Accessibility Is Hospitality: Why The Restaurant Industry Needs To Catch Up

(Arielle Gray/WBUR)
(Arielle Gray/WBUR)

As Alzheimer’s Awareness Month winds to a close, I’ve naturally spent a lot of time thinking about my dad. In 2002, a stroke left him physically disabled; in the years that followed, his memory and speech started to deteriorate. We tried not to let his cane, and later his wheelchair, affect the rhythm and quality of his life. We traveled and took vacations, went to the movies and out to eat. My unstoppable mother kept our family on course, insisting that we conduct business as usual and not deprive ourselves or our dad of a normal family life.

It was not easy. Any person with a loved one with Alzheimer’s knows the helpless frustration and constant anxiety of navigating a world designed for the physically and cognitively able. Will there be an accessible bathroom? Will the wheelchair lift be out of order? Will people stare or comment and will the staff know what to do with us? Eventually, there was only one place outside our home where I felt completely confident taking our dad: my own restaurant.

In the years since he passed away, I’ve come to realize that dining without anxiety about accessibility is a privilege that many of us aren’t even aware of. That’s how privilege works — it’s imperceptible, unless you don’t have it. Restaurants could help level the playing field when it comes to going out to eat, but in many cases, we just make things worse.

Unfortunately, many restaurant spaces are the “opposite of hospitality” for diners with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a civil rights law passed in 1990, sets basic standards for accessibility in public spaces. But without monitoring or enforcement by any government agency or third party, reports of violations are relatively common in restaurants: narrow pathways through packed dining rooms, lack of low-top tables, and bathrooms labeled as accessible that clearly cannot accommodate a wheelchair. Regular inspections could help enforce the law, but as it stands, the onus is on diners to file complaints or suits.

Some spaces may comply with the letter of the law while still failing to maintain accessibility for all guests. Loud music is a common issue — even for guests without hearing impairments. “Funky” spaces with multiple levels, or unusual concepts like standing-room-only restaurants can be completely off-the-table for guests with physical impairments. And don’t even get me started on restaurants rushing to eliminate plastic straws.

True hospitality also requires compassion, and compassion relies on awareness. Most restaurants don’t train staff to accommodate diners with special needs, and it can lead to awkward interactions, or disabled guests being ignored entirely. A resource called Purple Table seeks to address this by providing training materials for restaurants that join their online network. On the site, diners can research which restaurants can provide the kind of facilities and service they need and make a reservation with confidence.

As spaces designed for hospitality, restaurants have a unique opportunity and responsibility to attend to the needs of diners with disabilities. The best hosts and servers are skilled at anticipating guests’ needs, whether they’re about accessibility or not, and are trained to address issues without needing to be asked. It’s time for the restaurant industry as a whole to practice this kind of hospitality for all guests. And if doing the right thing isn’t compelling enough, consider this: nearly 1 in 5 Americans has a disability or impairment. The right combination of accessibility and compassion can help restaurants attract guests with disabilities, a market sector with considerable spending power.

As a society, we’re more aware of people with disabilities than ever before, thanks in part to awareness months like April (autism), May (ALS) and June (Alzheimer’s). But the restaurant industry is lagging behind when it comes to creating spaces that are safe and welcoming for diners with physical or cognitive disabilities. Small changes can make a big difference in these diner’s experience. Restaurant owners and front-of-house personnel, check that your accessible bathrooms can actually fit a wheelchair and that your restaurant’s front doors and vestibules don’t exclude people with disabilities. Automatic door openers, ramps with handrails, and service counters with at least a small section 36” or lower are all a good start.

If renovations or facilities improvements aren’t possible, consider how you can offer the best guest experience with what you already have. For example, identify which tables have better light or less noise or are most wheelchair accessible. Provide different kinds of seating to accommodate different guests. And remember, your people are your best resource: train your team to compassionately and respectfully assist diners with special needs, and educate them about ableism with readings or activities. I hope my colleagues will draw the same conclusion I have: accessibility is hospitality.

Headshot of Irene Li

Irene Li Food Columnist
Irene Li is The ARTery's food columnist. She operates Mei Mei Street Kitchen and Mei Mei Restaurant in Boston.



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