How to Make Your Restaurant ADA-Compliant and Accessible to All Customers

In her 1978 essay “Illness as Metaphor,” the writer Susan Sontag offered up a metaphor that ever since has guided the way many people think about their relationship to disability. “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick,” she wrote. If you’ve been blessed enough to know only citizenship in that first kingdom, you may not give much thought to the 61 million Americans who live with some form of disability. But Sontag continues: “Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

Designing spaces that accommodate people who have a disability is a thing we do for others now. If we’re lucky enough to grow old, it will be a favor that is repaid to us. At any given time, nearly a quarter of the people in this country are contending with disability, a term encompassing chronic illness, temporary injury, mental health impairment, and other conditions. Like the other 75% of Americans plodding the streets, these people get hungry. The 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) aimed to remove barriers to those necessities and simple pleasures whose enjoyment is the right of every person in this great nation. Featured prominently among these is the right to enjoy going to restaurants.

But ensuring accessibility for all can be a complicated affair, particularly when you take into account the many, many standards which comprise ADA regulations, as well as state and local laws that seek to achieve similar goals. Hence this nifty dispatch: a primer in ADA compliance and the basics of accessibility in the restaurant space, here for your reference as you strive to create an equitable environment for all of your patrons to enjoy. 

What is the ADA? 

Since its passage in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act has been considered a successor to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. You know the one — it’s the law that bars discrimination based on race, religion, sex, color, and national origin. The disability community (among others) was overlooked in this first attempt to ensure equality, and activists fought for years to secure legal protections. The ADA applies to many areas, including transportation, access to state and local government services, communications, employment, and “public accommodations.” These last three categories are most pertinent to your business, as restaurants are considered public accommodations under Title III of the ADA.

Which provisions of the ADA apply to my restaurant? 

Title I of the ADA covers employment, and applies to businesses with 15 or more employees (full or part-time). As a place of public accommodation, your restaurant must comply with the provisions of Title III of the ADA, regardless of how many people you employ. This is true even if you’re working out of an old building, usually. The ADA requires that barriers be removed when to do so is “readily achievable,” which it goes on to define as “easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense.”

That’s pretty vague, and many plaintiffs who sue under the ADA have won judgments around issues that business owners said would have been too costly to rectify. Furthermore, the ADA states that business owners must remove such barriers as soon as that does become readily achievable. If your fledgling restaurant is in its first year, you may not have the capital to install an elevator to the second-floor lounge, but you’re only off the hook until you start seeing the kind of ROI you’d need to pay for that alteration. And a judge may disagree with you about what constitutes a portion of your profits that should reasonably be set aside for such purpose.

ADA rules on accessible navigation, seating, and entry

When we think about “accessibility” in the context of the public sphere, we often think about navigability. There’s a lot more to it, but it’s certainly reasonable to begin by asking yourself if a person with a physical impairment can move around your space — and enjoy all of the amenities your public accommodation has to offer. The ADA defines an accessible route as “a continuous unobstructed path connecting all accessible elements and spaces of a building or facility” and goes on to further specify: “Interior accessible routes may include corridors, floors, ramps, elevators, lifts, and clear floor space at fixtures. Exterior accessible routes may include parking access aisles, curb ramps, crosswalks at vehicular ways, walks, ramps, and lifts.”

Let’s start by considering interior space. You have to have at least one accessible route connecting every public-facing section of your restaurant; to be considered “accessible”, that route is required to be at least 36 inches wide. This means that your tables must be at least 36 inches apart in all directions to permit passage by people in wheelchairs. Doorways, which must be at least 32 inches wide, are an exception to the 36-inch rule.

The ADA states that floor surfaces must be “stable, firm, [and] slip-resistant.” This is a little subjective, but know that if you’re putting down carpeting, any cushions or pads must be firm; the carpet should have a level loop, textured loop, level cut pile, or level cut/uncut pile texture,” and the pile cannot be thicker than half an inch (not typically a major concern in restaurants, where shag carpets are generally verboten, but, hey, you never know). If you have a sunken or raised dining area, or an outdoor seating area, bear in mind that routes involving steps or stairs are not accessible. You’ll need a ramp (click here to see more about their specifications) or an elevator to make those spaces truly accessible, but there are some exceptions.

