How to Make Your Restaurant Disability-Friendly

Getting ready to open a new restaurant is a serious endeavor, and there’s a lot to take into consideration: From the menu to the floor plan to your targeted demographic, owners have their plates full building a business from the ground up. Unfortunately, during all the decisions about which flooring to use and how many tables you can fit inside, a lot of owners don’t consider the needs of disabled customers and how appropriate accommodations affect everything from the width of your walkway to the lettering on the menu.

Disability accommodations should be built into the foundations of your restaurant to ensure it’s accessible to all customers from day one. After all, it’s harder to make massive structural changes once things are already set down. The 2019 Census Bureau reported that 12.7% of people have a disability that significantly impacts their day-to-day activities; that’s more than one out of every ten customers coming into your store.

To help you better cater to guests and ensure that everyone who visits has a high-quality experience, we’ve assembled these tips for building a more equitable restaurant experience. Though this is by no means comprehensive, it’s a good starter guide for any restaurant to hit the ground running.

Self-Service Technology

Thankfully, advancing restaurant technology means that many devices now come with built-in disability accommodations. It’s all a matter of choosing the right service provider; don’t be afraid to shop around for one who has exactly what you’re looking for at an affordable price.

One clear indicator of why it’s so important to have disability-accessible technology is the lawsuit against Domino’s Pizza from last year: A blind customer sued them for failing to equip their app and website with appropriate accommodations, and he won. It’s not only ethical but financially and legally sound, to comply with disability regulations set out by the Americans with Disabilities Act (or ADA).

Let’s take the self-service kiosk as an example, particularly because it’s one of the pinnacles of how advanced technology can improve restaurant operations and increase profits immediately. Many restaurants have found them especially advantageous when it comes to customer satisfaction and increased check sizes; for more reasons why self-service kiosks are so critical for businesses and to find out why so many are jumping on the trend, check out this article on the benefits of self-service.

They can be equally useful when they’re equipped with ADA-compliant accessibilities. Follow regulations by setting up kiosks like so:

  • Have clear access from both the front and sides of the kiosks so it’s easily reachable from any angle.
  • Interactive controls must be between 15 – 48” above the floor to make them accessible to people in wheelchairs. This includes the touchscreen, keyboard, and any other controllable aspects of the device.
    • There are additional height regulations if either front or side access is blocked, for example, interactive controls can be set back up to 25” depending on the height of the blockage. Check the ADA website for specifics because they vary depending on the height and width of the obstacle as well as where the block is situated.
  • Design a clear path to the kiosk. Just because you have room to stand in front of or to the side of it, doesn’t mean it’s easily accessible especially for customers who may have visual or motor disabilities.
  • Equip self-service technology with various audio options for people who may be visually or hearing impaired.

When choosing technology for your restaurant, remember that “self-service” should be equally accessible for everyone. Customers with disabilities should have an equitable experience with these devices as any able-bodied customer. Remember that impairments don’t only involve wheelchairs, but that there are a wide variety of visible and invisible disabilities which deserve equal consideration and respect.

Failing to comply with ADA guidelines means potentially overlooking 35M customers. In addition to being illegal, it’s plainly bad business. Your restaurant should be ready to handle every customer fairly and ensure their experiences are quality and respectful. Self-service accessibility for all means giving disabled customers a comparable experience to abled users, with access to self-service and suitable technological accommodations.

Implement devices like this, as well as others that suit your restaurant’s specific needs, as soon as today. Browse eatOS products to find self-service kiosks and other advanced technology that fits your needs.

Design

Creating a disability-friendly environment isn’t just about the technology you use; it starts from the ground up. The layout and design of the restaurant itself needs to accommodate all customers too.

Sometimes seemingly-innocuous choices can have unexpected consequences. For example, have you ever considered the noise level in your restaurant? Loud, ambient music and open kitchens have their own benefits, but it can make your restaurant inaccessible to customers who have hearing problems that make it difficult to regulate noise in the same way as able-bodied customers. Handicapped parking and big bathroom stalls with handrails that meet the minimum requirements laid out by the ADA may seem like a no-brainer, but the bare minimum isn’t always comfortable to maneuver. Of course, you need a wheelchair ramp if your entrance is up a set of stairs, and your aisles should be wide enough to fit mobility assistance devices, but have you considered that the minimum requirements still make it difficult not to bump into chairs and other patrons? Does your carpeted floor look nice, but make it unnecessarily difficult to roll a wheelchair? Maybe it’s time to lay down different flooring, or even demarcate the dining area from the queue by laying down tile for one section and wood for another.

