10 Tips to Make Your Restaurant Accessible to Customers With Disabilities
Yelp and The Mighty recently released a list of the most wheelchair accessible restaurants in the United States. But what exactly makes a restaurant disability-friendly? If you’re a restaurant owner, manager, or staff member, you may be wondering what you can do to make your business welcoming and inclusive. Here are 10 tips to make your restaurant more accessible for customers who have disabilities.
Please note that I am not an architect or a lawyer, and this guide is not a substitute for complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act regulations for businesses.
1. Leave plenty of space between tables so walker, scooter, and wheelchair users can get through.
Restaurant tables should be spaced as far apart as possible, with at least 36-inch-wide aisles so mobility device users can pass through without other diners having to get up or pull their chairs in. If some sections of the restaurant cannot be readily made accessible, create an accessible section in a desirable part of the restaurant, with window tables if there’s a view, so that diners with disabilities don’t get an inferior experience. If you use a reservation system, make sure it allows customers to voluntarily note that they need accessible seating.
2. Choose tables and chairs that are accessible to diners with physical disabilities.
The ADA requires that tables range from 28-34″ in height with at least 27″ of vertical clearance to allow most standard wheelchairs to fit underneath. When choosing tables, make sure there is at least 19″ of horizontal space underneath for a wheelchair user’s legs and that there are no sharp edges under the tables or on the legs. If you are installing booths, ensure that the booth leg is in the middle of the table, not the end, so that wheelchair users can sit at the end.
Don’t forget the bar! Make sure your bar has a lowered portion and/or that there are accessible-height tables in the bar area. With that said, don’t assume that people with disabilities would always want or need the accessible tables. For example, many power wheelchairs can raise up, allowing the user to sit at a bar.
Choose comfortable chairs that come in versions with and without armrests. Some people with mobility disabilities may need the support of armrests to sit and stand, while some larger people may not be able to fit in a chair with armrests. For barstools, try to provide at least some that have backs.
3. Offer outdoor dining when weather permits.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, dining outdoors has become more popular, and for many people with disabilities, it’s essential. Many people with both visible disabilities and invisible chronic illnesses are at high risk of severe COVID-19 despite being vaccinated, and therefore still cannot safely dine indoors. Offering outdoor seating makes your restaurant accessible to people who otherwise could not dine out at all.
When choosing outdoor tables, refer to the indoor table guidelines above. Note that picnic tables are usually inaccessible as wheelchair users can only sit at the end, and the end often doesn’t stick out far enough to accommodate someone’s legs under the table. Wheelchair-accessible picnic tables do exist, but other options will be safer and more comfortable for people who do not use wheelchairs but need a chair with a back and/or armrests.
4. Make your menu accessible to people who are blind or have low vision.
There are several easy, low-cost ways to make restaurant menus accessible to people who are blind or have low vision. One of the simplest is to post the menu on your website using HTML/text. This allows people with a screen reader on their phone to listen to the menu, or to make the print larger so they can read it. You can also make an audio recording of someone reading the menu and post it on the website.
Many restaurants are now using QR codes to access their menus, which can be a great solution for blind people. However, the menu must be in HTML/text format, as a PDF or image will not be accessible to screen readers. If you are a server at a restaurant that uses QR codes and have a blind customer, be sure to let them know that there is a QR code and offer to assist them in locating and using it.
Since not all people with low vision have or know how to use assistive technology on their phones, it’s important to offer additional options. Large print menus are easy to make and helpful to elderly people who may not be smartphone savvy. You can also have Braille menus printed.
5. Be ready to assist deaf and hard-of-hearing customers.
People who are deaf or hard of hearing have a variety of ways of communicating. Some use American Sign Language, and may utilize an interpreter when placing their order. If a deaf person is talking to you using sign language, look at them rather than their interpreter.
When assisting a hard-of-hearing customer, speak clearly while looking at them. Be aware that restaurants are extremely difficult environments for people who are hard of hearing because of all the background noise. Don’t get frustrated if the person asks you to repeat yourself multiple times. Offer to use pen and paper, have them type their order on their phone screen, or encourage them to point to the items they want on the menu.
Another easy accommodation for deaf and hard of hearing customers is to laminate menus and provide a dry-erase marker. Then the customer can circle what they want and write any substitutions on the menu, so there’s no miscommunication. After they’ve ordered, simply wipe off the menu and it’s ready for the next customer.
6. Be aware of common food allergies and offer allergy-safe entrees.
Not all disabilities are visible, and food allergies and intolerances are common conditions that make dining out difficult. Sadly, diners with food allergies sometimes get stereotyped as picky or difficult by people who do not understand the potentially life-threatening impact of exposure to an allergen. Some allergies can cause anaphylaxis that requires an Epi-Pen and immediate medical attention. For people with celiac disease, even cross-contamination from cooking pots or a crumb of bread on a piece of food can cause severe illness. Developing cross-contamination prevention protocols and offering an allergy-friendly menu can give your restaurant the opportunity to serve a group of customers that will greatly need and appreciate your food.
