Editor’s Note: David Friedman lives in Jackson Heights, Queens in New York City. He blogs under the title of “The Disabled Foodie” about food service and accessible restaurants. Freidman says, “Often, when I go into a restaurant, I feel like an alien from outer space.” Below we share Friedman’s thoughts on his journey as a foodie on wheels.
At some point in everyone’s life, he or she will become disabled, either temporarily or permanently, due to illness, accident and/or age. When I was 24 years old, I had what was diagnosed as a severe and unusual case of mononucleosis. Even after this condition appeared to have subsided, every 4 – 6 weeks, the mono returned. About 8 years ago, I noticed that I no longer had the ability to flex my left calf muscle. Doctors still don’t have a definition for my condition, but it’s similar to multiple sclerosis (MS). This condition has left me with deficits in motion, balance, coordination and control of my body. Although I can use crutches to walk a very short distance, I ride my wheelchair for almost everything.
Until I became disabled, I didn’t know about nor was I concerned about accessibility. Today accessibility is a major part of my life. Many businesses, companies, corporations, hotels and attractions have little or no knowledge about how important accessibility is to the community that’s disabled, and how they can grow their businesses serving and promoting to this community.
Why and How I Started My Blog “The Disabled Foodie”
I was tired of the research process I had to go through every time I wanted to eat in a restaurant, including questioning how accessible it was to people in wheelchairs. Generally the information I received wasn’t accurate, because 99.9 percent of the time, I talked to someone on the staff who wasn’t disabled and had no true understanding about what accessibility meant or looked like. Often I’d end up at a restaurant with the entrance at the bottom of a couple of stairs; perhaps the entrance was too small for my wheelchair; maybe the restaurant was accessible, but the restrooms weren’t; and/or the tables were too low to get my wheelchair under them.
In August 2014, I decided I’d do something about the problem of accessibility instead of complaining about it. I started a blog to provide people with a report to find restaurants and food at venues that were accessible, provided good service and served delicious food. I discovered that we in the community of disabled persons had to be advocates for that community and assume that restaurants and venues didn’t know what the word, accessibility, meant, or how to train their wait staff to deal with someone with a disability. Sometimes when I went to a restaurant, I’d be ignored, or no one would offer to help me or make allowances for me and my wheelchair – not because they didn’t want to, but no one had taught them how to help.
Are you a foodie who happens to be disabled? Do you have trouble eating at a restaurant or shopping for food due to issues of accessibility? I provide ratings and reviews of food venues in terms of accessibility to help open up the food world to you.
So far, I’ve reviewed restaurants in Boston, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland, South Carolina and Puerto Rico. All of my info is free. I also have a map on my website that shows the places I’ve reviewed. I try to make my reviews comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as closely as possible.
What Effects My Blog Has Had
In September 2015, I did a review of the Shake Shack – a hamburger chain that started in Manhattan. After I completed my review, I sent my review to the restaurant to let the people there know what they were doing well, and what they could do better. The next day I got a call from one of the vice presidents. I told him I’d be more than willing to work with him and/or his staff to teach them how to better serve the community of disabled persons.
I was invited to come to their restaurant for three Saturdays in October before the restaurant opened. I spoke to the staff about my experiences and taught them how to better serve this community. For much of the staff, what I had to say was really eye-opening when I made a statement that shocked them to their shoes. I said that at some point in everyone’s life, he or she would become disabled, either temporarily or permanently. They then totally understood the tremendous need for accessibility and the importance of learning how to serve the community of disabled persons.
That’s one fact that’s rarely explained. However, future accessibility could be a major issue for most everyone. I once again realized the responsibility that members of the community of disabled members had to educate others in the need for accessibility.
Since I had that training session with the Shake Shack, I reviewed another restaurant and sent the restaurant owner my reviews. He asked me to meet with him and his wait staff and teach them how to better serve the disabled community. Now that I have a year’s worth of experience reviewing more than 80 restaurants, I’m beginning to offer my experiences to restaurant owners and wait staff to help them know better how to serve people with disabilities.
I need to be a part of the solution, and I think all of us need to look at accessibility and ask, “How can we individually help to solve the accessibility problem?”
Most people who own restaurants and other businesses aren’t aware of what an accessible bathroom should look like. They don’t know that:
- the toilet needs to have grab bars around it;
- the bathroom needs to be large enough to allow a wheelchair to make 180 degree turns;
- or, a vanity under a sink generally means someone in a wheelchair can’t get close enough to wash his hands.
On my blog, I’ve also included some items not on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that affect people with vision and hearing impairments. My blog includes requirements on lighting and noise levels. People who are visually and hearing impaired are often overlooked when we consider accessibility.
I don’t expect restaurant owners and business owners to make accommodations for people with disabilities out of the goodness of their hearts, or just because the law requires them to do so. My blogs explain the definite financial advantages for proprietors to make their businesses the most accessible they can be.
One statistic states that 85 percent of the disability community won’t go out to eat, due to restaurants not being accessible, and the anxiety created when people fear how they’ll be treated or perceived.
