Illustration by Stephanie Rudig. All photos by Darrow Montgomery.

True or false: If a customer who uses a wheelchair cannot access the tables in the bar area of a restaurant because the only choices are bar stools and high-tops, the restaurant should offer the customer a table in the dining room and the same happy hour prices available at the bar. 

True. “Restaurants are required to modify their policies and procedures as needed to serve patrons with disabilities as equal to those without disabilities,” according to DC Office of Disability Rights Director Mathew McCollough. 

But restaurants don’t always respond tactfully. “Sometimes I have to negotiate,” says Kelly Mack, a D.C. resident who uses a wheelchair. “Some places will do it, others are less friendly about it. Sometimes it feels like more effort than it’s worth. You want different people in your venue. It’s surprising the resistance I’ve gotten.”

Other local diners with disabilities report interactions with restaurant employees that range from disappointing—not receiving any eye contact—to egregious—staffers calling them a “fire hazard” or a “liability.”

Accessibility is more than whether a door frame is wide enough for a wheelchair. It’s equally about the hospitality diners with disabilities receive when they come in for a meal, including whether employees are nimble in accommodating them so they can have the same experience as other diners.

One in four U.S. adults—61 million people—have a disability that impacts major life activities, according to a 2018 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. The most common disability type, mobility, affects one in seven adults. As of 2017, there were at least 75,783 people with disabilities living in D.C. 

Patrons with disabilities are protected from discrimination under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which took effect in 1992 and oversees places of public accommodation. They’re double protected under the DC Human Rights Act of 1977. The ADA requires that new construction be accessible and mandates that restaurants built before the law went into effect remove barriers where “readily achievable.” The subjective term creates room for restaurant tenants and building owners to argue they can’t swallow the cost of a sizable renovation, such as retrofitting a building with an elevator.

D.C. is a historic city where old buildings abound. Some restaurants, such as those on the second floor of a rowhouse, may never be able to serve a customer with a mobility disability. But the lion’s share of restaurants can—they have the opportunity to create memorable meals and ensure that the infrastructure in place is in good working order. 

City Paper spoke with local residents with mobility, hearing, and vision disabilities to better understand what it’s like to navigate D.C.’s dining scene. We found a wide gap between what restaurants can achieve and what happens in practice, but also a few local businesses that have done excellent work in prioritizing inclusiveness. 

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When Mack dines out, attitude is everything. “They don’t have to be perfectly accessible, but as long as they’re welcoming and don’t make a fuss about my wheelchair,” she says. “Some places I go aren’t really accessible. I have to go somewhere else to use the restroom. But I go there because I love them and they’re welcoming.” 

Mack would be less likely to return to a restaurant whose employees communicate only with her companions, likely because they’re nervous. It irks her when they ask her husband questions that she’s better equipped to answer. “I know I’m in a wheelchair. It’s not a surprise. I can talk about it.” 

Many of the diners City Paper spoke with are like Mack. They play favorites. If they find a restaurant that’s accessible and welcoming, they’re likely to come back and tell their friends. One of Mack’s new go-to restaurants, for example, is Barcelona Wine Bar in Cathedral Heights.  

But when people with mobility disabilities stray from their usual spots, they face a daunting number of concerns: Can I get up to and through the door? Can I maneuver around inside? Are there tables that I can transfer to or tables at the right height for my wheelchair? Can I get to the restroom? Will I be able to shut the stall? 

Cara Liebowitz, a D.C. resident who uses a wheelchair, expects to be able to dine anywhere but her outings often reveal that’s not possible. “I’m part of the ADA generation,” she explains. She was born after the law first passed in 1990. “I’ve grown accustomed to things being accessible, so it shoots me in the foot sometimes. I assume they’ll be accessible and don’t think about the possibility that they won’t be.”

Even one step leading into a restaurant can be a deal-breaker. So can the width of the door frame. Some restaurants with one or two steps unfold portable ramps. They sell for as little as $89 online. Other restaurants have an alternate entrance, but that isn’t always ideal. 

“A lot of times, especially at a fancy restaurant, there will be a sign that says ‘Accessible entrance around the back,’” Liebowitz says. “It’ll be in a shady corner by the dumpsters. It says, ‘Ring a bell and someone will assist you.’ Maybe if you’re lucky someone will answer. Then they’ll say, ‘Tell us when you want to leave.’ That makes me feel like a prisoner.” Sometimes the alternate entrance winds through the kitchen.

