On Accessibility

The New York Times had an interesting article yesterday talking about the issue of accessibility for disabled diners. Accessibility issues have always been a topic of interest for me, so I was intrigued to see an article on restaurant access featured in the Times. One of the things they talked about was that many restaurants obey with the letter of the law, but not the spirit; setting up a wheelchair lift which opens out onto a dark corner of the kitchen, for example. With more and more disabled people in the American community, I think this is going to be a growing issue.

So, what’s with all the disabled folks anyway?

Well, I think that a couple of things are going on. The first is that we have a large and rapidly aging generation which is enjoying huge developments in health research, and therefore living longer. Some of these people, however, are finding themselves using wheelchairs, walkers and other mobility devices. This problem is only going to get bigger, not smaller; the glut of babies born around the Second World War is starting to get old. Fast. And some of these people have an attitude of entitlement which is going to make them challenging to deal with when their needs are not met. It’s only going to get worse when self important yuppies from the 1990s and 2000s get old.

In addition, general advances in medical science are allowing people to recover from formerly fatal accidents and incidents, like, oh, having your Humvee blown up by an IED. And, of course, people born with serious disabilities are being saved, rather than discarded like chaff. People who might have otherwise died find themselves living, often experiencing fruitful, excellent lives despite the fact that numerous businesses don’t comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

I know that for some businesses, it’s a tough call, especially for small companies which can’t afford to make major retrofits. However, small steps can make your business more welcoming, and as one of my sometimes wheelchair bound friends says: handicapped people vote with their pocketbooks, just like everyone else. They will take their business elsewhere if you don’t serve them, and as their ranks grow, they’re going to get more vocal about it. It’s going to be good business to make your establishment wheelchair friendly; not just to install ramps and elevators and ADA compliant doors, but to be genuinely welcoming to people with unique needs.

Imagine how frustrating it would be to know that you can’t visit half of the businesses in your home town. How irritating it is to call ahead every time you make restaurant reservations, to check and see whether or not you can even get into the dining room. To get to the restaurant and find out that the elevator is broken, or that the person who took the reservation flat out lied, or didn’t bother to check for you. When every expedition requires extensive planning because you know you can’t cross the street at a certain point. And how very humiliating it is to be turned away from an establishment, to have your companions get angry on your behalf.

Different people in the disabled community have different takes on how issues like accessibility should be dealt with. Some, for example, are vehemently against legislation, because they believe that the free market would ultimately sort the problem out. This is certainly a valid point, and it may to some extent be true, but I am supportive of legislation. I am also supportive of common decency and kindness, of going out of your way to please clients and customers to keep them coming back again. And of treating disabled people equally; a restaurant wouldn’t pile mops at the top of a public staircase, now would it?