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Restaurants Haven’t Lived Up to the Promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Disabled diners on the issues they most commonly face — and how to fix them

Illustration by Kim Salt, depicting an M.C. Escher-like quest to reach a restaurant table.

Disabled people should get to eat in restaurants. That doesn’t sound like a revolutionary manifesto, but survey the long history of disability and discrimination, and it really kind of is. Thanks to decades of activism, civil rights legislation, and litigation, a person with a disability has a pretty unimpeachable legal and moral right to go into any restaurant and expect to be able to eat with relatively equal access to whatever culinary delights await. Too bad it doesn’t always work out that way.

Chloe Konicki describes herself as having low vision and being hard of hearing, or “deaf with a lowercase ‘d’.” Candace Coleman says one of her favorite pastimes is visiting restaurants. Sometimes she uses a powered wheelchair; sometimes she doesn’t. She just doesn’t want to be stressed about accommodations. “If you’re not stressed, you enjoy the food!” Gary Arnold is a Little Person — actually, he’s the president of Little People of America, but he also runs public relations for Access Living, the local shop for all things disability rights-related in Chicago.

The three of them have joined me for lunch at 25 Degrees, a burger bar just north of the Loop, to talk about the legal rights of disabled Americans under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when it comes to restaurants. Most places are okay, few places are great, and sometimes diners reliant on the ADA still face intensely uncomfortable moments due to stigma or ignorance.

Here, we knew going in that the restaurant would be welcoming. Generally, people with access needs either call ahead or send a scout, because despite the law, you can’t assume access will be possible. Sometimes blithe assurances over the phone about accessibility turn out wrong — and if things go wrong, the ADA requires a disabled customer to personally sue, turning them into the villain — but that’s not the case today. Access Living staff and guests eat here all the time, because there are no steps, the spacing is wide open, the seating flexible, and Alberto, the manager and waiter, is super chill. Sly and the Family Stone sing, “I... am everyday people” over the PA, which Alberto has turned to a lower volume to better accommodate Konicki’s need for relative quiet.

Quickly, though, it becomes clear that every mention of a positive experience or accommodation evokes a litany of negative ones. Konicki, for example, mentions that when she wants a quick lunch she heads down to a McDonald’s with touch-screen ordering so she can avoid the stress of trying to explain to the cashier. “It’s just so much less of a battle,” she says. “When I’m eating out with my family, sometimes the waiter will look to my family members like ‘What is she going to order?’ instead of asking me directly.”

Arnold’s had similar problems. “I like sticking to a place where I feel comfortable,” he says, “whether because of the chairs, or [because] I feel welcome there as a person with a disability [because] they’re going to treat me like any other customer.” His main direct-access need comes from seating, because although he’s used to having his feet hang off the ground, he doesn’t want to have to perform an acrobatic feat to get up to a high table, a booth on risers, or a bar seat.

When Coleman uses her wheelchair, of course, anything elevated becomes inaccessible, and that’s actually an ADA violation. The federal law mandates that 5 percent of eating spaces be accessible, “dispersed throughout the facility.” In other words, some of the seats, tables, and counter space in a restaurant have to be low enough for people with needs similar to Arnold’s or Coleman’s. Arnold describes a local lunch spot where there is a low counter, but it’s always stacked with delivery boxes, rendering the accessible counter useless.

Notice that Arnold and Coleman are very different from each other physically and frequently require quite distinct accommodations, but that their needs converge around the relatively simple issue of having accessible seating. Coleman says it’s not just when she’s in the chair. “I went to a graduation party that was at a bar,” she says. “Most of their seating was on top of the riser and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to maneuver around the restaurant independently, so I was going to sit there the whole night.” She told her friends, “Once I’m up here, I’m up, and once I’m down, I’m down and I’m out!” So she never got up to dance.

Arnold’s pretty adept at negotiating seating and finding spaces where he feels physically comfortable. His worst experiences come from more or less subtle examples of stigma found not in the physical layout, but in employee bias, conscious or not. Arnold describes a big family dinner when he was 10; he was excited to order from a real waitress. As a kid, he loved to order for himself. Instead, “The waitress was going around one by one, then she came to me and she didn’t take my order.” He started sobbing and his mother forced the waitress to come back. He’s clearly never forgotten it, decades later.

