders share their perspectives on the food world and approach a range of topics through the lens of their personal experience.
Have you ever been to a restaurant that shares your name? No? Me too. But I was pretty close. To celebrate my birthday one year, my mentor and I met at Penelope, a coffee shop and wine bar in Manhattan. Despite a small difference in the spelling, I was excited to eat there and let my mentor know about the developments in life. That excitement evaporated when I arrived to find that my namesake was not wheelchair accessible for comfort.
Fortunately, we were quick on our feet (well, it was her) and ended up at another restaurant nearby, and a mysterious person even paid for our meal. But apart from the happy ending, we couldn’t eat where we originally planned.
Restaurant owners have a long history of neglect Title III ADA guidelineswhose focus is on creating a barrier-free environment with specifications for door entry widths and ramps, table heights, clear driveways and barrier-free toilets as well as accommodations suitable for the visually impaired. But in my experience, large-format menus are a rarity, and tables that are too high and inaccessible “accessible” bathrooms are the norm. On one memorable occasion, I attended a working lunch at a restaurant where the staff had to carry me and my 300 pound wheelchair up a flight of stairs to the dining area. On another, I caught up with a group of friends at a restaurant that we assured was fully accessible, only to find that there were no grab bars in the bathroom. When I try to use an inaccessible bathroom unassisted, I definitely come into contact with the bathroom floor, and no matter how good the firefighters look to pick me up, this is a place I never want to be. Instead, I’d love to be in a restaurant where ADA compliance is properly monitored and not responding to threats of legal action.
But during the pandemic, I saw many restaurants adhere to indoor food bans and government-mandated curfews, and build impressive outdoor dining areas. Now that restaurants in New York and beyond are reopening and a growing number of us are trading delivery PS for sunlit brunches, I would argue that if restaurant owners could learn to cope with COVID laws, now they can learn to find your way around the ADA guidelines.
Adhering to ADA guidelines shouldn’t be seen as an additional expense or something that restaurant owners can put on the run. It’s the law, as are government regulations on indoor and outdoor dining, capacity limitations, and other social distancing protocols. It’s daunting to see how quickly and ingeniously many restaurants are able to turn when the bottom line is at risk (and understandably, I understand their need to survive) rather than the needs of their customers with disabilities.
And these customers – and potential customers – are many. according to CDC.61 million People with disabilities live in the United States, a number that makes up 25 percent of the population. It looks to me like restaurants are missing out on an important market.
Regardless of what most people think, the disabled community is a minority that anyone can join at any point in their life. And if this pandemic hasn’t proven it, I don’t know what will. So I hope restaurants are doing the disabled community a disservice and remember that auxiliary and mobility aids are not accessories, think about how to get around their dining rooms, offer modified menus, and realize that pro straws are useless to many of us. But as much as I want to be hopeful, I still regularly encounter reminders of the general disregard for customers with disabilities: many outdoor restaurants act as Sidewalk obstacle course, while the indoor dining rooms with their narrow corridors often imitate a Pac-Man game.
There are many things restaurateurs can do to improve accessibility inside and outside their premises. consultation leader for accessible al fresco dining, making sure your sidewalk setups don’t take up too much space, and calling the 311 (or similar service) when you’re in a block with no curb are good places to start.
Is there anything else helpful? Having a knowledgeable and empathetic staff: It is very important to have staff who are well versed in accessible accommodation and the restaurant they work in. They should be able to answer questions about where aids can be used while eating, whether the outdoor area is accessible and how resilient the restaurant’s wheelchair lift is. If it is not possible for larger restaurants for every employee to memorize these answers, I suggest having one to three people they know like the back of their hand. It would also be helpful if one of them was responsible for answering the telephones and answering inquiries about availability via e-mail. This reduces the likelihood that a customer will be given incorrect information and the likely subsequent negative review. Workers should also remember that offering to lift someone and / or their aids is not a substitute for real accessibility.
Restaurant workers should also know that some people with disabilities can accidentally get into messy situations while eating, be it from the habit of dropping the fork, knocking things over due to a cluttered path, or my personal favorite by taking something from the menu that Seems cerebral palsy friendly – meaning it’s easy to eat – but (at least to me) it isn’t.
It would be negligent if I did not point out that accessibility and restaurant accommodation are important not only for guests with disabilities, but also for employees with disabilities. It’s no secret that working in the hospitality industry is demanding, so I ask restaurant owners to listen to the needs of their employees and keep in mind that not all disabilities are visible. You should also find out if assistive workers can easily navigate behind the bar, kitchen, and any other area they need to enter.
If the pandemic has compounded one thing for restaurants, I want eating out to be about more than food. It’s about celebrations, milestones and moments. Restaurants that don’t meet ADA guidelines make people with disabilities miss out on all of these things, and that’s not okay. Especially since the pandemic has reminded us all that getting another chance to celebrate is not guaranteed.
Peneliope Richards is an Afro-Panamanian writer with cerebral palsy who lives in NYC.
Glenn Harvey was born in Quezon City, Philippines but moved to Toronto at the age of 7. He graduated from Sheridan College, where he honed his skills as an illustrator.