Once inside, restaurants can be hard to navigate if they’re jammed with tables. “Servers have told me, ‘You have to move, you’re in the way,’” Liebowitz says. “They’ve told me I’m a fire hazard. That’s happened to me more than once.”

Before diners with mobility disabilities try a new restaurant, they use whatever resources they can to discern if the building is accessible. There’s a dearth of useful information online and no fact-finding method is perfectly reliable. 

When there’s no accessibility information on a restaurant’s website, Liebowitz loads Google Maps’ street view to hunt for steps. If she’s lucky, a vehicle won’t be blocking the image of the doorway. When a friend invited her to brunch a couple weeks ago, they said they had looked on Google and thought the place was accessible. “I got there and the place had a step,” Liebowitz says. “My friend felt really badly about that. Luckily we were able to go to an accessible restaurant down the street.”

Calling a restaurant can reveal more information, but not every host understands all the facets of accessibility. City Paper called 50 restaurants that had available tables on RESY to inquire if they were accessible or accessible enough for a wheelchair user to enter. Ten didn’t pick up, illuminating another pitfall—restaurants don’t always answer the phones. 

Some were eager to share their plan, however complex, of getting a patron who uses a wheelchair inside. Others requested advance notice. A couple made stipulations like, “first floor only.” And a handful were surly, stressing how it would be a “really tight squeeze.” An individual who answered the phone at Beuchert’s Saloon said, “There’s one step up at the threshold. Then it’s all one floor. I won’t pretend to know people’s abilities.” 

Six admitted they weren’t accessible, including Obelisk, which cited being “grandfathered in” since it’s in an older townhouse. The ADA does not have a provision to “grandfather” a facility. A restaurant must remove barriers when it is readily achievable no matter when it was built. 

Only one of the 34 restaurants that self-identified as accessible posted pertinent information online: “Kyirisan has a wheelchair accessible entrance and restroom,” the website reads. “Our outdoor dining area also is wheelchair accessible. Since some of our tables are booths or high-top tables, and therefore not accessible, please note in your reservation if you need an accessible table.” 

Red Bear Brewing Company restroom

Information about accessibility is absent from local reviews, too. Readers have asked Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema about mobility issues at least twice in the past six years during his online chats. On Jan. 8, 2014, a reader asked: “Tom, can we assume that if an accessibility issue is not flagged in your review of a restaurant it is ‘wheeled mobility’ accessible?’” 

Sietsema replied: “While I like to give readers a sense of an establishment’s design (pros and cons, including noise levels) I think it’s up to anyone with a special request to make sure he or she can enjoy the restaurant. That means calling a restaurant ahead of any visit, asking to speak to someone in charge and being clear about your needs. It’s the same strategy I suggest for anyone with dietary or other issues. Some restaurants are better equipped than others to make you happy.” 

This struck a nerve with Mack, who emailed Sietsema. “Basic accessibility for people with disabilities has now been required for more than 20 years,” she wrote. “I do not consider my disability a ‘special request.’” 

Again on Jan. 30, 2019, a reader asked Sietsema if he would consider including accessibility information in his reviews. “Because of mobility issues, we find that many of the places you review are impossible to access,” the reader explained. Sietsema wrote back: “It’s something I’ve thought about, and would like to include, but also wonder how much reporting I’d have to do, and how discretely I could say, measure doors, etc.”

No local publication is off the hook. Accessibility information is also missing from Washingtonian reviews and opening announcements or “first look” stories in City Paper, DCist, and Eater.

More information would only encourage diners with disabilities to dine out with greater frequency. “There’s this stereotype that we’re sad pitiful people who sit at home collecting benefits,” Liebowitz says. “We contribute to the economy like everyone else. If you’re not accessible or your attitude isn’t welcoming, you’re losing business … I hate having to frame it in terms of business.” A 2018 American Institutes for Research study found that people with disabilities have disposable income totaling $490 billion.

Kristin Duquette

Accessibility is only going to become more pressing, according to Kristin Duquette, a D.C. resident and former Team USA swimmer (paralympic) who uses a scooter. “Disability is the biggest minority population in the world,” she says. “The longer we’re living with the advancement of technology a lot more people are going to be disabled at some point in their life. Some restaurants, whether consciously or subconsciously, are making decisions that negate a huge consumer population.”