Now, as a man in his 40s, he still gets treated like a child far too often, sometimes explicitly so. He tells us about a recent outing to a favorite pizza place with his wife. They went up to the maitre d’ to ask to be seated, and she “looks at my wife and says, ‘would your boy like a coloring book?’” At the table, we all gasp as Arnold continues. “Benefit of the doubt, maybe she wasn’t really looking at me, but then [my wife] says, ‘No, he is my husband.’” So then [the maitre d’] looks directly at me and says, ‘Would you like a coloring book?’”

We all laugh, led by Arnold, but it’s not actually funny. It’s an extreme example of a common problem — professional service staff have no idea how to react to, or engage with, people with disabilities.

After lunch, I called Charles Petrof, senior attorney for Access Living and an expert in the ADA. He told me that the two major categories to consider when it comes to the law are access to the physical space and the ability to communicate with staff. There’s some flexibility, though. “Anything that was built after the ADA was passed [in 1990] has to be accessible,” Petrof says. “If [you’re a business in] an older building, you have to do ‘something,’ but you can have that reflect the conditions the building is in, and [accessibility spending] relates to the amount you’re going to spend overall.”

The more money you make, he tells me, the more the law requires you to invest in accessibility, trying to move beyond bare minimum. In other words, a small “mom-and-pop” restaurant doesn’t have to do as much as a new Chipotle. There’s also a gap between optimal compliance — power doors, ramps at the front door — and technical compliance — a garbage ramp out back that doubles as a wheelchair-accessible entrance.

The key for restaurant owners, it seems, is to start thinking about physical accessibility right from the start. “Think about how someone’s going to get in their front door,” Petrof says. “It needs to be wide enough. If there’s a step, it can completely stop a person in a walker or wheelchair. People don’t like having to go through the kitchen, but it’s better than nothing if there’s really no other option. When they’re inside, everyone needs access to a restroom, including the sink for washing hands.”

This sounds like common sense, but too often accessibility is a late concern in the design process, or not a concern at all, even though when things go wrong, everyone involved is liable. People with disabilities can get stuck in corners as the only “accessible” area, rather than being allowed to use the whole restaurant. Instead, the goal is to “let them feel that they are just as welcome there as anyone else.”

Communication, also regulated by the ADA, matters just as much as physical space, though the ADA merely “encourages,” rather than requires, businesses to comply in this manner (government services, however, must communicate in an accessible way). “Depending on the population you are working with,” Petrof says, “inability to communicate is just as inaccessible as inability to enter the building.” I think about this issue a lot, because my 10-year-old son is “functionally nonverbal,” which means he talks all the time but that all parties have to do a lot of work to understand. I wonder to what extent the rest of the world is going to be willing to do that work as he ages. Konicki’s experiences don’t make me optimistic. She describes her typical experience ordering, saying, “I repeat myself 20 times.”

As our lunch winds up and our plates are cleared away, we realize that we’ve missed one big area of accessibility: the food. Everyone at this particular meal was able to pick up the sandwich with their hands, but that’s not universally true. Coleman says that she has many friends who need smaller portions, or who need their dishes cut up, or need straws. It’s not that every restaurant has to provide everything, but the group agrees that staff should be prepared to adapt their menu to make it easier to eat. Konicki chimes in, “People with disabilities have money they’d like to spend, too.”

Talk to anyone with a disability, especially one related to movement, body type, method of communication, or use of senses such as seeing or hearing, and you’ll hear bad restaurant stories that could have been avoided. Sometimes the stories reveal gross violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We’re heading toward 30 years since the ADA was passed, so it’s really time to get beyond basic issues like ramps or accessible bathrooms.

The single biggest issue is to change the law so that the government regulates accessibility, rather than demanding that individual disabled people take responsibility for suing businesses. (Imagine if you had to personally sue a place to hold them compliant to health codes.) Beyond that, we could get a lot better about making information about accessibility more... accessible. Disabled people expend huge amounts of energy searching for information on accessibility. It’d obviously be best if everyone could just depend on finding a space for them in every restaurant, but until that happy day, we could do much better at letting potential customers know ahead of time if they’ll be welcome.

But beyond these meta issues, the folks at Access Living have one simple request: power doors. Because no matter how accessible your tables, your menus, or your modes of communication, none of it helps if people with disabilities are stuck outside.

David Perry is a freelance disability rights journalist. Kim Salt is a native New York illustrator with a dual love of plants and coffee.
Editor: Erin DeJesus