Most standalone restaurants are in buildings that are less than three stories high or have less than 3,000 sq. feet per story. In these buildings, “an accessible route shall not be required to a mezzanine dining area where the mezzanine contains less than 25 percent of the total combined area for seating and dining and where the same decor and services are provided in the accessible area” (but if your establishment is in a shopping mall or a public transit facility, like an airport, your building does require accessible routes between stories, so it’s back to the ramp-and-elevator drawing board for you).

Wondering what the heck “same decor and services” means? The ADA’s got an answer for you: “Examples of ‘same services’ include… bar service… lotto and other table games, carry-out, and buffet service. Examples of ‘same decor’ include, but are not limited to, seating at or near windows… areas designed with a certain theme, party and banquet rooms, and rooms where entertainment is provided.” So on the chance Chuckles the Clown hosts trivia night in your main dining room every Monday, you’d better make sure his cousin Knuckles is free to hold court over your mezzanine concurrently, if there’s no accessible route between the two.

Accessible seating is a major concern under the ADA. You may have heard that at least 5% of your tables must be ADA compliant, but don’t do some quick math and think that having less than 20 tables gets you off the hook — in that case, you need at least one accessible table. An accessible table “has a surface height of no more than 34 inches and no less than 28 inches above the floor. At least 27 inches of knee clearance must be provided between the floor and the underside of the table.” A clear floor area of 30 inches by 48 inches is required at each place at the table, to accommodate the size of a wheelchair, and this area must extend 19 inches under the table for leg clearance. The ADA states that your compliant tables should also be available for use by people without disabilities. The idea here is that you’re not allowed to have a “disabled-only” seating section, because that constitutes segregation. The same requirements apply to fixed tables in outdoor areas, including playgrounds and patios, so if you’re in the market for picnic tables for your outdoor space, be sure to check out some accessible options.

For the quick-service restaurateurs and fast-foodies, there’s more. If your customers order food at the counter, make sure to have a section of counter at least 36 inches long that’s no more than 36 inches high, with a clear 30-by-48-inch floor space to accommodate a wheelchair user. If food is served at the counter, you’ll need a section at least 60 inches long that’s no more than 34 inches off of the ground. Self-service counters housing condiments and tableware should be no taller than 48 inches for a forward reach or 54 inches for a side reach. The best practice is to place the self-service items towards the front of the counter, so that your patrons can grab them without help.

Of course, none of these accommodations will benefit your customers if they can’t get into your restaurant. The ADA has strict guidelines for accessible entrances. If your entrance isn’t flush with the ground, you must provide a ramp, 36 inches wide and 60 inches long, with a slope of 2%. If your ramp is longer than 6 feet (that’s 72 inches), you must install handrails that are between 34 inches and 28 inches tall. Accessible doorways must be at least 36 inches wide.

Door handles provide a perfect example of how features that barely even register to non-disabled people can make a world of difference for their disabled counterparts. If your door handle requires turning or squeezing, like a typical knob or what’s known as a panel, it’s not accessible to people with mobility disabilities. Better to go with a loop or lever style, or, better yet, an automatic power door. Under the ADA, accessible doors must require fewer than 5 pounds of pressure to push or pull, but having to exert any amount of force to open a door can present a strain for some disabled people, so you may want to consider installing at least one entrance with an automatic door if you’re serious about going the extra mile for the disability community (and everyone else — turns out almost 99% of consumers who care one way or another prefer automatic doors every time). You only need one accessible entryway, but all non-accessible entrances should feature signs providing direction to the accessible one.

How much handicapped parking do you need?

