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Challenges, adventures of dining out wheelchair-bound

By Ernie Williamson The Bulletin

Because of the pandemic and my disability, my wife and I don’t eat out much anymore.

When we do, it is a wheelchair adventure. We usually encounter something that makes us chuckle … or shake our heads.

Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, I have no doubt it is easier for those of us in wheelchairs to dine out than it was before the act was passed in 1990.

If I were a restaurant owner, I probably would think ADA regulations are burdensome. I, however, regard them as rules that help me lead a more normal life.

I remember my first wheelchair venture out into the public: It was to a restaurant while I was a patient at TIRR Memorial Hermann. I was going through rehabilitation after a rare autoimmune disease left me paraplegic.

To get several of us accustomed to being in public, the hospital bused us to a crowded restaurant.

It felt good to get out, but on the way back to the hospital a young man next to me started crying.

He was a truck driver and an accident had left him quadriplegic.

I asked about the tears.

He said he would never again go to a restaurant. He couldn’t stand people watching him eat.

No ADA regulations would have helped the young man on that night.

I have never felt that traumatized going out, but then again, I am not a truck driver who now has to have a therapist feed him.

Here are some of the challenges disabled folks face when eating out and a look at the regulations.

The adventure begins: Parking

Restaurants, like all businesses, must have one handicap spot for every 25 parking spots.

The parking spots must have an accessible path to the restaurant.

The ADA goes so far as to require that the spots be on a level surface with no more than a 2 percent slope.

I find most of the larger restaurants are pretty good about providing handicap parking. Smaller restaurants with smaller parking lots are more problematic.

Next: The front door

To be ADA compliant, restaurants need doors that require less than five pounds of force to push or pull open.

In my experience, many restaurants don’t meet this standard. They tend to have heavy doors that sometimes feel as if I am dealing with a bank vault door.

Next: The hostess or host

They are almost always pleasant, but once in a while I run across one who asks a question I find amusing.

“Table or booth?”

Here’s a tip: The last thing I want is to make a spectacle of myself transferring from my wheelchair to a booth and risking a fall. All I need is space at a table. I have a chair.

Next: The trip to the table

To be ADA compliant, aisles in restaurants must be at least 36” wide. Restaurants, however, make more money with more tables so I often feel as if I am negotiating an obstacle course.

I have had to interrupt other diners by asking them to move their chairs so I could roll by.

Once, at a Mexican restaurant, the aisle was so narrow I was tempted to grab a handful of tortilla chips from a couple’s table as I rolled by.

Next: The table

Five percent of the tables in a restaurant must be ADA compliant.

So, what makes a table ADA compliant?

It must:

• Have tabletops between 28” to 34” in height.

• Have knee room under that table that measures a minimum of 30” wide, 27” high and 19” deep.

Tables are a special problem for me. I am tall, and my legs - although they don’t work - are still long. Most of the tables at restaurants are so low my knees hit them, preventing me from getting my legs under the table.

I adjust by sitting sideways to the table. This is not only uncomfortable but untidy since crumbs often end up in my lap.

Recently, I was in a group of people, and the hostess placed us at a table that was counter height with bar-stool seating. Everyone assumed I wanted to sit elsewhere, and they asked the hostess for another table.

I am sure I looked odd sitting in a wheelchair at a table that was up to my chest, but I told the group I had no problem with the seating. It felt good having enough room to put my legs under a table.

Next: The bill

Wait staffs should not assume that someone with a disability won’t be the one paying the bill. It is amazing how often my wife gets the bill.

Finally: The trip home

Because I don’t stand up after my meal, I have nothing to remind me that there is a napkin in my lap.

So once in a while I have arrived home only to find I have brought a napkin along with me.

But don’t tell anyone.

(Please contact Ernie at Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)


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