The Americans With Disabilities Act can worry restaurant operators, and for good reason: Even a small violation, or a perceived violation, can cost an establishment thousands of dollars in fines, legal fees, or settlements. The stakes are so high, in fact, patrons or law firms can make a mint targeting restaurants in bad faith. To cite one recent, egregious example: District attorneys in California have sued a San Diego law firm, accusing it of ginning up thousands of ADA lawsuits against restaurants in the state on fraudulent grounds.
Thousands! From one firm! Setting aside the obvious legal questions, targeting restaurants for a quick payday is anathema to the spirit of the ADA, a civil rights landmark since its passage in 1990. The very point of the law is not too dissimilar from the point of restaurants in the first place. We’re all just people with basic needs — among them, eating, drinking, gathering, and moving through shared spaces without too much hassle. Hospitality, done right, seeks to meet those needs for everyone who wants to visit. Your burger-and-a-beer special may not feel like world peace in action, but in practice, it may not be too far off.
Setting aside the many requirements of the ADA, you can also effect a few reasonable changes and best practices to make guests with disabilities feel more warmly welcomed in your establishment. Unlike the ADA standards that require constructing ramps and measuring out restroom stalls, these are relatively simple moves that can address the daily challenges facing disabled patrons. As an added bonus? Most of these practices are either low-cost, or tend to pay for themselves.
Educate your employees about the needs of disabled patrons and how to interact with them. Your staff should provide disabled guests with the same excellent service they’re trained to deliver under any circumstances. A guest should never be turned away because of concerns regarding their physical appearance or behaviors caused by their disability. The golden rule is this: never assume that a disabled person needs your assistance, but always offer and be ready to assist as needed.
Visually impaired guests may need help finding their table; you may need to pull out their chair, read them the menu, direct them to your utensils, or even cut up their food. Offer your assistance at every juncture — do not assume that because a guest needed your help with one task that they want you to run the whole show for them. Waitstaff should keep a pen and notepad handy to communicate with hearing- or speech-impaired customers, and employees who answer the phone should be prepared for calls relayed through TTY-based telecommunications services. These calls may take longer than the average, and patience and clarity are the keys to ensuring effective communication.
When waiting on a mixed-ability party (a group of people where some are disabled and some are not), never assume that disabled people cannot speak for themselves. Both physically and intellectually disabled adults are more often than not perfectly capable of communicating their needs without interpretation, so you should speak to them as you would any patron.
Never touch a person’s wheelchair without being invited to do so; many wheelchair users see their chair as an extension of their physical selves, and consider unwanted handling a violation of bodily autonomy.
One more thing: bartenders are not allowed to require a driver’s license as proof of age. The ADA requires that guests without licenses be permitted to present alternative forms of ID.
If your business was affected by the pandemic (and whose wasn’t?), you may already have hopped on the “contactless menu” bandwagon. QR codes are having a moment in the restaurant space — good news for the visually impaired, who can use their devices to listen to a scanned menu they would otherwise need assistance navigating. A digital menu can also be tagged with information about food allergens, which aren’t listed on most physical menus. As always, beware the allure of the PDF menu. Opt instead for a screen-reader-friendly text-based list of your offerings.
Before you turn that dimmer all the way down, remember that 7 million Americans have visual impairments, and that one man’s “ambiance” is another man’s slip-and-fall. Dining areas should be adequately lit to allow guests to parse their surroundings.
Be aware, also, that people with hearing impairments or sensory issues may be disproportionately sensitive to loud music — there’s one dial you can and should turn down. While you’re at it, consider sound-dampening options such as tablecloths and upholstered seating. Restaurant sound design is an entire dance, of course, but do consider that even people who are not hard-of-hearing can suddenly feel that way in a restaurant where the decibels are out of control.
For restaurants, reservations are usually great. They help you manage capacity, staff adequately, and turn over tables efficiently, and they attract bigger parties with more spending power. Customers love them too. We all crave predictability, and we all hate waiting.
For some disabled people, the wait is worse than an inconvenience. Just take it from Madeline Bodin, a writer from Vermont whose special family occasion took a turn for the worse when she couldn’t find a restaurant that would allow her to book a reservation.
“When my son graduated from college, my parents, who are 87, were so excited to attend even though it would be difficult for them,” she told me by email. “My dad has rheumatoid arthritis and was being treated for cancer, so this trip was a big deal. Because of his arthritis, he can't sit or stand for long. I knew restaurants would be crowded, maybe even packed, because it was a graduation weekend, so I needed to make a dinner reservation. But no restaurants were taking reservations, even the ones that take them at other times. I was so angry, because I know that my family is not the only family where the uncertainty of a wait could be harmful. My dad pretends he's OK, then suffers for days afterward because he overdid it.”
A long search turned up a restaurant where the family could book a reservation — for 3:30 in the afternoon, only after putting down a deposit. “It wasn't ideal,” Bodin said. “But I was grateful.”
While you’re reflecting on your reservation practices, remember also that you’ll want any reservation software you invest in to come with a “notes” feature, and to remind your staff to check it thoroughly; as the New York Times Magazine publicized last year, it was a missed accessibility request in the reservation system that left a California restaurant called Top Hatters Kitchen and Bar vulnerable to a crushing ADA lawsuit.
Under the ADA, you must allow service animals into your restaurant. Yes, we said “animals.” You’re most likely to encounter specially-trained dogs, but miniature horses are allowed too. You are permitted to ask a customer whether their animal is required because of a disability, as well as what tasks the animal is trained to perform, but you may not require the customer to show proof that the animal is certified as a service worker.
Note that “emotional support animals” are not considered service animals, so if Fluffy is trained to alleviate ennui, you have no legal obligation to accommodate her. Do not pet or engage with the service animal in any way, unless the guest invites this conduct. Additional tips around interacting with service animals in a restaurant setting can be found by clicking here.
If your establishment is a quick-serve restaurant, consider investing in self-service kiosks. They’re pricey to install (on the order of $5,000 apiece), but they offer autonomy to the hard of hearing and the visually impaired, if they feature text-based menus and audio output. Beyond empowering disabled users, these kiosks can also speed up the ordering process, unshackle staff from register duty, improve order accuracy, and upsell like nobody’s business.
[Photo by ELEVATE via Pexels]