Restaurants with accessibility features like an elevator can improve the experience for all, according to Duquette. “More able-bodied people will use it out of convenience,” she says. “It’s beneficial for everyone.” 

Duquette describes a pair of experiences at Kirwan’s On The Wharf. “The first time was for happy hour and I thought because the area was so new, it would have more of an inclusive structure but it didn’t,” she says. When City Paper called Kirwan’s to inquire if the restaurant was accessible, an employee responded, “No, not really. Only if the person can get out of their wheelchair. And if they do that they can only sit at a two-top on the first floor.” 

The next time Duquette visited was for an event. It was on the second floor and there is no elevator. While she couldn’t join the party, she says the manager made sure her experience “was great under the circumstances.”

Owner Mark Kirwan didn’t install an elevator for two reasons. First, the ADA does not require elevators in facilities under three stories or with fewer than 3,000 square feet per floor. Second, he says, “We would have lost a lot of space and we wouldn’t have been able to make what we needed to pay the rent.” Kirwan also says his managers are trained to ask private function organizers to notify them if any guests have accessibility concerns. 

When there are barriers to entry, restaurants must bend to accommodate diners so they can have the same experience as others. When Duquette went to meet friends for dinner at Daikaya Izakaya, she realized it was on the second floor and there wasn’t an elevator. She could enter the first floor ramen shop, however. “They moved another party and put us in our own space on the first floor and gave us the opportunity to order food from the second floor,” she says.

Duquette also requires plastic straws to drink. “Because of my disability, it’s a lot easier for me to use a straw,” she says. “Paper straws disintegrate. I can’t not bite on the straw. I love the environment. I love turtles. I get it. But I can’t get into this restaurant, and on top of that you want me to carry around my own straw?” 

She requested one in a restaurant recently and was told they’re illegal. While D.C.’s plastic straw ban took effect this year, businesses that provide straws to the public must provide single-use plastic straws as a reasonable accommodation under the law.

Kings Floyd, a D.C. resident and power chair user, has grown accustomed to asking for accommodations. She found a Chinese restaurant she likes but can’t get inside. “It’s in a historically preserved three-story walk-up,” she says. “You can’t reasonably charge me a delivery fee because I can’t get into your restaurant. That’s an accommodation. I’m allowed to access the food and service provided at your restaurant.” 

Floyd’s request was met, but what happens when someone with a disability encounters an inaccessible restaurant? There’s no agency that enforces the ADA. The only recourse is to file a complaint with the Department of Justice and incur legal fees or file a complaint with the DC Office of Human Rights for free.

“Most of these restaurants are trying,” says Dana Fink, a D.C. resident and wheelchair user. “There definitely are some that aren’t. Ones that have one tiny step down into the building, that’s such an easy fix. There’s just no recourse unless you want to sue them and I don’t have the energy to sue every restaurant in D.C.”

Fink and others consider it a law with no teeth. “The burden of proof is on you,” she continues. “You have to make a case that [a modification] is readily achievable.” She’s filed complaints with DOJ. “It typically doesn’t resolve—most of mine take a year to hear back.” 

OHR enforces local and federal human rights laws. You don’t have to be a D.C. resident to file a complaint, but the discrimination must have occurred in the District. In fiscal year 2017, OHR received 16 complaints regarding places of public accommodation that cited disability. That doesn’t mean they were restaurants. Retail stores, hotels, and theaters are a few other places of public accommodation. In fiscal year 2018, OHR received 13 complaints.

“Being accessible is a factor of doing business,” Fink says, equating it to fire safety and food safety measures. “These are all things that come with having a business. I don’t know why accessibility gets filtered out.”

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Practical accommodations differ for diners with varying degrees of hearing and vision, but in many cases, staff would be better equipped to address needs with more robust education and training. 

When D.C. resident Dr. Denise Decker dines out, her guide dog, Wonder, sits quietly next to her chair. She wears a harness to broadcast she’s working. Service dogs are protected under the ADA, but not every restaurant knows what to expect. “Because of restaurant turnover and staff training and all the things managers and owners have to do, some staff don’t know how to handle it,” she says. “They might think, ‘No dogs allowed!’” 

She wants restaurants to know that Wonder has gone through specialized training. “I don’t want people to be afraid and I don’t want her training to be damaged by people wanting to feed or play with her.” 

