One day several months ago, two sight-impaired diners came in to Calypso, a restaurant that serves St. Lucian Caribbean cuisine in downtown Asheville. The two people listened as the menu was read to them.
Thinking of other times sight-impaired people had visited her restaurant, owner Esther Joseph had a eureka moment — menus in Braille. She ran it by the two diners, who said it was a great idea.
With difficult parking, noisy crowds and uneven sidewalks, dining downtown can be hard for people with disabilities. Throughout Western North Carolina, people with walkers and wheelchairs find narrow passageways between tables hard to navigate. The paths to busy bathrooms can be difficult for the sight-impaired. And loud cafés can be overwhelming for the hard of hearing.
Joseph wanted to make sure visually impaired people had minimal obstructions in her North Lexington Avenue restaurant. Though the process to create a Braille menu was long and expensive, it was worth the effort, she says.
“Something that I feel is very important is to make sure everyone is comfortable,” says Joseph, who has studied American Sign Language. “Sight-impaired people don’t feel comfortable going out because it’s difficult to get around. And if you don’t have someone to read the menu to you, it’s probably uncomfortable to ask the server to do it.”
The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits businesses from excluding anyone based upon ability. It requires restaurants to remove any physical barrier that doesn’t cause them to incur undue expense or difficulty. The ADA has parking, fixture and other accessibility requirements.
DisAbility Partners is a nonprofit organization that supports people with all kinds of disabilities in WNC. Though the Asheville office gets many complaints about a lack of accessible parking in the seven counties it serves, associate director Eva Reynolds can’t remember the last time she got one about a restaurant.
“A lot of people don’t ask for accommodations because they’re afraid of being stigmatized,” she says. Someone who has dyslexia might be reluctant to ask a server to read the menu to them. Someone with a cane might not visit a restaurant whose elevator is on the loading dock.
Julie Parker, an author who loves going out with friends, is relatively new to the world of enabled dining. In 2010, her blood pressure spiked and burned out the part of her brain that controls balance. Now she can’t walk without a walker. For two years now, she’s gotten around on an electric wheelchair. Since she doesn’t have a van, her range is pretty much confined to downtown, where she lives.
It’s easy to get into Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar but hard to get around the twists and turns that make the place so appealing, she says, noting that “to get out, sometimes I have to back up with a wing and a prayer.” Nonetheless, a group of blind patrons meets there every couple of months, and a group of deaf people convenes there periodically, says owner Donna Wright.
Though Parker sometimes has to go out of her way to find curb cuts that enable her to roll into the Grove Arcade, there she finds restaurants that cater to her. Carmel’s Kitchen & Bar is no problem, and the ramp in Santé Wine Bar lets her get from the business’s side entrance to its main seating area. On Wall Street, the incline inside the Laughing Seed Café makes the vegetarian restaurant attractive, she says.
Parker would like to go to Cucina 24 on Wall Street, but the main entrance’s step up from the sidewalk makes it impossible for her to get in. What she may not be aware of, however, is the side entrance Cucina 24 has a couple of doors down.
“A lot of people don’t realize our other entrance is connected to our restaurant,” says manager Malcolm Knighten (the restaurant wraps around its neighbor, Fired Up! Creative Lounge). The accessible entrance isn’t marked, so the restaurant couldn’t alert people in wheelchairs to it unless the eatery knew those patrons were coming, he says. Servers have been asked to seat people hard of hearing at quieter tables — also not a problem, says Knighten.
Reading the menu to someone with vision difficulties isn’t a stretch either, since a large portion of what servers there do is “decode the menu to guests,” he adds. “I would say that everyone who sits down here, unless they’re a regular, the menu has to be explained to them.”
Reynolds, whose brain injury in 2003 causes her to walk with a limp, comments most forcefully about restaurant parking. “Often I make the decision about something in relation to how accessible parking will be,” she says. That is why Kelly Rodriguez, who uses a walker, likes two restaurants near her house in Arden, Olive Garden and Ruby Tuesday — they have their own parking lots.
They also have large-print and Braille menus at all locations, according to Meagan Mills, a regional spokeswoman for the company that owns the two restaurant chains. Regional and national chains “usually have a game plan,” Rodriguez says. “All the accessibility things are met, usually above and beyond.”
Gary Ray has no trouble if he enters a restaurant with someone, but if he’s by himself, “the first thing I do is act blind,” says the Asheville resident. “I have my white cane out and usually will ask the person that does the seating to assist me.”
There aren’t many restaurant hosts who know how to escort a blind person, he notes (you offer them your arm and mention any obstacles in the way). But those who exist are adept at helping Ray through close quarters, he says. An experienced server will use the standard orientation for blind people, telling him that his entrée is at 6 o’clock, his side dish is at 10 and his drink is at 2. If the server hasn’t done that, “I have to surreptitiously explore the plate to find where things are,” says Ray.
When it comes time to pay, Ray asks the server to place his left index finger to the left of the signature line. Ray tips well — generally 20 percent — because of the extra attention he receives. “I might even tip more if I need assistance to go to the restroom and back to the table,” he says.
Newer restaurants, says Ray, tend to be designed with blind people in mind. That said, he and his wife like two older restaurants downtown — Mayfel’s and Strada Italiano, though the tables in both seem close together, he says.
“It’s all about hospitality and being welcoming and doing whatever we can to make sure the guests’ needs are taken care of,” says Carly Reese, manager of Strada. Friday and Saturday nights might be busier and noisier than some people like, so when they call for reservations, the staff will recommend less busy times.
In the best of times, going out can be daunting for someone with a disability. “A lot of people with mobility issues think, ‘How bad do I want to do this, and how will I get there?’” Reynolds says.
But the more restaurants do to accommodate disabled guests, the better it is for everyone, says Joseph. “If we as business owners, and restaurants especially, make it easier for people with challenges to be able to come out and feel comfortable and welcomed, we’ll find more and more people coming out,” she says. The Braille menus are “one small step.”