Designing for Restaurant Accessibility
There are numerous criteria to design choices when it comes to restaurants. Space management; palette choices, lighting choices, and how the two interact; different tiles delineating different areas; fixtures and overall aesthetics. These and countless other design choices fuse to collectively create your restaurant’s vibe, which is immensely important. However, as vital as they are, many such decisions are mostly complementary and optional. They can certainly uplift your customers or increase your employees’ productivity, but they remain lenient in execution. In contrast, accessible design begins to (rightfully) take center stage in such discussions in recent years. Designing for restaurant accessibility is far less lenient and arguably more practical — and moral — imperative. What’s more, some practices can also help owners combat the spread of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Accessibility and ADA compliance
To start with the fundamentals, let us define restaurant accessibility and explore its importance.
The core principle of accessibility is that disabled customers should have an equivalent experience to any other customer’s. Of course, there are many practical and moral reasons fully to embrace this basic tenet. Discouraging or outright preventing any disabled customers from choosing your establishment makes little financial sense. Disability, despite what we may at times believe, is a broad umbrella term that covers multiple conditions of varying severity. Similarly, from a moral standpoint, few would argue it’s morally justified to exclude any customer based on disability.
With those reasons aside, designing for restaurant accessibility in eateries and elsewhere is often legally mandated. In the U.S., the Department of Justice issues ADA standards for accessible design. These regulations mandate what I’ve highlighted above in no uncertain terms. For example, they state that “individuals who use wheelchairs must be provided equal access so that their experience is substantially equivalent to that of other members of the audience.” What’s more, COVID regulations also provide an additional legal reason to be mindful of spacing and your restaurant’s layout. Compliance with these guidelines and regulations is the final legal reason why accessibility is crucial to note.
Designing for Restaurant Accessibility
With this context in mind, let’s explore some options when designing for restaurant accessibility. Note that these options focus on your physical premises’ accessibility; digital restaurant accessibility is an entirely different subject in itself. Both drive significant restaurant trends, by all means, but they call for very different approaches.
Of course, these suggestions are no substitutes for the aforementioned ADA guidelines for U.S. restaurants. Moreover, ADA itself accounts for “readily achievable barrier removal,” so your options will inevitably differ. Nonetheless, their basic principles can inspire different interior and exterior projects, and the teams on both sides need to have proper communication. These techniques, coupled with effective collaboration, can ensure your restaurant champions and embraces accessibility.
#1 Space Management and Navigation
It’s self-evident that space management is significant for any restaurant. The more customers you can serve, the higher your profits will be. However, both COVID measures and restaurant accessibility concerns should give pause.
On this front, consider a few different hardships for people with disabilities:
- Ease of navigation
- Standing and seating areas
- Automatic doors
Ease of navigation should overlap with both how many chairs and tables you provide, as well as where they are. Remember that customers with wheelchairs will need to navigate your premises, which in turn calls for space. This may limit the number of customers you can serve at once, but it enhances their experience in return. Moreover, ensuring proper spacing between tables will allow you to comply with local or federal COVID regulations better.
Similarly, undecided customers or those waiting for takeout will occupy space themselves. Be it for just a few minutes or half an hour; you will need to account for this. You may have a designated waiting area or prefer to leave the room to avoid blocking pathways. In either case, reserving a few chairs for these customers specifically, especially disabled ones, is also both practical and courteous.
Finally, consider how inconvenient doors may hinder navigation. Customers in wheelchairs will need automatic doors – or at least ones they can easily operate. This concern naturally begins at your main entrance, but all your entries could adhere to this need.
#2 Stairs and Elevation
On the subject of your main entrance, stairs and elevation are equally crucial. Ramps are indeed a solution for both, but they come with two distinct disadvantages. For one, they are often prohibitively costly, and they might also reduce your functional, usable space.
Nonetheless, the site you’ve chosen for your restaurant or moved into may necessitate elevation changes. In this case, try to ensure they don’t restrict access to customers with mobility assistance devices. If it’s feasible, try to reconcile your design with curb ramps and similar assistance.
Lighting is likely the primary area in which designing for accessibility in the restaurant industry excels. With few exceptions, ample lights can enhance your stylistic choices while also providing increased restaurant accessibility.
Perhaps most significantly, rich lighting allows your customers to read the menus comfortably. Especially if your fonts don’t offer highly readable menus, you may be risking dissatisfying customers, disabled or otherwise. What’s more, it significantly helps customers with visual impairments, which extend far beyond blindness alone. Prevent Blindness America estimates that roughly 53 million Americans have some form of visual impairment. Reconciling your desired vibe with restaurant accessibility is a vital concern to keep in mind.
Similarly, acoustics play a very significant role in customer satisfaction. However, they also have a severe impact on accessibility for customers with hearing impairments.
Of course, acoustics extend far beyond music volume alone. Carefully consider which surfaces and materials affect your acoustics and in which ways. Sound-dampening options are plenty, and many will blend in with your aesthetics. For example, upholstering may provide style and functionality at the same time.
#5 Storage Spaces
Finally, storage spaces are also significant for all customers. In terms of accessibility, however, they can be even more impactful.
Consider mobility assistance devices your customers may use, and provide safe and secure storage spaces for them. As you do, ensure they also remain immediately accessible for both incoming and leaving customers. With the ongoing COVID pandemic, your layout should discourage congestions whenever possible.
To summarize, designing for restaurant accessibility doesn’t need to be challenging. After all, space management and elevation, lights, acoustics, and storage space are all staples to enhance customer satisfaction. Attention to detail and fine-tuning them according to the ADA guidelines can ensure your restaurant remains accessible to all your customers.
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About the Author
James Pierson is a freelance interior designer and digital marketer. He’s a frequent blog contributor to Top Rated General Contractors and other publications, where he discusses subjects that range from interior design, landscaping, and relocations to SEO and PPC marketing campaigns. In his free time, he walks his dogs, exercises, and binge-watches classic shows.