If a restaurant has concerns, they’re permitted to ask Decker two questions by law: Is this a service dog? What service does this dog provide? They cannot ask to see identification or ask for the dog to demonstrate the skill. Decker sings a familiar tune. “Staff should address me directly since I’m holding the harness,” she says. “[Avoiding communicating with me] doesn’t happen every day, but more than you would think.” 

Some diners who are blind or low vision don’t use a guide dog, such as Arlington resident Mark Reumann. He reads braille and notes that not all restaurants have braille menus, and when they do, they’re often out of date. 

There are two ways Reumann finds out what’s for dinner. First, he can ask a server to read the menu out loud. Second, he can navigate to a restaurant’s website where he can use screen-reading technology. There’s one potential barrier. “Some use PDFs, which are pictures and not accessible at all,” he says. “Make sure menus are part of the website. Or, if it’s a PDF, make sure it’s text.” 

The other tricky point comes when it’s time to pay. “Most places, when they bring the bill, they’ll tell the diner what the total is,” he says. “We’ve had a couple people put the bill down and quietly sneak away. Indicate that you’ve put the bill down and tell the blind diner what the total is.”

D.C. has one of the largest Deaf communities in the country because of Gallaudet University. Keith Doane graduated from the school and is now one of three co-founders of Catalyst+ LLC, a consulting firm that helps businesses and organizations support deaf employees, serve deaf customers, and design spaces according to DeafSpace guidelines. DeafSpace includes more than 150 architectural elements that are deaf-friendly. 

Ample light is the biggest priority for diners who are deaf or hard of hearing. Dining companions need to be able to see each other to sign or gesture. “The eyes become the most important sensory input one can have in this society,” he explains. He’ll look for tables that are spotlighted. Sometimes he’ll make specific table requests at the host stand. 

When it comes to ordering, Doane’s first ask is that servers not be afraid. “We all are accustomed to breaking down barriers,” he says. He’ll use his index finger to point to items on the menu and if there’s a need for more information, such as how he’d like his burger cooked, he’ll use his smartphone to type or a pen and paper. “I tried mouthing ‘medium rare,’ once, but the server thought I said ‘medium well,’ he explains. “I hate when communication short-circuits and I get an overcooked hamburger.”   

Gesturing is also welcome. “We don’t expect anyone to be fluent in ASL,” he says, referring to American Sign Language. But learning the sign for “thank you” goes a long way. Doane also wants restaurants to know not all people who are deaf are the same. Some, like Doane, were born deaf and learned ASL. Others lost their hearing with age or because of an illness. 

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Red Bear Brewing Company

A number of D.C. restaurants and bars made accessibility a priority during their build-outs. Liz Cox, the taproom manager at Red Bear Brewing Company, says the owners set out to be one of the most accessible businesses in D.C. when they opened this year. Two sections of the bar are at the ADA’s recommended height. So is the food pick-up window and 75 percent of table seating. Two of the four restrooms are ADA bathrooms. 

One of the brewery’s bartenders, Jamie Sycamore, is a sign language interpreter by day, making it easy for him to interface with customers who sign and train other staff on the basics. And, Cox says, they’re making strides in securing braille menus. 

“People doing new construction can definitely achieve this,” Cox says. “Was it a little extra work? Yes. But it was a massive undertaking no matter which way you look at it. What’s a couple extra steps to make sure that it’s friendly? With new construction there’s no excuse.” 

That’s how Drink Company CEO Angie Fetherston felt when Columbia Room moved to its new location—a second floor space in Blagden Alley—in 2016. Even though they would be ADA compliant without an elevator because of square footage, putting one in was non-negotiable. “The elevator was a big fight,” she says. “We almost broke our lease over it.” 

Columbia Room’s website is one of the unicorns that posts accessibility information. “Please let us know any access issues in advance for your reservation if you can or tell the door person,” it reads. “We have an elevator, ramps, and an access-positive attitude toward our colleagues, friends, and family with disabilities.”

Fetherston says she couldn’t imagine telling former regulars with mobility disabilities they couldn’t frequent the new location. “We had a long-time regular in a motorized wheelchair come through and tell us the points that are difficult to navigate,” she says. “That’s how we do it. We ask for help. Bars are where community happens, so we have to make it open to anybody who would like to come.” 

Michael Mason is the studio director at design firm HapstakDemetriou+. He’s worked on buzzworthy D.C. restaurants including Rose’s Luxury, Bread Furst, and Convivial. When he meets with clients before shovel meets gravel, he has to educate them about ADA compliance. 