If your restaurant has a parking lot, the ADA’s got plenty to say about that, too. There’s a nifty chart you can use to determine exactly how many accessible parking spaces you must provide under federal law. The general rule is that you need one designated “handicapped spot” (note that the h-word has fallen out of favor in most contexts other than the parking-related) for every 25 standard spaces, so most eateries end up on the hook for one or two. An accessible parking space is at least 8 feet wide and is on a slope of 2% or less, and it should be the spot nearest to your accessible entrance. At least one of your accessible spots must be van-accessible, which requires an additional 3 feet of width and an 8-foot-wide access aisle (those are the blue-striped rectangles you see next to some handicapped spots) to accommodate lift-enabled vans.

Offer valet parking? That’s a service oft-welcomed by disabled people, as it can reduce their travel distance to the accessible entrance. But the above-described requirements still hold. 

How to make your restrooms ADA-compliant

ADA compliance requires that you pay especially close attention to the design of your restrooms. Accessible restrooms must be able to accommodate the standard wheelchair, which covers an area 30 inches by 48 inches. You have to account for turning space, which requires a circular diameter of 60 inches or a clear T-shaped area within a 60-by-60-inch square that permits three-point turns. Dryers and soap dispensers should be between 15 inches and 48 inches high, and you need space under the sink — 27 inches high, 30 inches wide, and 11-to-25 inches deep — so a wheelchair user can pull up close enough to operate the faucet. The faucet should be usable with just one hand, which need not have to exert more than 5 pounds of force (here again the disabled community tends to appreciate automaticity; your immunocompromised customers in particular will thank you).

If your bathroom has stalls, at least one must be wheelchair-accessible. Size requirements differ depending upon whether you’re rocking wall-mounted or floor-mounted toilets, but a good rule of thumb is to make the stall 60-by-60 inches. Verify that the centerline of the toilet is no more than 16 to 18 inches from one sidewall and that the flush mechanism is on the open side of the stall so patrons don’t have to perform a tricky reach. You must have horizontal grab bars installed on the rear wall and the sidewall closest to the toilet (the one without the flusher on it).

Don’t forget the Braille restroom signage (if you were considering getting one of those progressive/novelty restroom signs that features cryptids in lieu of actual information, you may want to hammer out the Braille for “mermaid-alien-thing”). Additional information pertaining to urinals, changing tables, trash receptacles, and more can be found here. Did I mention that the ADA really goes hard when it comes to restrooms?

Make your website accessible to users with disabilities

You probably view your website as an extension of your restaurant, and surprise, so does the ADA. Your website counts as a place of “public accommodation,” just like your brick and mortar establishment, and requires that you take steps to ensure that people with disabilities can navigate it. Although the ADA’s Standards for Accessible Design don’t include specific provisos to this end, guidance released in March of 2022 recommends that businesses follow the internationally-recognized Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

WCAG standards exist to ensure that your website is “perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.” Specific recommendations include alt image descriptions, text transcripts for audio and video content, keyboard navigability (some disabled users are unable to operate a mouse or trackpad), consistent color contrast (i.e., not imposing light gray text over a dark gray background), and use of color alone to convey information (this is inaccessible to people with colorblindness and to those who use screen readers). Other best practices for restaurant sites include text-based menus (screen readers can’t parse PDFs, nor can Google readily, so this is a win for SEO, too), descriptive hyperlinks (i.e., “click here to see lunch specials” rather than a generic “click here”), and graphics that include text (these tend to throw screen readers for a loop).

If you’re not sure if your website is accessible, talk to your web developer about an audit. There are automated tools designed to screen for WCAG compliance, and consulting firms that will do deeper dives. Beware software companies peddling “accessibility overlays.” These may actually do more harm than good, as they have been shown to throw off screen readers in ways that render the site useless. It’s a good idea to include a page with an accessibility statement that affirms your commitment to the cause and includes a way to contact you with questions.

Restaurant employment rights and the ADA

Most employers know it’s illegal to discriminate against job applicants on the basis of ability status: You can’t reject an applicant who is qualified to perform the job for which they are applying, solely because they have a disability.

