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Before I started using a wheelchair, the only time I ever had to call ahead at a restaurant was to confirm a reservation. It’s an easy call, and then you show up, enjoy your meal, and move on with your life.
When I first started using a wheelchair, I started calling ahead to restaurants every time I wanted to go out. Calling a restaurant to figure out whether they’re actually wheelchair accessible is far more complicated than confirming a reservation. Sometimes the employee on the phone mumbles vaguely, so I decide to try my luck without pressing the issue. Sometimes they answer unequivocally, but view the restaurant through the lens of not being disabled themselves, not realizing both the obvious and subtle challenges created by inaccessibility. Sometimes they answer unequivocally with an addendum. “Yes, we’re wheelchair accessible but.” But there’s a small step at the entrance. But you’ll have to come in the back door. But we can’t seat you near everyone else, there’s not enough room.
This year, I stopped calling ahead and started simply showing up to restaurants, the way I did before I used wheels to get around. Because of a degenerative disease called hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, my joints dislocate extremely easily. Sometimes picking up a heavy fork is enough to dislocate my fingers. That’s a bummer, but the truly unfortunate part is trying to enjoy damn good food as a wheelchair user, because restaurants and eateries are notoriously inaccessible.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a civil rights law, turned 28 this year. It aims to protect disabled people’s rights by prohibiting discrimination and ensuring equal opportunity in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and access to both public and private places open to the general public. Title III of the ADA prohibits private places of public accommodation from discriminating against disabled people — examples include hotels, restaurants, private schools, movie theaters, and so on, and requires businesses to comply to certain requirements regarding accessibility. Per the ADA, restaurants need to have entrances that are 36 inches across to accommodate a wheelchair; check-out counters must have one section no higher than 36 inches for the same reason. When seating is provided, like in restaurants, at least five percent of those tables must be accessible, “if doing so is readily achievable.”
Despite the law, I expect not to be accommodated — an expectation that usually becomes reality. Often, the restaurant’s front door is the first source of frustration: steps, even small ones, serve as major deterrents for wheelchair users. If I manage to get around those, I then have to grapple with physically opening the door, especially if there is no automatic door-opener button (or if the automatic button exists but is broken). Sometimes ramps have been constructed specifically for ease of access, but I have to wheel around the building or through a completely separate door in order to use it.
Once I finally make it inside the restaurant, I have to worry about finding a table. Typically, the hostess stand has been designed specifically for non-wheelchair users, which means I’m way too short to speak comfortably with the host or hostess. Waiting areas — usually populated by bulky benches — are designed specifically with non-disabled people in mind. Without a specifically designed nook to wheel into, I’m inevitably in the way. People bodily trip over me, and more than one person has tried to grab my chair by the handles in order to move me without my permission: Tantamount to grabbing me by the shoulders and shoving me elsewhere without my permission, far too many people assume incorrectly that my disability erases my autonomy.
It’s not unusual for the staff to have zero training in how to handle serving disabled customers. Sometimes they just stand there uncomfortably while my fiance moves a chair or other obstacles so I can have actual space to wheel in and sit. Non-disabled people all too frequently view accessibility as a frustrating waste of time, or as disabled people asking for undeserved extras. Restaurants are supposedly places dedicated to hospitality, but the clear reality when encountering ableism and inaccessibility is that my wheelchair functions to make me undeserving of quality service. Encountering this kind of discriminatory mindset never stops being hurtful and exhausting, no matter how many times I deal with it. Sometimes I encounter crude remarks from staff; in Chicago, a doorman who was checking IDs quipped, “You’re the first wheelchair person I’ve seen tonight. I mean, person in a wheelchair. That’s, um, different.” He paused briefly before continuing. “You nervous?” No, I’m not nervous: I’m infuriated by mediocre hospitality and being belittled, but none of these are new feelings.
