Next time you are in a restaurant, count how many diners are in wheelchairs. I’ll bet the number you come up with most often is zero.
There is a reason for that. Going out to eat in a wheelchair is not much fun.
Even though there are protections for the disabled covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, the reality is restaurants -- from fast food places to fine dining establishments -- have a long way to go to enable those in wheelchairs to have an enjoyable experience.
Seeing a blue wheelchair symbol at the entry to a restaurant does not guarantee the place is comfortable to disabled patrons.
I remember the first time I visited a local restaurant in a wheelchair. My legs, paralyzed for months after brain cancer, were getting better. But I couldn’t stand or walk.
My husband had driven me to a doctor’s appointment and, in the spirit of my new freedom (I had been hospitalized for more than four months), suggested we go out for lunch on the way home.
He pulled up in the disabled parking space of a restaurant I liked. We noticed the blue accessible sign in the front window. And he asked the hostess if I could be accommodated in their restaurant.
“Sure,” she said, pleasantly, leading us to a table for four at the back of the facility.
She pulled away a chair and my husband pushed me up as close as I could get. I sat at an angle and because the pedestal beneath the table protruded, I wasn’t very close. My mouth was at least a foot away from the table. And, when the food came, I could barely reach it.
To my right, inches away from my shoulder, was the right shoulder of a baby. He was in a high chair at the end of a booth where his mom was enjoying lunch with a friend.
He had an advantage, though. At least he could sit right up to his table and reach his food.
I was pleased that my husband and I were out dining like we used to, but I was uncomfortable, in pain and did not enjoy the experience. Going out to lunch didn’t have the same appeal it did.
When I needed to use the public restroom, it was a disruptive production. There was not enough aisle space for me to wheel there discreetly. Waitresses moved out of my path and rearranged chairs. Customers seated at a larger table scooched in or stood up while my husband pushed me by. And then the whole thing had to be repeated on my return trip.
I’ve been able to use a walker for the past several years, but it’s often just as difficult to maneuver between chairs and tables.
(And 9 times out of 10, I am seated far away from bathroom. Draw an invisible line from the restroom to the farthest point in the restaurant and that’s where the hostess will seat me.)
On a recent visit to Phoenix, I went with my sister-in-law to an outdoor lunch place that was a favorite of mine when I lived there. But I was able-bodied back then and wasn’t aware of how handicapped accessible it was. I felt reassured as we easily pulled up to the only handicapped parking spot in front. But once I got out with my tri-wheeled walker that can ordinarily handle tough terrain, I was sorely disappointed. The gravel and dirt driveway gave way to a spot that should have been named the “Keep Disabled People Out” entrance.
It was as if they found 50 billiard-ball-shaped rocks and cemented them in a rectangular entry that you had to go through to enter the restaurant area.
I’ve struggled over cobblestones in front of some of my favorite hometown restaurants (curse you, cobblestones!), but I had never encountered anything as challenging as this. I can’t imagine how people in wheelchairs or using canes navigate it.
Once we got through the entrance and ordered inside, we went to nearby outside table to dine. It was like a mine field: uneven terrain dotted with dips.
The final insult occurred when I visited the outdoor restroom. It was down a slight grade; a seemingly short distance but again full of holes, some hidden by grass. As I struggled down the slope, a woman commented: “They sure don’t make it easy for you!”
When I finally got to the restrooms, I found two single unisex ones. Neither had a handicapped accessible sign. The one I picked wasn’t accessible, I learned once inside.
I almost cried. I managed without a bar to hold onto (gripping a public bathroom wall -- yuck) but don’t think I could have accomplished it in my wheelchair days.
When I told this sad tale of what should have been a nice outing in a favorite spot, friends said, “Isn’t that against the law?”
Well, maybe. Depends on how old the facility is. I just won’t go there again. Or to the fine dining Phoenix establishment I visited on another trip that had non-accessible bathroom stalls so small you couldn't close the door if you managed to get in there with a wheelchair or walker. While I am quick to harrumph, I’m not going to file a complaint or lawsuit. But I commend those who do when they face similar problems.
After a 10-year court battle, a California judge ruled last fall that Taco Bell may have to upgrade hundreds of restaurants in the state to provide proper accommodation for customers in wheelchairs.
Among items the judge found illegal were tables too low to fit customers in wheelchairs, toilets too low and soap dispensers too high. Also the ordering line was too narrow to fit wheelchairs or scooters. A customer could wait on the side and be helped by restaurant staff. But the judge said customers described such an arrangement as “inconvenient, cumbersome and embarrassing.”
Being disabled is inconvenient, cumbersome and embarrassing as it is. I don’t need to pay to dine at places that make it worse.