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I am fortunate. I’m privileged to be in a city with a vibrant food culture, and the financial means to regularly treat myself to meals I don’t have to cook. Over the years I’ve sat in restaurants that have had various nods to inclusion and universal usability. But now that I’m thinking about it, there has almost always been some form of a barrier to access – either my own or for someone I’m with.

Getting in the Door

I must admit – to my shame – that I don’t think much about getting inside a restaurant as a barrier to access… but why wouldn’t it be? Getting through the door could be interpreted a variety of ways. Can your customers get to your location by many means of transport (safe pedestrian access, public transportation), or is it only accessible by car? What about getting inside? Is the door heavy, or does it open easily or automatically? Are their smooth access points to the building, or are their any steps to come inside? Neglecting any of these considerations could actually decrease your customer base, because it limits access to those who can drive (or pay for taxis), or are reliably ambulatory on two feet.

So, We’ve come inside… Now What?

So, you’ve got the perfect location, and barrier-free access to the building… That’s awesome! Can everyone enjoy your hospitality? Are your tables at varying heights? Is there enough space to navigate a wheelchair or walker or service dog or stroller between them? Is there enough quiet space for conversation to be possible, or for breaks from a sensory onslaught? How about menus? Can the menus be accessed through smartphone apps, braille, or large print? Is the lighting bright enough so your entire customer base can read them without squinting, or just asking the server for recommendations? Are the washrooms easy to access and navigate? Is your staff trained on local or federal laws regarding service dog access? In my own experience, at least one (and usually several) of the answers to these questions is “no.” And, as before, this either decreases your repeat customer base (at best), or provides a seriously negative experience (at worst).

“Why the Third Degree? You Aren’t my Only Customer!”

You could be reading this piece, wringing your hands, thinking that you have a hundred other things to think about rather than five hundred questions about access to your restaurant. After all, if I don’t come to your place of business, there’s always someone else who’ll take my place. You don’t have a ton of wheelchair users, or blind people, or people who use service dogs, anyway. You’ll serve us if we’re there, but systemic change… that’s just too hard and complicated, with too few returns. You may not post a sign saying “disabled people not welcome” (if you did, that would be illegal!) but the unspoken language of many eating establishments speaks just as loudly as any posted sign. This begs the question: Are disabled people (one of the largest minorities in the country) not showing up, or have we been denied access?

There Is a Better Way

Just this afternoon, I stumbled across a New York Times article reviewing a universally accessible restaurant in Harlem. The author brought a guest (a wheelchair user) who described the experience – from rolling from the sidewalk into the front door to the table at the correct height to eat at – as “a dream.” Even something so simple as easily accessing a washroom was seamless… and the one concern that was raised was addressed within minutes.

I recently celebrated a birthday. To support the animal rescue for which I’ve volunteered since the start of this year, I purchased several auction items which coincidentally included a gift certificate for Paddy’s Pub and Kitchen in St. Albert. Deciding to give it a try, my partner and I hopped a bus to St. Albert, got totally lost in the terminal, crossed a very busy arterial road (OK, let’s call it what it was: a multi-lane highway), got lost, and finally found the place. From the minute we walked in, we were provided amazing service – from asking if Jenny would like some water (she did) to recommending what’s become my new favourite beer (MH Brew Company’s Creamsicle Ale) to reading the menu because their web site’s menu was graphical, and the one on Uber Eats was incomplete. I also couldn’t help noticing how wide the isle was, with plenty of space to move and to distance, and not feel like I was going to fall on top of anyone. I can’t speak for the overall wheelchair-friendliness of the place (sorry!) but it was open enough to move, quiet enough to have a conversation, and I never once felt like an inconvenience when our server read the entire (very long) menu. And the carrot cake for my birthday? That alone was worth taking an Uber home for!

This is how access should be. This is, in effect, what customer service is: making your product or service enjoyable by the widest customer base possible.

I first started thinking about barriers to access when I was meeting a group of service dog users for supper at a Red Robin restaurant in Edmonton. I’d been there many times before with friends, and loved how seamless my experiences had always been – from the always-updated braille menus I could actually read, to the unparalleled training their staff clearly received around disability. My evening went off without a hitch… until one of the other service dog users and I both headed toward the washroom. She led the way in her foldable wheelchair, and Jenny and I followed behind. The door to the washroom pulled outward – toward us. There was only one accessible stall, which my companion took, while Jenny and I squished into one of the smaller ones. The sinks were almost too high for her to reach, and I had to hand her paper towels from the dispenser that stopped just above my shoulder. To head back to the table, I went in front of her to push the door outward so she could make the sharp 90-degree turn, twice, to leave the tiny restroom. I’d considered wheelchair access to buildings before, but it seemed just so incongruous that a place that had been so welcoming to me had thrown up barriers for someone else.

I could list a hundred other examples of exclusion – from buildings in touristy north American cities like Jasper, Alberta, and New York, with stairs-only access; to eating establishments with either hard-copy paper or graphic-only online menus; to the restaurant in Bozeman that I found out later was reachable only by car across a busy highway. But rare beacons of hopeful inclusion like Red Robin, Paddy’s and Contento give me hope that more will follow their example. I realize there are some true limitations; if your place is in a predominately car-centric area, can you make your overall experience a valuable trade-off for a taxi or Uber ride there? You may not be able to alter the architecture of your building right now, but the next time you renovate you could revise a few things to make your place easier to navigate for staff and patrons alike. You can make sure your complete menu is updated and available on delivery apps that serve your local area so that patrons can access them through technology that already meets their needs. You can educate yourself and your staff on service dog laws and etiquette – which includes your actual rights as a business owner – so that I can hopefully stop reading articles about service dogs being turned away from businesses, and fear the same happening to me, my loved ones, or fellow community members. In a hundred little ways, you can post those subliminal signs that I as a customer matter. Who knows? Maybe one day you will ask this question of your fellow restaurateurs: “Are we really serving everybody? Or are we stating – by inattention, design, or apathy – that we don’t serve those people?”

It’s never too late – or too much work – to do better.