The entry to Chez Panisse, unless you’re in a wheelchair. The accessible entrance takes diners through the ‘sacred space’ of the kitchen. Photo: rocor/Flickr

Blue curbs, striped parking spots, square buttons that automatically open doors and the ubiquitous icon of a stick figure in a wheelchair. Because of the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prevented discrimination against the needs of people with disabilities, these have become familiar aspects of public life that are meant to provide equal access to buildings, businesses and services. In fact Berkeley – thanks in large part to the efforts of Ed Roberts and others in the 1960s – is known as the home of disability rights and the independent living movement, a movement which empowers, organizes and promotes better solutions for addressing the needs of people with disabilities.

Navigating public spaces in a wheelchair is complicated enough, but eating out adds another dimension for those of us who have some kind of physical challenge

As a result Berkeley specifically and the Bay Area as a whole is one of the better places in the country when it comes to accessibility and inclusion for people with varying abilities. But how successful are restaurants when it comes to addressing these needs? When it comes to dining out, it can be complicated.

Navigating public spaces in a wheelchair is tricky enough (especially in hilly Berkeley), but eating out adds another dimension for those of us who have some kind of physical challenge, and not one that can be resolved with a wheelchair logo or a “Yes/No” Yelp category. Although the vast majority of restaurants in our area are theoretically “wheelchair accessible” because they have to abide by the ADA, this does not mean there is any kind of consistency when it comes to the restaurant experience for those with disabilities.

Diners with and without disabilities, as well as restaurant owners and staff, can all benefit from having a better understanding of the complexities of accessibility.

Restaurant entry

Entryways are the most relevant and important factor in the accessibility of an establishment, and rightfully so. Restaurants take many different approaches to providing accessible entry. Many are at ground level, even with the sidewalk, which makes for relatively easy access. Those places with steps into or within their space can use ramps to provide access. Some establishments choose to install a small elevator, while others might offer entry through a back door, a maintenance entrance or even the kitchen.

Cynthia Noonan, an Emeryville resident who uses both a manual and power wheelchair, says that although entering some restaurants through an alternate entrance can be unpleasant (it might require going through an alley, past dumpsters or dodging mop buckets), sometimes it can be the opposite experience as when she dined at Berkeley’s most iconic restaurant. “Going through the Chez Panisse kitchen was a unique experience; it’s like a sacred space.”

The claim of being ‘wheelchair accessible’ is most simply applied solely to this factor of entry, but it does not tell the entirety of the story.

Tim Nugent, owner of Shakewell restaurant in Oakland, understands the challenges of providing a space that’s accessible to everyone. During the construction of the restaurant, he realized that the design team he had hired had made several mistakes while trying to adhere to the ADA and building codes. He corrected the designers’ mistakes and put in extra effort to make the restaurant accessible. This meant grinding down the sidewalk entry, installing two ramps (one into the dining room and the other to the bathrooms) and putting a step into the kitchen, which he said, “was kinda crazy, but we did it anyway.”

For him, creating a supportive community is a large part of the restaurant’s objectives. “We aim to be gracious to everyone and wanted to make the space as welcoming as possible to all customers.”

Unfortunately, for some restaurants, their accessibility efforts end here. The claim of being “wheelchair accessible” is most simply applied solely to this factor of entry, but it does not tell the entirety of the story.

Table proximity and layout

The layout and use of space within a restaurant can have unexpected impacts on customers with mobility challenges.

Lane Edwards, a Sacramento resident, describes some of the difficulties he encounters when dining out. “Being in a power chair, I need to worry about space between tables and if it’s a large enough restaurant to accommodate me. With my power chair, I’m unable to fit underneath most tables, therefore, I typically sit at the end of the table and stick out into the pathway.”

Noonan agrees. “The closeness of the tables is a big factor. I will skip a place altogether if it’s too tight. Also, being able to dine out with another wheelchair user or a group of wheelchair users can be very tricky; that definitely requires planning ahead and knowing the space.”

