Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

The Next Step in Inclusivity Is Combating Ableism in Bars and Restaurants

The concept of inclusivity shouldn’t be limited to gender or skin color.

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Elena Resko

No bar or restaurant would knowingly turn away one in four guests. But for many in the disability community, it feels as though that’s exactly what’s happening. 

“We all get lumped into one category, but in reality, there are so many complexities even within one category, like mobility,” says Yannick Benjamin, the co-founder of the nonprofit Wheeling Forward, which aims to raise awareness for those with disabilities in the wine industry, and Contento, a soon-to-open restaurant and bar in New York City’s East Harlem. 

Benjamin, who has worked as a sommelier at some of the most acclaimed restaurants in the country, including Le Cirque and Jean-Georges, was paralyzed from the waist down in 2003 after a car accident. Even so, he was determined to continue his work as a wine pro. In the process, he has discovered how far the hospitality industry still needs to go in being, well, hospitable to a large swath of the population. 

1. Address a Range of Needs

An estimated 26% of adults in the United States, or roughly 61 million people, have a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That breaks down to 13.7% with mobility issues, 10.7% with cognition challenges, 6.8% struggling with independent living, 5.9% with difficulty hearing, 4.6% with visual impairments and 3.7% who have issues with self-care. 

There are several laws that aim to make welcoming guests and staff with disabilities a business’s legally binding duty. The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 with the intention that it should “prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else,” according to the ADA’s website.

Title III prohibits any private place that welcomes members of the public, including hotels, restaurants and bars, from preventing access to people with disabilities. This means entrances at least 36 inches wide, checkout counters no higher than 36 inches, and wheelchair-accessible tables in restaurants. It also requires businesses to share information with guests who have cognition and communication disabilities. But in reality, these laws don’t always result in as inclusive a space as they should. 

Eli Kulp, an award-winning chef who had three restaurants in Philadelphia and one breaking ground in New York City in May of 2015 when he was paralyzed by an Amtrak derailment, knew his life had changed forever, but he wasn’t ready to leave the restaurant world behind. 

“Food was my life, and I didn’t see that changing,” says Kulp. “I was fortunate to be a partner at High Street Hospitality with Ellen Yin, so I was able to rethink my role. Our restaurants were already set up to be wheelchair-accessible, which was a very fortunate thing, so I have been able to still visit, taste and work.” He and his partners made sure the kitchen entrance was wide enough for a wheelchair to get through so he could be at the pass to control the flow and quality of the food, as any head chef would.

As a quadriplegic, Kulp says he will never be able to run a kitchen again in the same way, but he was already transitioning to a position that required less hands-on work. While his physical presence behind the line has diminished marginally, it hasn’t changed his relationship with his team or, in many ways, his role. 

The most profound impact, says Kulp, is in his perception of how restaurants should treat guests. “I realized how invisible a lot of disabilities are to so many people,” he says. “It definitely opened my eyes, and it made me realize that we needed to actively train our staff to welcome absolutely everyone.”

It also, Kulp says, opened his eyes to changing the way his hospitality group thinks about hiring and managing talented food-lovers with mobility and other issues. “This whole process and going through the past year with all of the challenges COVID-19 has presented has given us an opportunity to think about how we want to move forward and serve our team and our guests,” he says. 

2. Incorporate Empathy into Design 

The goal of hospitality is to “welcome people, but many disabilities are so misunderstood by the general public, it makes being inclusive very challenging,” says Benjamin, pointing out that simply using more empathetic language and displaying a genuinely welcoming attitude would be a good start. “You also have a range of visual and auditory impairments and cognitive and emotional impairments. These are all things that management and staff should be prepared for.”

After a serious cultural reckoning, many businesses are at least nominally embracing diversity. But as disability advocates point out, being truly inclusive has to go even deeper than skin color and gender.

There are, critics point out, a lot of holes in the ADA and many issues it doesn’t address. For bars and restaurants committed to welcoming all guests, there are a number of ways to do so, both in terms of language and manner and also in the structure of how the interior of a given space is laid out. 

“The goal should be to allow for everyone’s dignity to remain intact,” says Benjamin. “One example of a place that’s extremely challenging for me and other people who use wheelchairs is the bar. It’s very awkward to look up to the person I’m having a drink with. It just doesn’t provide an atmosphere of natural rapport.”

The typical bar height also makes it difficult for staff members who use wheelchairs to do their jobs. At Contento, Benjamin has taken a number of steps to adapt the space and experience for guests and staff. The bar height is low enough for guests and staff to work. The universal nongendered bathroom is easily accessible. He will have menus with QR codes for guests with vision issues. He’s teaching basic sign language to staffers so they can communicate with guests who have auditory issues. He will have adaptive cutlery available. And most importantly, he will talk to his staff about how to talk to people in a way that is sensitive but “not patronizing or condescending.”

Dominick Purnomo, the wine director and co-owner of Yono’s and dp An American Brasserie, both in Albany, New York, shares Benjamin’s focus on not just the layout of the space but also the importance of hiring and training staff properly.

“In addition to following the ADA guidelines, I’ve found that hiring staff for emotional intelligence and attitude is essential,” says Purnomo. “It’s nice if you went to Cornell or the Culinary Institute of America, but first and foremost, how will you welcome everyone and tackle communication and other issues with grace?”

Purnomo also thinks the pandemic has actually created opportunities to think more inclusively in general. “We always had space between tables, but with this added six-feet spacing, it has been nice for people who use wheelchairs, and we’ll certainly keep that in mind for the future. We also found that menus with QR codes are helpful.”

3. Create Inclusive Experiences

Other hospitality spaces, such as tasting rooms at wineries, are also going beyond the bare-bones ADA requirements to offer a feeling of inclusion to all guests.

In addition to following regulations and offering a variety of chair and table heights to accommodate everyone, Raptor Ridge Winery in Newberg, Oregon, wanted to make sure no one would feel excluded from the full educational and sensory experience it offers. “We noticed that guests had family members or friends who didn’t imbibe but were there to enjoy our picturesque facility,” says Annie Shull, the winery’s proprietor and chief operations officer. To accommodate those guests and ensure they had a way of partaking, “We created a tasting flight of Honeybee lemonade syrups, produced by a local BIPOC women-owned business,” she says. 

And for those who prefer to experience wine in an alternative way for a number of reasons, “We also offer an olfactory library of glass vials containing the 54 most common aromas in wine,” says Shull. “Our hospitality team leads tasters through an olfactory tour of the elements we commonly detect in our own wine portfolios.” The response has been overwhelmingly positive, she says. 

Inclusivity and combating ableism is, at its core, an ethical issue. But it also makes economic sense. Not only do so many Americans have mobility, communication, sensory and other disabilities, but more and more courts are siding with consumers against businesses that aren’t making their spaces, and even their websites, accessible to all. From cases involving major pizza chains to mom-and-pop shops, courts are ruling in favor of consumers who want equal access to restaurants. 

“It’s important to remember why we got into this business in the first place,” says Purnomo. “We’re here to welcome and feed people and to make them happy. Every decision should be made with that goal in mind.”