‘I am not in the way’: Outdoor dining adds obstacles for people with disabilities

Meghan Holohan
·5 min read

One thing Robin Wilson-Beattie enjoys about San Francisco is that it’s pedestrian-friendly. She often walked to do her laundry, buy groceries or grab food while easily moving her walker down the wide sidewalks. Since outdoor dining has taken over as a safer alternative to dining indoors during the COVID-19 epidemic, Wilson-Beattie, 42, faces more barriers while running errands.

“I have had to maneuver past diners that were partially on the sidewalk and having to go around diners and wait staff. I am not in the way: I am a pedestrian trying to walk to a place,” the disability and sexuality educator told TODAY. “I’m a little more on display because people are sitting and eating food and looking at you going down the street. As somebody with a disability, I feel like I already get enough stares.”

Robin Wilson-Beattie poses with a friend both smiling joyously.  (Courtesy Robin Wilson-Beattie)
Robin Wilson-Beattie poses with a friend both smiling joyously. (Courtesy Robin Wilson-Beattie)

As restaurants across the country have struggled to keep their doors open during a pandemic, many have turned to outdoor dining as a safe alternative. New York City recently announced that outdoor dining can be permanent and year round, for example, and even residents in smaller towns see tables dotting sidewalks, bike lanes and parking lots. While that allows restaurants to continue serving patrons, it also makes cities less accessible to people with disabilities.

“People are very concerned,” Rebecca Cokley, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., told TODAY. “We should be mindful that, yes, it directly impacts the disability community, but it also has a broader impact on our on our society.”

Wide sidewalks make it easier for people in wheelchairs, using walkers, canes or crutches to move, but it also helps people pushing strollers, making deliveries or dragging luggage. Putting tables on the sidewalk makes it harder for everyone to move.

Each city and restaurant handles outdoor dining differently — some put tables in the bike lanes, others on the sidewalks and still others in parking lots or unused alleyways. But Cokley has heard of very few cities that make sure that restaurants are still upholding Americans with Disability Act (ADA) requirements. Most haven’t even considered how sidewalk dining change how people move.

“San Francisco’s reopening guidance for outdoor dining listed, as a requirement, avoiding creating obstacles for people being able to pass, including blocking of sidewalks in a way that would fail to comply with the ADA,” Cokley said. “I honestly think society is very much used to the notion of not having to think about people with disabilities.”

WHAT DOES PERMANENT OUTDOOR DINING MEAN FOR PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES? Inline (Courtesy Rashiid Marcell)
WHAT DOES PERMANENT OUTDOOR DINING MEAN FOR PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES? Inline (Courtesy Rashiid Marcell)

While she said most major cities have advisory boards and committees advocating for people with disabilities, leaders often forget to consult with these experts.

“This is one of those issues, yet again, that comes into play where the disability community isn’t consulted on the front end,” she said. “This is one of those opportunities for those advisory committees to be brought in as consultants really early on to help talk about what would work and what wouldn’t work.”

Political consultant Neal Carter agrees that many places didn’t consider people with disabilities when encouraging outdoor dining.

“Cities across the country are not really taking accessibility into account,” the owner of Nu View Consulting in Rockville, Maryland, told TODAY. “Putting tables of various size immediately outside their doors and, in some cases, directly in front is cutting off foot traffic. For someone who is walking by in a wheelchair or in an assistive device or using an assistive dog or animal it is incredibly difficult.”

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Less accessibility causes isolation

Once Wilson-Beattie was walking past some outdoor diners, a panhandler confronted her and she couldn’t get away from him. She felt stuck and incredibly uncomfortable.

“It was not only awkward but you got all these diners, they are looking at this like a show. I am not entertainment,” she said. “I feel more vulnerable.”

Since that experience, she relies more on deliveries or drives to stores outside her neighborhood for supplies.

“It changed my comfort level. I can’t speak for all people with disabilities,” she said. “It has affected me in a way I didn’t realize it would.”

Cokley said that most people with disabilities have been staying home because often they are at high risk for COVID-19 and worried about their health. But that makes it easier for cities to forget about accessibility.

“Most disabled people I know have been locked down very seriously because of this virus since the beginning of the outbreak,” she said. “In some ways non-disabled people are used to not seeing us out and about right now and so it really falls into that out of sight, out of mind.”

Some businesses might think they don’t need to make their places more accessible because people with disabilities do not visit them. But it’s that inaccessibility in the first place might be to blame.

“They’re like, ‘Well, disabled people don’t come here,’” she said. “Well, your business is inaccessible.”

Carter, 37, who uses either forearm crutches or a wheelchair, hasn’t ventured out too much during the pandemic. But, his limited experiences have been positive.

“The places I have attended thus far have been relatively good at their accessibility,” he said. “I overall enjoy the idea of outdoor dining.”

Though, the list of places he feels he can visit and move around with ease and safety has become smaller during the pandemic. Another worry he has is that outdoor dining can force pedestrians to be closer to restaurant patrons who aren’t wearing mask, increasing his risk.

“I wish that able-bodied folks were more conscious about their surroundings,” he said. “I hope that folks would be more generally aware but I know at the end of the day it’s going to take something to force them to change.”

While Carter hopes that businesses come out of the pandemic thinking more about accessibility for patrons with disabilities, he’s not entirely hopeful. But he says it’s essential: COVID-19 will increase the numbers of people with disabilities. He believes more legislation is needed so everyone it is protected.

“This pandemic is going to create more folks with disabilities, whether it be cognitive, physical or invisible, the disabled community is going to grow," Carter said. "There are going to be more people that need to be protected under the ADA and businesses are not doing enough or doing the bare minimum to directly support and create access for disabled folks.”