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The Challenges of Eating and Grocery Shopping for People with Disabilities

Old Chicago menu.JPG

Old Chicago Pizza is one of the few restaurants in the city that provides braille menus.

It’s easy not to think about the spiffy new things that have become popular in grocery stores and restaurants, like chic high-top counters or staggeringly tall displays of produce and products. Stores and restaurants try to make it a fun experience, with visually exciting environments that often lean more towards artistic than functional. 

The reality, though, is that while these are aesthetically fun ideas, they can sometimes be the complete opposite for people with disabilities who suddenly have to cautiously navigate new trends — trends that sometimes leave a large part of the population out of participating. 

“It’s important to note that one in five South Carolinians have a disability,” says Sarah Nichols. “If your restaurant isn’t accessible you are blocking that huge portion of the population from giving you money and participating in the economy in your restaurant.”

Nichols is the public relations and event coordinator at Able South Carolina, a nonprofit dedicated to providing people with disabilities independent living skills and working with goverments to create a more inclusive community. 

“Most people associate disability with physical,” says Dori Tempio, Able’s director of community outreach and consumer rights. “They’ll say we’re in compliance, we have a ramp. It doesn’t quite mean that. It means all disabilities.”

The word disability seems simple, but covers a broad spectrum that can include physical, speech, hearing and vision impairments. 

“I would say reaching things on shelves is hard,” says Tempio about shopping at grocery stores. “It’s not that people aren’t necessarily willing to help, but a lot of stores now, they are in the hiring crunch and may not have the extra people that can help you. They say, ‘We’ll get back to you,’ which may be 20 minutes later.”

There are also difficulties before even entering the store. Tempio says access aisles, the striped area around handicap parking spots, are often a major concern. Often, they are either too small for wheelchairs to navigate out of vehicles or cluttered with carts and other objects. 

Despite the challenges, there are tangible solutions that already exist. Kimberly Tissot, executive director of Able, offers a few based on experience, including things like buttons in every aisle to get assistance and reachers throughout the store to make food more accessible. Having food and aisles that are scannable for people who have low vision allows them to use smartphone technology to independently grocery shop.

“It would be great if more businesses would take an initiative to do something, especially these huge grocery store chains that do have the capacity to do something like that,” Tissot says. “I think complying with ADA is a first.”

Signed into law in 1990, the American Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities and is meant to ensure equal opportunity in all places of life, public and private for the individual. The 51-page document comprehensively details different regulations meant to support all forms of disabilities — 36-inch door width to accomodate wheelchairs, specific ramp dimensions, and visual accommodations are a few examples. 

Despite the existence of the ADA, though, the reality is that the accommodations described in the act are few and far between. 

Tissot notes that most in situations, enforcement does not occur upfront when the restaurant is being built and staffed and trained, but far later and only after a complaint is filed and the Department of Justice becomes involved. 

Handling accommodations for individuals with disabilities has been a long-term issue for local restaurants. Nationwide, chain restaurants often get a bad reputation for a lot of reasons, but addressing the ADA appropriately is one thing they often get right due to their varied experiences around the U.S. 

“Places like Taco Bell actually do a really good job with it. ... But it is also because they had a Department of Justice lawsuit,” Tissot says. “But it’s really universally designed when you go into a new Taco Bell now. It’s made for everybody. The counters are lower and everything. And it’s a Taco Bell.”

Like grocery stores, challenges can occur before people with disabilities even reach a restaurant table.

“People with disabilities are still going through the side and back entrances in restaurants that have been renovated in the last year here,” Tempio says. “I’ll be really excited to go to a renovation and I’m like, ‘We’re still in the back.’ I think that is subtle messaging. It’s excluding people from the mainstream.”

Nichols adds that “a lot of restaurants, in cities especially, cram the tables in a small space. If you don’t have enough space and aisles to get through you couldn’t even access the table or get to the bathroom.”

Modern design has not matched the need for accommodations. Tissot notes that one of the big trends in local restaurants is the use of high-top tables, which are barriers for people who use wheelchairs and can’t appropriately use them. It becomes further complicated if there are only one or two lower tables available that are already in use, forcing a long wait for those who need them. 

“If you are doing hightops, do a variety,” Tissot suggests. “Don’t have just one low table designated for people, because that can be awkward.”

Nichols notes that we’re nearing the 30th anniversary of the ADA. 

“That’s 30 years that restaurants have had the opportunity to make their business [compliant],” she says. 

“We shouldn’t be patting restaurants on the back for being accessible. All restaurants should be accessible.”  

Three Zero-Cost Things Businesses Can Improve Upon for People with Disabilities

Hiring people with disabilities — “If you hire people with disabilities on your staff, they can provide input on how to make the restaurant more accessible,” offers Sarah Nichols, public relations and event coordinator for Able South Carolina.

Incorporate individuals with disabilities into marketing — “We don’t see people with disabilities in stores or restaurants in commercials,” says Dori Tempio, Able’s director of community outreach and consumer rights. “Even the simple phrase, ‘If you need assistance or reasonable accommodations please go to x, y, z customer service desk or whoever.’ It makes a difference.”

Raising staff awareness — “Teach your staff to be flexible,” says Kimberly Tissot, Able’s executive director. “Treat individuals with disabilities like everyone else. Provide accommodations for them.”

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