My blog speaks to 890,000 disabled people in metropolitan New York – a number that doesn’t account for the tourists and visitors to New York City who are also disabled.
At any one time, New York City may have well over 1 million people with disabilities here. These people want to eat at restaurants, purchase goods and devices and go to attractions and do have money to spend. There is a tremendous economic value for business owners to make their restaurants and businesses accessible, but I go one step farther. By using my blog, speaking to that 890,000 plus consumers and telling them what restaurants they can go to that are accessible and also have trained wait staffs to make their experiences as pleasant as possible, I can help drive that community to restaurants within the greater New York metropolitan area.
A business owner can increase the volume of his business, simply by offering an accessible venue and having a courteous wait staff who doesn’t treat a disabled person like they’re aliens from outer space. We can help put dollars in his pocket by making this population of disabled persons aware of this restaurant.
What Scoring System I Use for My Evaluations
1) The entrance – Is the entrance wheelchair accessible and/or accessible for people on walkers or crutches? Is there a ramp, or do you have to use stairs to reach the entrance?
2) The interior space – Can a person in a wheelchair roll down an aisle or get to a table without furniture having to be moved? Are the tables high enough that a person in a wheelchair can roll a wheelchair under the table, while remaining in the wheelchair?
3) The lighting and the noise levels.
4) The bathroom – How accessible is it?
5) The staff – Is the staff friendly and helpful in their treatment of a person with a disability? The wait staff in one restaurant avoided me and treated me like I was an alien from outer space. The simple answer to what needs to be done for a person with a disability is simply to train the wait staff to ask, “What can I do to help you?”
What Are Some of My Favorite Restaurants
The flip side of this situation occurred when I went to a restaurant in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. There was a waiting line, so I got in the line. Once I reached the hostess, she knew exactly what to do. She gave me choices of tables with space around the tables for my wheelchair, and that my wheelchair would fit under.
While I was waiting in line to get into the restaurant, a couple walked around and got in front of me, as though I wasn’t even there. The hostess saw that, and before I could say anything, the hostess became my advocate. She left her post, came to the people who had broken in line and said, “You can’t get in front of the gentleman in the wheelchair. You’ll have to wait just like everyone else.”
One of my favorite restaurants to go to is the Francois Payard Bakery. The wait staff there holds the door open for me without my asking. This is not a sit down and order restaurant. I have to carry my tray of food from the serving line to a table – something that’s hard for me to do in my wheelchair. But the people at the bakery always offer to carry my tray to the table for me without my having to ask.
These things may seem little and unimportant but are very important, if you’re in a wheelchair. I never mind someone asking, “Can I help you?” Being accessible and being friendly is nothing more than just being polite.
How You Can Be Part of the Change in Accessible Dining
Since I’ve been on my mission to be a part of the reason for change in the restaurants where I eat, I’ve learned that many people in the community of disabled persons view accessibility as something that someone else needs to make happen. However, our responsibility is to be a part of making people aware of what accessibility really means and teaching others how to deal with people like us.
Many of the mistakes made by businesses and venues are made by people who don’t realize they’ve made mistakes. I didn’t understand how to help someone with a disability, until I became disabled myself. I’m of the philosophy that, “Change won’t take place, unless I’m a part of that change.”
- Identify what makes that business not be as accessible as it can be.
- Let the owner of the business know what can be done to improve accessibility for people with disabilities.
- Show the owner of the business how he can increase his customer base and revenue by making his business more accessible.
- Help the business promote their goods or services to the community of disabled persons, and advertise that the facility is accessible.
My friend, Cory Lee, blogs about accessible travel at www.curbfreewithcorylee.com. Cory evaluates travel destinations and posts a blog on how accessible the places he visits are for people with disabilities. Cory promotes the places where he stays and eats, the attractions he sees and the accessibility of these places. As we all learn of accessible places, we need to communicate where these businesses are located, and why we enjoy going there. If we can prove there is a dollar incentive for a business to become more accessible, then the change will take place much faster than if we say, “This is the law, and you have to make your business accessible.”
The question each of us needs to answer is: will I become a part of the solution to more accessibility for myself and everyone else; or, will I turn a blind eye to the problem and not go out to eat or participate in the community, because I don’t want to be embarrassed about my disability.
The push for accessibility is everyone’s responsibility. Will you become one of the foot soldiers?
Download Discovering: Accessible US Travel Guide for Wheelchair Users
These accessible travel suggestions are part of the Get Out & Enjoy Life [GOEL] program that is a joint educational initiative between Wheel:Life, a global community of wheelchair users, and SPORTS ‘N SPOKES magazine, published by the Paralyzed Veterans of America.
More than 70,000 wheelchair users from 108 countries took part in Wheel:Life resources in 2014.
You’ll find that each chapter of this book provides easily-accessible destinations that are fun and engaging for friends who use wheelchairs. Discovering is an easy, encouraging read that will help you explore all kinds of travel destinations and family fun spots, whether you are new to using a wheelchair or a seasoned pro.
Please note that not every state in the US is featured in this travel guide, just the ones that we have included in our GOEL program to date.
About the Author: John E. Phillips
For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.