We’ve all been there. You go out to eat at a restaurant, and you find that it is not accessible. Either there are stairs at the entrance, the interior space is too tightly packed with furniture, and, my personal favorite, you can get into the restaurant, but the bathroom lacks proper accessibility features, or you cannot even get into it.
Not to worry, having reviewed close to 100 restaurants and food venues for my blog, The Disabled Foodie, I will share my tips on how to have an improved accessible restaurant experience.
First and foremost, know what your requirements are. This will help prepare you for when you call the restaurant to complete your preliminary research call (PRC). If you need to, have notes prepared that you will use to guide your conversation with restaurant staff. These notes can include any and all of your needs. These notes will help you remember everything you need to ask. For me, these include notes about the space requirements specific to my wheelchair.
The PRC is your first personal interaction with the restaurant staff. I make a PRC for almost every restaurant I review. Yes, I know that it is a pain to have to make these calls, but it gives me an idea of what to expect, and in many cases, it gives me a good idea of the staff’s understanding of accessibility.
When you call, let the staff member who answers know that you have some questions about the restaurant’s accessibility. I start off with a general question which usually is something to the effect of, “How accessible is the restaurant and its bathroom to wheelchairs?” Oftentimes, I find that the staff member does not understand what accessibility is, but I do not let that deter me. If this happens, I use my aforementioned notes to help me ask more specific questions such as, “I use a wheelchair. Are there any steps at all at the entrance?” and “Are the grab bars around the toilet in the bathroom?” Being specific usually helps the staff member have a better understanding of what you are asking, and it aids you in getting the information you need.
If you find that the person on the other end still is having difficulty providing you with the information you need, politely ask if a manager is available. Once you have a manager on the phone, repeat your questions to him/her. If you feel compelled, ask for the staff member’s name and write it down along with the date and time of your call. This could come in handy should you run into any problems if you go to the restaurant.
Sometimes, if an email address is available, I send an email with my list of questions to the restaurant at least five days in advance of dining there. But, I find that phone calls are the most effective method because not all restaurants respond quickly to their emails.
Upon arriving at the restaurant, let the staff member know what you require, and do not be afraid to politely advocate for your needs. Sometimes the staff is hesitant and/or unsure of what to ask, so your self-advocacy eases this tension for everyone and gets you what you need to have a good experience. Remember that it is important to be specific and to remain calm and polite.
A caveat I have run into occasionally is that the information that I was given during the PRC does not match the reality at the restaurant. Frequently, I attribute this either to a desire of the staff member with whom I spoke to be friendly and want to answer every question positively, and/or the staff member did not have a true understanding of accessibility, even after being asked specific questions. This is why I take down their name and the date and time of the call. That way you can tell the manager-on-duty at the restaurant exactly what you were told, and how it does not match what actually exists there.
If you do find yourself in this situation, I recommend staying as calm as possible. When you speak to the manager, start off with something positive that the restaurant has done well. This helps the manager be open to the things that are not done so well. In terms of addressing these items, do not only let this person know that “the accessibility here sucks!” Be specific, and have recommendations on how things could be improved. “There are no grab bars around the toilet in the bathroom. I require these in order to use the bathroom. Do you think that grab bars could be installed? This would help people with disabilities know that you welcome us in your restaurant.” When framed in a way that suggests more potential business, I have found that many restaurants are open to jump on the opportunity to make these improvements.
I hope that these suggestions help you have many great accessible dining experiences. Feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your stories. I would love to hear from you. Happy eating!
By David Friedman
David Friedman is a 39-year-old foodie living in NYC who happens to have a disability. He uses a wheelchair. In August 2014 he noticed a need for accessibility information as it pertains to restaurants, food markets, food events and anywhere else a foodie might venture. He created his blog, The Disabled Foodie, to provide as much of this information as he can to the disability community. He has been featured in amNY, Abilities.com, Disability Horizons, Disability News New York, wheel:life, and on the podcast, The Sporkful. He lives in New York City with his husband and two dogs. He works as a teacher for his full-time job.