Even if your restaurant is not specifically allergy-friendly, you can make dining out safer for people with allergies and intolerances by making an ingredient list available. You don’t have to give up recipe secrets or disclose the exact amount of ingredients to keep diners with allergies safe, only whether an ingredient is present or could be present due to cross-contamination.
7. Provide easy-to-use utensils, straws, and food cutting service.
People with limited hand coordination can have a wide variety of needs when it comes to utensils. Often, they will carry some kind of device to adapt utensils or bring their own utensils. When buying utensils for your restaurant, choose standard handles and avoid utensils that are heavy. If your restaurant uses chopsticks, be sure to have forks available for people who are unable to use chopsticks.
Sometimes people with disabilities may not order certain foods because they can’t cut them without assistance and are afraid of inconveniencing kitchen staff. Let customers know they can have kitchen staff cut food into bite-size pieces. If you serve foods that are more difficult or complex to eat, such as crab legs or lobster, proactively inform customers that they can be peeled or shelled at no extra charge.
Straws have become a contentious issue due to their perceived environmental hazards, although plastic bags and commercial waste cause far more damage to the environment. Many people with disabilities need straws to drink, so you should always have some available. If you do not provide straws automatically, be sure that servers are instructed to not question any request for a straw, even if the person does not appear to have a disability, since many health conditions are invisible.
Paper straws tend to fall apart and may be unsafe, and metal straws are very hazardous as they can injure a person’s mouth, or poke them in the eye or cheek if they have limited coordination. If you are providing reusable straws, silicone straws are the safest choice, but you should still have some disposable plastic bendy straws on hand.
8. Make your restrooms accessible and inclusive.
If there’s one thing that frustrates me the most as a wheelchair user, it’s enjoying a meal only to find out that the restroom is not accessible. What goes in must come out, and restaurants and bars need restrooms that anyone can use. Discussing the exact specifications of accessible restrooms goes beyond the scope of this article, but you can read a guide here. Most importantly, wheelchair users must be able to park next to the toilet in the stall, and have grab rails so they can transfer from wheelchair to toilet and back.
If you are building or remodeling a restaurant, gender-neutral/family bathrooms are an ideal, inclusive way to create accessibility for all. Many people with disabilities may need assistance in the restroom from someone of a different gender, or they may be gender non-conforming and need a neutral restroom. These restrooms also provide more space and privacy for individuals who may need to use a catheter or change a diaper or colostomy bag.
9. Be welcoming to service dogs.
The Americans With Disabilities Act protects the right of service dog handlers to take them in all public places, including restaurants. Service dogs cannot be restricted to outdoor dining or banned from the buffet area.
Many people do not want strangers to pet or interact with their service dog, so servers should offer compliments about the dog to the handler, not directly to the dog. If the handler is OK with people petting their dog, they will say so. It is appropriate for servers to offer to get a bowl of water for the dog.
Many business owners worry about fake service dogs disrupting their place of business. Service dogs assist people with both visible and invisible disabilities, so do not assume that a dog is fake because the handler doesn’t look like what you think of when you hear the word “disabled.” Service dogs do not have to be “certified” or have “papers” of any kind, as some handlers train their own dogs, so you are not allowed to ask for any such documentation. The Department of Justice has provided guidance about appropriate questions that can be asked regarding a service dog.
Businesses do not have to allow dogs that are dangerous or disruptive, whether they are service dogs or not. If a service dog is barking inappropriately, growling at people, or has an accident on the floor, it is perfectly legal to require the handler to remove the dog.
10. Train servers and cooks on how to interact with customers who have disabilities.
Last but not least, servers and kitchen staff should be trained on how to create a welcoming and supportive environment for customers with disabilities. Discuss the most accessible seating areas and how to help those with mobility devices navigate to their seat. Make sure servers are aware of all the accessibility provisions available; Braille menus are useless if nobody knows you have them to offer to customers. Discuss common food allergies and intolerances and questions they are likely to be asked about ingredients.
Talk to servers about avoiding common disability slurs. Make sure they know to treat people with disabilities like other customers. Don’t speak to people with intellectual disabilities like children, and don’t call people with disabilities (or someone who is helping them) inspirational for doing everyday tasks. Don’t pet or talk to service dogs without permission.
These tips can help you make your restaurant a place that is welcoming and inclusive of all people. Who knows, maybe you’ll make Yelp’s list next year!
Getty photo by Halfpoint Images.