This is Eater Voices, where chefs, restaurateurs, writers, and industry insiders share their perspectives about the food world, tackling a range of topics through the lens of personal experience.
Ever been to a restaurant that shares your name? No? Me either. I was pretty close, though. To celebrate my birthday one year, my mentor and I met up at Penelope, a cafe and wine bar in Manhattan. Despite a slight spelling difference, I was excited to eat there and update my mentor on life’s happenings. That excitement dissipated when I arrived to discover that my comfort food-centric namesake was not wheelchair accessible.
Fortunately, we were quick on our feet (well, she was) and ended up at another restaurant nearby, and a mystery person even paid for our meal. But happy ending aside, we were not able to eat where we originally planned.
Restaurant owners have a storied history of neglecting Title III ADA guidelines, which focus on creating a barrier-free environment with mandates for door entrance widths and ramps, table heights, clutter-free paths of travel, and accessible bathrooms, in addition to accommodations for the visually impaired. But in my experience, large-print menus are a rarity, and too-high tables and inaccessible “accessible” bathrooms are the norm. On one memorable occasion, I attended a work dinner 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 met up with a group of friends at a restaurant we were assured was fully accessible, only to find that the bathroom lacked any grab bars. If I attempt to use an inaccessible bathroom unassisted, I am definitely coming in contact with the bathroom floor, and regardless of how good-looking the firefighters who come to retrieve me are, that is somewhere I never want to be. Where I would like to be, instead, is in a restaurant where ADA compliance is properly overseen and is not a response to lawsuit threats.
But during the pandemic, I saw plenty of restaurants adhere to bans on indoor dining and state-mandated curfews, and build impressive outdoor dining spaces. Now, with restaurants in New York and beyond opening back up and a growing number of us exchanging delivery apps for sunlit brunches, I would argue that if restaurant owners could learn to navigate COVID laws, they can now learn to navigate ADA guidelines.
Complying with ADA guidelines should not be considered an added expense or something that restaurant owners can push to the wayside. It is the law, just as state mandates for indoor and outdoor dining, limited capacities, and other social-distancing protocols were. It’s disheartening to see how quickly and ingeniously many restaurants are able to pivot when it’s the bottom line that’s at risk (and understandably so: I am sympathetic to their need to survive), rather than the needs of their customers with disabilities.
And those customers — and potential customers — are many. According to the CDC, 61 million people with disabilities live in the United States, a number that accounts for 25 percent of the population. To me, it looks like restaurants are missing out on an important market.
Despite what most people may think, the disability community is a minority group that anyone can join at any point in their life. And if this pandemic has not proven that to be true, I don’t know what will. So I hope restaurants stop doing the disability community a disservice and remember that assistive and mobility devices are not accessories, consider the path of travel through their dining rooms, offer modified menus, and realize that paper straws are useless to many of us. But as much as I’d like to be hopeful, I’m still regularly confronted with reminders of the general disregard for customers with disabilities: Plenty of outdoor dining setups act as sidewalk obstacle courses, while indoor dining spaces, with their narrow corridors, often mimic a game of Pac-Man.
There are many things that restaurateurs can do to try to improve accessibility within and beyond their spaces. Consulting guides for accessible outdoor dining, ensuring their sidewalk setups don’t take up too much space, and calling 311 (or a similar service) if they’re located on a block without a curb cut are all good places to start.
Something else that’s helpful? Having a knowledgeable and compassionate staff: employees who are well-versed in accessibility accommodations as a whole and at the restaurant where they work are very important. They should be able to answer questions about where assistive devices can go while a customer eats, whether the outdoor space is accessible, and the weight capacity of the restaurant’s wheelchair lift. If having every staff member commit these answers to memory isn’t feasible for larger restaurants, then I suggest having one to three who know them like the back of their hand. It would also be helpful if one of them is responsible for answering the phones and responding to accessibility inquiries via email. Doing so lessens the probability of giving a customer the wrong information and the negative review that will likely follow. Workers should also remember that offering to lift someone and/or their assistive devices is not a replacement for true accessibility.
Restaurant workers should also know that some people with disabilities may inadvertently find themselves in messy situations while dining, whether it be from a fork-dropping habit, knocking things over due to a cluttered path of travel, or my personal favorite, choosing something off the menu that seems cerebral palsy-friendly — meaning easy to eat — but isn’t (for me at least).
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that accessibility and accommodations at restaurants are not only important for patrons with disabilities, but for employees with disabilities as well. It’s no secret that working in the hospitality industry is demanding, so I ask restaurant owners to please listen to their employees’ needs and remember that not all disabilities are visible. They should also find out if workers with assistive devices can easily navigate behind the bar, within the kitchen, and any other area they need to go into.
If the pandemic has reinforced one thing for restaurants, I want it to be that going out to eat is about more than food. It’s about celebrations, milestones, and capturing moments. Restaurants that don’t comply with ADA guidelines make people with disabilities miss out on all of these things, and that’s not okay. Especially given that the pandemic has reminded all of us that getting another chance to celebrate is not guaranteed.
Peneliope Richards is an Afro-Panamanian writer with cerebral palsy living in NYC.
Glenn Harvey was born in Quezon City, Philippines, but moved to Toronto when he was 7 years old. He graduated from Sheridan College, where he honed his skills as an illustrator.