Many customers with disabilities make it a habit to call restaurants ahead of time or explain our needs in online reservation notes. And while restaurants with hosts and reservations systems can plan for specific needs, this is not always the case with smaller establishments or those that don’t accept reservations. Mockingbird, Shakewell, and A16 (all in Oakland) were reported to have hosts and reservation systems that anticipated the needs of disabled diners and accommodated them comfortably.

Bathrooms

For able-bodied patrons and restaurant owners, it might be easy to overlook the importance of restroom access for disabled customers. If nature calls, you go. Maybe there’s a line or it’s down a maze of hallways or up or down stairs, but eventually, you’ll find your way to relief.

For patrons with disabilities, not being able to access a restroom can be the single biggest reason to avoid going out for a meal.

But for patrons with disabilities, not being able to access a restroom can be the single biggest reason to avoid going out for a meal. Again, it starts with access.

Many newer restaurants (or those that have been remodeled or recently updated) are opting for single-occupant restrooms that are ADA compliant (and often gender-neutral). These can be a godsend for diners with disabilities. Being able to have enough space to maneuver and maintain privacy is a huge benefit. Many disabled clients admit that especially for longer meals, they often choose certain restaurants specifically because of the ease of using the restroom. Berkeley Social Club, Sierra Nevada Torpedo Room, and Saha in Berkeley, as well as Forge and Dyafa in Jack London Square are good examples of newer restaurants with accessible bathrooms.

Heavy doors are another challenging factor, especially for those with limited hand and upper body function. Grabbing a slippery knob, pulling a heavy door open and wedging the wheelchair to prevent the door from slamming onto the person is an all too normal reality in many restrooms. Noonan also mentions how some restaurants will leave boxes, mops, extra chairs and child seats stacked in the way near the bathrooms, making passing difficult or impossible.

Table height

As a wheelchair user, fitting underneath the table can be a challenge. Noonan points out that many outdoor tables (like the metal ones used most often by cafes) are structured so that someone in a wheelchair cannot roll underneath and are left sitting out of reach from their food.

It’s important to recognize that dining rooms that prioritize high tables and bar seating leave wheelchair users with little to no alternative option.

She has also noticed a trend in some newer restaurants that make it difficult for customers like her. “Many restaurants and cafes are installing only high tables, which I find completely disrespectful of those with different needs, catering only to the able bodied,” she said.

It’s important to recognize that dining rooms that prioritize high tables and bar seating leave wheelchair users with little to no alternative option. Zut! Tavern on busy Fourth Street in Berkeley has only high tables in its bar area which means that waiting for an open table or having a pre-dinner drink is difficult for disabled patrons. Luckily, the rest of the restaurant, including all dining tables, is very accessible.

But to highlight how different disabilities can be and prove that there is no singular or universal solution for achieving accessibility, consider Edwards’ feedback. “I actually seek out high tables and bar seating as that is ideal for my needs. Since my chair has an elevator lift, I’m able to raise myself up and fit under the table,” he said.

Stigma

There is the element of stigma that many disabled customers face when dining out.

Edwards describes how eating with his hand brace or needing help to get fed from someone else can draw relentless unwanted attention. This factor alone will prevent him from going to certain restaurants.

Noonan, who has a service dog, states that although her dog generally opens up more interactions with people, she has often felt patronized by other restaurant customers when they see her with her dog.

“One night, I was moving through a crowded bar area with my service dog to get to the dining room and a guy at the bar looks at me and said, ‘Aww, looks like you got your best buddy with you.’ I felt like he might as well pat me on my head while he was at it,” she said.

Often, people who ask to pet a service dog don’t take well to being told that they cannot.

The owner of Shakewell in Oakland put in extra effort to make the restaurant accessible. Photo: Shakewell/Facebook

When it comes to dining out, the varying mobility needs of people mean that accessibility is a multi-dimensional issue that cannot be boiled down to a simple solution. While the ADA and regulations have dramatically improved access, there is still a need for systemic improvements as well as increased awareness before all citizens can have equal access.

Arash Bayatmakou is a motivational speaker, writer, “odds and limits pusher” and a Berkeley native and resident. A spinal cord injury in 2012 resulted in Arash having to use a wheelchair for mobility but hasn’t stopped him from enjoying his passions of traveling, being outdoors and cooking and eating good food, wherever it can be found.