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Restaurant accessibility for all!

In this 'Distracted Dining', Nancy ponders what a totally accessible dining experience would be like
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I think I’m dreaming. There’s a restaurant that is big, beautiful and old. It has been restored to its original charm, architecturally stunning with massive wooden floor boards; huge vaulted ceilings; intricate limestone walls; sparkling chandeliers; a fireplace in every room on every level - and - it’s totally accessible to all. Definitely dreaming.

Enter the AODA - Accessibility of Ontarians with Disabilities Act. The AODA became law on June 13, 2005. The three main components of the act to benefit all Ontarians are developing, implementing and enforcing accessibility standards. The goal is to achieve accessibility for Ontarians with disabilities with respect to goods, services, facilities, accommodation, employment, buildings, structures and premises. The cavet – improvements are incremental to achieve an accessible Ontario by 2025. Baby steps... or no steps for more than 15 per cent of Ontario’s population. This includes more than 40 per cent of people over age 65. In Ontario approximately 1.85 million people have a disability – that’s one in seven people and that’s a lot to accommodate with this act.

Compliance for this act has its own disability – clarity. After researching several sites, both governmental and public, the who, what, when, where, why and how of standards and compliance are mired in technical jargon, preventing me from clearly deciphering what it all means.

From what I can gather, the AODA has timelines for different accessibility standards. In thinking of restaurants, they would fall under the Customer Service regulation which came into place on Jan. 1, 2008 OR if they are ‘other’ designated public sector organizations, compliance was mandatory by Jan. 1, 2010 OR maybe under the Customer Service Accessibility Standards for those that have at least one employee in Ontario and provide goods or services to members of the public or other organizations who had to comply by Jan. 1, 2012.

Confused? I am.  

Part of my confusion around this act is my interpretation of accessibility. The AODA says they are developing mandatory accessibility standards to identify, remove and prevent barriers for people with disabilities in key areas of daily living. Great! I’m thinking physical, however, accessible customer service as defined by Ontario’s Accessibility Standard for Customer Service is about understanding that people with disabilities may have different needs that take a few simple steps to improve – like modifying your customer service policy and training staff to make your organization more welcoming to people with disabilities. Can I just say if people can’t physically get to your business due to physical constraints, no matter how great your customer service is – they can’t get there from here.

This contemplative research all stems from a recent evening out to celebrate a 90th birthday. Her ‘children’ put together a special evening with her usual table buddies. These included an 89-year-old gem, a 91-year-old lovely and Louise, the 90-year-old birthday girl. Escorts were her children, my husband and myself.

We arrived at a beautiful old, local restaurant to find a cascade of wooden stairs, slippery with snow leading up to the front entrance where a huge, heavy door was beckoning us in. Looking for other options to enter, we discovered we could walk around back which was quite a hike to a level door opening that would take us to the back of the restaurant where we could then trek up to the front for seating – not a great plan. Okay – divide and conquer. Fold up the walker and everyone securely support a senior to precariously climb the stairs; support; heave open the door; one more steep step and then into a tiny vestibule. Another heavy door and step and we were in. Unfold the walker; hang onto everyone because the lights are so dim, even we youngin’s (being under 60) can’t see.

Coat rack to the right and restaurant to the left. A nice maitre d' greeted us and joined us in the tiny coat room to ‘help’ with the coats. My grandma’s voice was ringing in my head, ‘This room isn’t big enough to swing a cat in, let alone hang up coats.’ We managed and then had to juxtaposition to turn around and shuffle along in the opposite direction to our table. The space between the tables wasn’t quite wide enough to accommodate two people, so we sideways shuffled to our table. There were a few more anxious moments as we seated the seniors on heavy wooden chairs that were more or less lifted to the table avec patrons in the seats.

Finally, we were successfully seated and sharing water all around. The ladies were having a lovely time and that’s what mattered. I glanced to my left and to my horror, shock and dismay I spotted a sign that said ‘Restrooms’ with a large arrow pointing down an open wooden staircase. Saying grace was definitely secondary to praying no one at the table would have to make a washroom stop, one of the most common and yet difficult ADL’s to maneuver in a public place for anyone with a disability.

As I participated in a special reminiscent dialogue and savoured the delicious meal before me, I was so distracted by the glaring issues of accessibility it was hard to focus.

Glancing around, I could easily identify a myriad of things that made this establishment fail in the ways of accessibility.

I couldn’t get this experience off my mind, hence this article, researched and written.

At the end of my research, I could not decipher exactly what public places have to do to be compliant to the AODA. I am disappointed I couldn’t cut through the political crap and see a well-structured; clear, concise, positive plan of action. I feel what Ontarians really want to see is a province where we can enjoy wonderful celebrations in safe, accessible places for all. Does anyone see this happening by 2025? I am an eternal optimist, but I have my doubts. It’s only seven more years. Time will tell.

Nancy Revie is a Guelph author, motivational speaker, fitness instructor and entertainer. Visit Nancy at Her column appears every other week.