Beyond accessibility: universal restaurant design is essential

By Adrian Johansen

Your guests are the heart and soul of your business. There are few things more satisfying for the owner or operator of a restaurant than seeing happy patrons crowded around a bountiful table, laughing, talking, and breaking bread together.

However, for one market demographic, the opportunity to enjoy such fellowship is still often out of reach. Despite the significant strides that have been made since the advent of the Accessible Canada Act (ACA), persons with disabilities often still struggle with accessibility challenges.

Because many restaurants operate in buildings constructed prior to 2019, when ACA building codes became law, it left many guests with special needs lacking access to family gatherings, company parties, and other public events.

The good news, though, is that there are things restaurateurs can do to end the exclusion often faced by persons with disabilities. To ensure that these guests enjoy the same experience that you strive to offer all of your customers, you must seek to go above and beyond mere “accessibility” through the use of universal design principles.

Unleashing the power of universal design

Universal design is an approach to the creation of products and environments ensuring access and equity in experience for all users, regardless of their particular needs.

In the context of restaurants, bars, and other hospitality venues, the application of universal design principles would affect almost every aspect of the guests’ engagement with the space.

This could include, for instance, lighting strategies creating a comfortable, aesthetically pleasing, and functional environment for guests with and without visual or other sensory impairments. Similarly, universal design principles apply to spatial considerations, such as developing floor plans that promote easy navigability for people using a wheelchair or other mobility aids.  

Analyzing customer experience

It’s difficult to create a truly inclusive and welcoming environment for your guests with disabilities if you don’t first understand how guests with disabilities experience the space. This is why the first order of business should be to conduct thorough market research. 

Explore online reviews for your restaurant and for your competitors to identify the particular challenges that guests with special needs face when dining out. Visit social media pages geared toward persons with disabilities in order to define the needs and expectations of this demographic. Above all, solicit feedback from your guests regarding accessibility issues they or someone they know have experienced when dining out.

This research can help you begin to develop a more accurate and comprehensive profile of your target customer than the ACA provisions can suggest, so you can offer your guests accessibility, along with a dining experience that is second to none.

Going high-tech

When it comes to optimizing your guests’ experience through universal design, one of your most powerful tools is technology. For instance, providing tableside assistive devices can help guests with hearing impairments communicate with wait staff, while digital menus can be used to aid those with low vision.

It’s also important to prioritize web accessibility on your online platforms. Ensure that your web content is optimized for users with special needs. This includes providing transcripts and closed captioning for video content, alt text to enable screen readers to describe images for vision-impaired users, and accessible content formatting, including a robust use of hyperlinks to aid users with cognitive impairments or mobility issues.

Your web content can also be highly beneficial in helping guests with disabilities prepare for their visit. You might, for instance, provide detailed diagrams of the space, enable online ordering and payment, and offer guests the opportunity to reserve a room or table that best suits their needs and preferences.

Don’t forget your outside spaces

Accessibility goes beyond your restaurant’s front door, so it’s imperative to focus on your outdoor spaces as well. Parking, for instance, can be a significant issue for guests who use wheelchairs and scooters, who cannot walk long distances, or who have visual impairments.

In general, guests who are transported by wheelchair-accessible vans will often require double parking spaces to accommodate side-loading wheelchair ramps and lifts. In addition, curb cutouts and entrance ramps can be problematic, even dangerous, if the grade is too steep or there are obstacles preventing easy access.

In addition to considering issues such as parking and front door access, you will also want to make any outdoor dining or recreation areas easily accessible for guests with special needs. Thresholds should be flush to enable guests with mobility aids to pass over them easily and safely. Wooden or concrete paths should be provided for grassy, sandy, or rocky areas, which can often be unnavigable for anyone using a wheelchair, scooter, or walker.

Provide employee training

No matter how well you implement universal design principles in your restaurant, if your employees aren’t sufficiently trained to welcome and care for guests with special needs, your efforts will be in vain. It is imperative to provide rigorous, comprehensive, and ongoing training for your personnel, including anti-bias and anti-discrimination education to help to ensure your guests receive the respect, understanding, and high-level service they expect and deserve. 

The takeaway

Living with a disability is not easy. For far too long, guests with special needs have found themselves marginalized by the hospitality industry. Inaccessible buildings and poor design planning have rendered many bars and restaurants off-limits to persons with disabilities. However, through the use of universal design principles, you can create a space that is truly welcoming for all patrons.

By prioritizing access and experience across all domains, including the interior, outdoor spaces, and online presence, you can ensure that your restaurant is one that truly honours, embraces, and manifests the values of inclusivity, diversity, and hospitality for all.

Adrian Johansen lives in the Pacific Northwest. Her writing focuses on the intersection of business, technology and sustainability issues. 

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