Once the table is ready, I have to maneuver to my seat. Most restaurants pack tables and chairs tightly together, leaving minimal clearance for me to pass through comfortably. I’m often left to weave through the crowds of diners alone, because the host or hostess has nimbly dashed off and abandoned me. Sometimes there are lifts created specifically for wheelchair users to move from one area of the restaurant to another, but restaurants that appear accessible on paper (or Google search) are not so much in practice. I’ve encountered too many places that provide a lift for wheelchair users to reach the upper levels of seats, but relegate that lift to use as a coat rack, or block its entrance entirely. This leads to an awkward scramble to clear coats or move chairs so the lift can actually function as designed — and the inevitable air of resentment that I’ve asked for access to begin with. Some restaurants have lifts that are only accessible in one direction; I can use them to get to outdoor seating, for example, but not to the main floor. Advertising accessibility that isn’t functional is useless; ultimately, accessibility is only worthwhile if it can actually be accessed by those of us who actually need to use it.
Getting to the table is obviously an effort, but sitting down is, too — especially if the restaurant has settled on hi-tops as a specific point of design. In the Bay Area, I’ve shared more than one beer with friends while staring at the side of the bar as everyone else towers several feet above me. One restaurant in downtown Oakland had no low-tops whatsoever; they seated me at the pass of the bar, which was still stacked with sundry supplies and garbage.
If I’m lucky, I manage to make it through the restaurant and to a spot at a table with minimal table jostling and minor (or no) injury to myself. Having to visit the restroom is where inaccessibility rears its ugly head once more. At one San Francisco restaurant, the bathrooms are all marked as accessible, but wheeling inside one stall made me realize it was impossible to close the door behind me.
Unfortunately — and fairly obviously — there’s no independent government agency actively doing regular inspections and handing out fines for ADA violations; infractions of the law are typically handled by complaints made by disabled humans like myself. The Disability Rights Section of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division will investigate the complaint, but “will not necessarily make a determination on each complaints about whether or not there is an ADA violation.” Disabled humans can file their own cases in court, but that requires time, effort, and money to cover the cost of the lawyer — federal law allows a court to award reasonable attorney’s fees if the disabled claimant wins the lawsuit, but forbids the award of financial damages. Anything built after the passage of the law in 1990 has to be accessible, but businesses housed in older buildings get to fall back on easy outs, like their financial resources compared to the total cost of making accessibility adjustments.
Even today, most businesses don’t seem to take accessibility into account from the start, despite the fact that disabled people make up about one billion people worldwide, or 15 percent of the entire population. Here in the U.S., that equates to 56.7 million people, or 19 percent of the population, and that’s without acknowledging the reality of aging. Eventually, on a long enough timeline, everyone becomes disabled. Almost 42 percent of adults aged 65 or older have one or more disabilities and that number is only projected to increase, especially as baby boomers age.
That huge group of people is a hidden market of discretionary spending. According to a 2018 study by the American Institutes for Research, disabled people have disposable income totaling upwards of $490 billion — almost half a trillion dollars in market value. A 2003 study by the Open Doors Organization found that disabled diners spent $35 billion in restaurants that year; that same study found that more than 75 percent of disabled people ate out at restaurants at least once weekly. In 2012, the U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy noted that people with disabilities are “the third largest market segment in the United States.” That market potential is even larger when considering friends, family, caregivers, colleagues, and others connected to disabled consumers.
Clearly, the idea of building inclusive, accessible design into restaurants is not just a charitable concept used to increase general goodwill. Disabled people have the money to eat out, and we want to spend our money in places that are willing to make the dining experience less stressful and more accessible from start to finish. Interestingly, on top of major spending power, a 2016 Nielsen study indicated that disabled people tend towards more brand loyalty than non-disabled people, which means we stick with someone once they’ve proved worthy.
Restaurants and bars that focus on accessibility do exist: Mozzeria, a pizzeria in San Francisco that’s fully deaf-owned and operated, was able to announce plans to expand nationwide after a major investment in late 2017. (The restaurant is also fully accessible.) Calavera Oakland, a Mexican Kitchen and Bar, has a fully accessible restaurant and a specifically designed lowered bar area that fits a wheelchair perfectly.
Tried, true, full accessibility always gets my vote when deciding where to eat out for an evening. The restaurant industry as a whole would benefit greatly from viewing accessibility as a major draw for a large chunk of the population with huge spending power. I like to imagine the day when I’ll be able to roll up to any restaurant without calling beforehand and experience a smooth, stress-free dining experience from start to finish.