These are all things to consider when designing your restaurant, and it doesn’t stop there. You should also think about:

  • Printing menus and food labels in large, high-contrast print so that they’re easy to read. Remember, it’s not only visual impairments that can make it difficult to understand small, dark print. Here’s a starter list of good fonts to use that make it easier for visually impaired, dyslexic, or otherwise disabled customers to read what’s on the menu. Keeping a small flashlight or pair of reading glasses upfront at the host stand can also go a long way for any struggling customer.
  • Just like alternative menus with allergen and nutrition information, you should print menus in braille for blind customers to use. Of course, servers will still fill in the gaps by listing the specials and answering other questions that might arise, but every customer should be able to dine with you under their own power.
    • To that end, you should consider printing out an allergen and nutrition menu in braille too. Anyone can have a restricted diet.
  • Consider keeping audio menus on hand for people to request whenever necessary.
  • Post signs in braille too, anywhere customers or staff might go. Bathrooms, pickup windows, the kitchen, and anywhere else that already has posted signage should have those same directives in braille.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of disability accommodations, but rather a starting point that demonstrates how ableist ideas are so deeply ingrained that we tend to look past all the little ways that something as simple as flooring can significantly impact a disabled customer’s experience, for good or for bad.

Staff

Your employees should all have sensitivity training so that they’re not caught off guard when a disabled customer inevitably dines out with you. Sometimes people try so hard to treat people equitably that they inadvertently make the customer feel othered, burdensome or infantilized. Staff should know how to assist disabled customers, such as by rearranging chairs or tables, holding doors, and offering help, without judgment or ridicule—even accidentally.

Some pointers for your staff may include:

  • Walking them through how a disability might affect different aspects of the environment and experience, so they’ll be able to identify when and how they’re needed for extra assistance.
  • Exhibiting patience and understanding toward people who have disabilities that are less widely known or accepted. Rather than offering too much or too little help, employees can stay close by so they’re ready to approach if the customer asks for them first.
  • Always offering straws even if it’s policy not to give one to everybody, as some customers have difficulty without one and others simply prefer it. Bendy straws work best here.
  • Facing hearing-impaired individuals head-on so they can more easily lipread.
  • Communicating everything they do so as not to make things more difficult for visually-impaired customers. For example, whisking away plates and glasses without asking can add unnecessary stress when they can’t clearly see what you’re doing.
  • Training on every function of the restaurant, including disability assistance technology so that they’re able to adjust or otherwise help disabled customers use the devices and accommodations created for them when they have difficulty. Just as your staff should be able to troubleshoot the self-service kiosk’s traditional functions, they should be able to assist with audio, visual, and motor aids too.
  • Reminding them that disabilities can be visible or invisible, and no one has to “prove” that they’re disabled “enough” in order to get extra assistance. Believe disabled customers, because they know their condition the best.
    • When it comes to service animals, staff may ask if the animal is required and what work it’s trained to perform, but anything else is invasive and unnecessary. Furthermore, never interact with a service animal without its owner’s permission. Some people will be gratified if you offer the animal water or a treat, but always ask first and don’t be offended if they say no.
  •  Diversify your staff to include disabled individuals, but don’t put the burden of sensitivity training on your disabled employees.

A well-prepared staff is less likely to make mistakes or accidentally alienate customers when they’re really just trying to help. No one should feel unwelcome at your restaurant, even by a well-meaning accident. Perhaps it feels as though it should go without saying, but employees should treat disabled customers just like able-bodied customers; be aware that extra assistance may be needed, but don’t infantilize them by acting as though they’re helpless or can’t assert their own boundaries. Sensitivity training will ensure your staff is prepared to give every customer a worry-free, accessible restaurant experience.

Although ADA compliance is absolutely necessary from a legal perspective, it also has positive effects for your business overall. Equitable service for disabled customers is sadly more of an anomaly than one might expect. The expenses of disability accommodation are offset by greater customer loyalty because they know they can expect high-quality service; unfortunately, many restaurants just don’t offer equitable service for disabled customers.

Remember, everyone likes self-service and self-sufficiency for the same reasons: It’s quick, accurate, and lets them have a guilt-free, pleasant restaurant experience. Self-service and contactless service doesn’t only mean a high-quality experience for some—exceptional restaurant management means ensuring outstanding, equitable service for all.

Editor's Picks