All-Access Pass?

An injury makes dining out a pain, instead of a pleasure.

Dining out is an activity most of us take for granted. Nada’s outdoor patio for tacos and margaritas? Meet you there in 30 minutes. Dinner at Via Vite before a show at the Aronoff? Love to. But for the 20 percent of Americans with disabilities (which includes temporary disabilities) a simple meet-up raises considerable inquiry regarding accessibility. What’s the parking situation? How easy is it to enter the building or access the restrooms? Are the paths of travel free of obstacles? Are they well lit? As someone who has spent years working in or writing about restaurants, I’m aware of most standards required by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Since its legislation in 1990, the ADA has dislodged barriers, integrating millions of people with physical challenges into public facilities such as restaurants, and affording them the same experience as any other diner. Or so I thought. It took my own impairment to actually pay attention.

In September 2008, I ruptured my Achilles tendon, an injury that required surgery and casting, and progressed over a three-month period from immobility to crutches to a large walking cast. As is often the case when we are transported out of the familiar, my awareness shifted. I discovered what disabled people have noted for years: accessibility doesn’t always equal usability. Sure, most restaurants meet the minimal requirements of the ADA’s building codes—ramps, curb cuts, wider doors and restroom stalls have all become part of the modern landscape. But as I learned to navigate on one leg and two crutches, I encountered several stumbling blocks. Among them: an “accessible” entrance often meant an auxiliary or back door; many doors were difficult or impossible to open on my own; and insufficient space between tables required diners to stand and push their chairs aside so I could get through. In several popular restaurants, the accessible routes were often packed with customers waiting for tables or drinking and socializing. If a friend wasn’t available to run interference, I nudged them with crutches and apologies. Or I took my hobbled gait somewhere else.

Is our imprudent interpretation of “disabled” and “accessible” outdated? Every person challenged by mobility or sensory limitations I spoke with seems to think so. According to Peg Gutsell, executive director of the Inclusion Network, discretionary spending of the disabled population is estimated at nearly $250 billion, and certain to grow as baby boomers age. More than 71 percent dine out in restaurants at least once a week. Even above and beyond the issues of dignity and civil rights, it makes sense to move from mere compliance to a mindset of what’s advantageous for all.

The physical challenges I faced were temporary—I’m walking now and continue to heal—and the accessibility hurdles I encountered might be considered merely inconvenient. But they illuminate the ways in which even the most well-intentioned restaurateurs may hold an uninformed perception of a disabled diner’s value, and in doing so fail to provide the same level of hospitality as they do for the rest of us.

Originally published in the February 2009 issue.

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