It’s vital that you treat all job applicants equally, which may require that you check your ability-related assumptions. If a person in a wheelchair applies for a job that requires the ability to lift 40 pounds comfortably, do not ask them, “Doesn’t being in a wheelchair mean you can’t lift 40 pounds comfortably?” If you do, you may be flirting with a lawsuit from the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. Instead, you can ask them if they can lift 40 pounds comfortably, with or without accommodation; if they say yes, you are allowed to ask them what kinds of accommodations they think they will need. If the accommodation is “reasonable” — meaning it won’t impose “undue hardship” on the business — you must consider the person’s candidacy as you would anyone else’s. Of course, “reasonable” and “undue hardship” are subjective terms. Tread carefully and consult with legal counsel if you have any doubts as to your hiring practices.

Under the ADA, certain communicable diseases are considered disabilities. When it comes to employment decisions surrounding these individuals, the FDA’s Food Code comes into play. You may ask applicants about their status concerning food-borne illnesses after you make a conditional job offer. Again, you must treat all applicants equally — no pulling aside the fellow with a visible rash while all the rash-less applicants traipse off to fill out their hiring paperwork.

The FDA Food Code requires that food service employees report if they have certain symptoms — fever, diarrhea, jaundice, or vomiting — in which case these employees should be restricted from food handling duties. This restriction is perfectly acceptable under the ADA, as is exclusion from the establishment if an employee is diagnosed with one of the FDA’s “Big 6 Pathogens” — norovirus, typhoidal and non-typhoidal Salmonella, E. coli, Shigella, and Hepatitis A. The Food Code lays out more about return-to-work procedures.

Unfortunately, the ADA is generally enforced via lawsuits

If you’ve read this far, we know two things: You care about accessibility, and you’re wondering how you can possibly adhere to the umpteen requirements laid forth by the ADA. It’s high time we acknowledged the strain that the ADA places on many restaurateurs, who are just trying to survive and may not have the time or resources to devote to constantly checking for compliance.

The hard truth for business owners and disabled patrons alike: No governmental organization checks for ADA compliance before a business opens. If an individual discovers a violation, their only formal recourse is to personally sue the establishment. In 2021, some 11,400 people filed ADA lawsuits against “places of public accommodation,” many of them small businesses.

One restaurant group owner I spoke to called the ADA “the third rail” of the restaurant industry. The owner, who asked to remain anonymous here, operates locations in multiple states, and lamented the lack of a regulatory body tasked with ensuring accessibility. “When you open a restaurant, local municipalities spend a lot of time checking to make sure you’re up to code for all kinds of things,” he said. “The Department of Buildings verifies that you’re in line with the fire code. The Department of Health checks the temperature of your freezers, makes sure you have no vermin, makes sure your food is properly stored. There are all these checkpoints along the way, but there’s nothing like that for the ADA. It can feel like you’re just waiting to get sued.”

He emphasized that this amounts to a raw deal for disabled customers who encounter barriers: “It shouldn’t be up to the damaged party to enforce the law. When you go into a restaurant, you don’t worry about burning up in a fire, because you know that the fire department has verified that there are sprinklers in there. I want all of my customers to have peace of mind, knowing that nothing will go wrong, and that if something does go wrong, it’s not incumbent upon them to take me to court to fix it.”

The world remains an imperfect place, even if it’s true that wheelchair users have much better access to meals and parking and restrooms than they did a generation ago. If you have any questions about compliance, check with a legal advisor knowledgeable about the ADA, as well as state and local requirements. (If those differ from the federal law, whichever requirement is more stringent applies.)

Most architects and contractors are familiar with the broad contours of the ADA, but it never hurts to make sure that everybody participating in the design and construction of your facility has the latest standards at hand. You may even want to retain the services of an accessibility consultant. Remember that the disability community is vast, diverse, and wields considerable spending power. Make your restaurant a comfortable place for everyone, and we all reap the benefits.

[Photo by ELEVATE via Pexels]