The Kitchen Sink

Are ADA-compliant restaurants truly accessible to people with disabilities?

Almost twelve years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, restaurant architects, interior designers, and owners take ADA compliance for granted. But are ADA-compliant restaurants truly accessible to people with disabilities?

“[ADA compliance] might mean that we can get in the door,” explains Berkeley resident Pam Fadem, who uses a wheelchair. “But since businesses that rely on profits — which is all of them — need to maximize the use of their spaces, they often put so much furniture in the way that wheelchairs can’t get around inside.”

Jan Garrett, director of Berkeley’s Center for Independent Living, said that restaurants can’t just build bathrooms that comply with guidelines. They also need to “allow for room to get to the bathroom, and not use it for storing 25 cases of toilet paper.”

The ADA isn’t meant to make businesses spend exorbitant amounts of money. According to Garrett, existing buildings are not required to do major alterations, just what’s “readily achievable”: choosing tables that are 27 inches high to allow wheelchairs to fit beneath them, installing grab bars in the toilets, perhaps even putting in a lighter front door that folks using wheelchairs and walkers can push open. Restaurants that can accommodate groups of diners in wheelchairs are hard to find. (Garrett cited Oakland’s Café Milano and Le Cheval and Berkeley’s Venezia and Sushi Bonzai as those able to serve groups.)

More important than installing high-tech interventions or printing the menu in braille, though these are much appreciated, is training the staff on how to serve people with disabilities — and more significantly, how to be comfortable around them.

Gerard Baptiste, CIL’s deputy director and a former waiter, recommends that servers ask visually impaired diners how they can assist them to get to their tables, tell them when they’re setting something down in front of them, and read the menu aloud if they’re alone. Waiters who serve hearing-impaired people should take time to let the diner write requests and comments on a piece of paper. Both Baptiste and Garrett have been to restaurants where the waiters have addressed only their nondisabled spouses. Garrett’s husband always tells them, “Well, she’s going to pay, so you’d better ask her what she wants.”

In the end, Fadem judges a restaurant’s accessibility on the response she gets when she comes through the door. “[I look for] places where they smile and say, ‘Fine, fine’ instead of the folks who are smacking themselves in the forehead and saying, ‘Oh, no.’ “

CIL conducts accessibility assessments and offers sensitivity training at affordable rates. For more information, call 510-841-4776.

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