“Some are very savvy about it,” Mason says. “It’s a conversation that we’re happy to have with them. Some people ask why they need to provide this. Some people push back against it a little here or there, but usually once we walk them through it, they’re excited to be a part of it.”

He helps them understand that it’s not just to escape a bad Yelp review. “We can make arguments that differently abled diners spend billions of dollars in restaurants every year … from a dollars and cents perspective, it’s important to accommodate everyone.”

While not every restaurant may have the means to put in an elevator, lifts that can bring a wheelchair user from one level of a restaurant to another are more approachable. Mason ballparks their price at $12,000 to $15,000. 

When a restaurant does have infrastructure in place, such as a lift or an elevator, it behooves them to ensure they’re functional. “A lot of restaurants will use elevators for storage,” Liebowitz says. “I’m sharing the elevator with a cart full of dishes or a garbage can.” 

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Andy Arias

The last time the city formally reached out to restaurants about accessible dining was in 2014. OHR called the campaign “Accessible DC.” They canvassed restaurant-heavy neighborhoods, and also distributed to restaurants owners a short guidebook that covers best practices for both creating a welcoming atmosphere and building a physically accessible space. It included a checklist for restaurants to determine where they stand. 

But hundreds of restaurants have opened in the D.C. area over the past five years, and many older restaurants have changed hands. An OHR spokesperson says they hope to offer a joint workshop with the Office of Disability Rights in August or September. 

In the meantime, some Washingtonians have been leading grassroots movements related to accessibility.

Actor and disability advocate Andy Arias runs a group called D.C. Universal Pride that focuses on disability and LGBTQ issues. It meets at The DC Center for the LGBT Community the second Saturday of every month. “We talk about everything from dating, love, and relationships, but our main focus is the lack of accessibility in D.C. for the disabled community.” 

He feels people with disabilities are particularly “invisible” in the LGBTQ community. “People think we don’t go out,” he says. “I get patted on the head all the time when I go clubbing and people are like, ‘You’re so brave.’ I’m like, ‘What? How am I brave? I’m just living my life. Brave is dealing with your ass.’” 

Arias describes a recent evening at a bar when an owner was hesitant to let him upstairs because he didn’t want to be liable if he fell. “He wasn’t talking to me, he was talking to my friend,” Arias recounts. “Look sweetie, I’ve been in this body a long time. I can deal with this.” Two men carried him up three flights. 

While Arias can’t do much about venues with multiple staircases, he’s identified an area where he hopes to make inroads. He calls it the “One Step Away” campaign. It asks businesses to eliminate the one or two steps that lead up to their doors. “That’s the whole thing about the campaign—if you try to move forward then we’re cool.”

And here’s why he thinks it matters.

“You’re either going to get in a horrible car accident or age into disability,” Arias says. “I hate to be that real with people, but that’s the truth. It’s not like disability is never going to touch you because, surprise, it is. Then you’re going to be like, ‘Holy shit, I should have cared more about accessibility.’”

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Best Practices

Keep a list at the host stand that denotes which tables are accessible and bullet points to describe a restaurant’s accessibility features should someone call. Use a reservation system that allows customers to make notes about accessibility.

If the main entrance isn’t the accessible entrance, have signage directing patrons to the accessible entrance.

Doorways should have a minimum clear opening of 32 inches with the door open 90 degrees, measured between the face of the door and the opposite stop. Wider is even better.

Ask before you help, touch someone, or touch someone’s mobility device. 

Communicate directly with the patron with a disability. 

Servers should keep a pen and paper handy should a customer need to communicate in writing.

Tables should be spaced far enough apart for patrons using mobility devices to pass through.

Accessible tables have a surface height of no more than 34 inches and no less than 28 inches above the floor. If seating is fixed (booths), 5 percent of tables should still be accessible. 

At least one seating area that people with disabilities access must provide the same services and environment as other inaccessible areas when readily achievable. 

Consider including accessibility information on your restaurant’s website. 

Service animals may accompany customers with disabilities into restaurants. Emotional support animals are not protected by the ADA.

At least one accessible restroom must be available when readily achievable. It should be large enough for a wheelchair, have grab bars, low counters, and low sinks.

Requiring a driver’s license as the only acceptable document for proof of age discriminates against people with vision disabilities. Make an exception to accept another form of ID with age.

Sources: Americans with Disabilities Act, Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, DC Office of Human Rights