Party Walls

An Insider’s Guide to Restaurant Accessibility

As a resident of Washington, D.C. for nearly ten years, I’ve spent a fair amount of time frequenting the city’s burgeoning restaurant scene. Much like my fellow Accessibility Consultants at SWA, even when we’re off the clock, we notice structural violations of federal accessibility laws on a daily basis. I would love to say that DC’s restaurant industry is an exception, but unfortunately there are still many challenges facing diners with disabilities in Washington.

Accessibility regulations that apply to restaurants are outlined under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Achieving compliance with the ADA can be a substantial task, but not without significant benefit. Recent statistics show that people with disabilities spend over $35 billion in restaurants a year. This is no small change for an industry with ever-increasing competition. Compliance also mitigates risk of litigation, which is particularly important as the U.S. Department of Justice and advocacy groups continue systemic investigations across the country.

Following are a few general rules of thumb to remember when providing equal access to guests with disabilities:

  • If the restaurant predates ADA regulations (built before January 26, 1993), don’t assume it is exempt from compliance or has been “grandfathered” into law. Under Title III of the ADA, even existing restaurants are required to remove physical barriers to accessibility when it is readily achievable.
  • Be aware that building code inspectors are tasked to inspect and approve compliance with building code requirements – not the accessibility requirements of federal laws. Receiving a certificate of occupancy is unrelated to achieving compliance with the ADA. Building codes and federal laws are mutually exclusive; you must comply with both.
  • Don’t assume that the restaurant meets compliance with the ADA just because you have a “no-step” entrance and grab bars in the restrooms. To be ADA compliant means fully achieving each ADA standard that applies to the restaurant in its entirety. The best way to be sure you’re meeting the requirements is to hire a reputable accessibility consultant.
  • Don’t forget that the ADA extends far beyond the design and construction of the restaurant. There should be operational and management policies and procedures in place to guide staff in providing equal service to customers with disabilities. Staff should be kept up to date and trained on these policies and procedures.

While achieving and maintaining compliance with the ADA surely requires effort, it’s important to remember that the intent of federal accessibility laws comes down to equal opportunity. I would expect nothing less from our nation’s capitol than to lead by example with an innovative restaurant scene that is accessible to all.


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