Were the grab bars in the restroom to your liking, sir?
A discerning Jackson Heights diner has begun a restaurant review blog, TheDisabledFoodie.com, that evaluates eateries not just on the freshness, taste and quality of their food, but on the ability of disabled people to consume it.
The blog "is an awareness campaign," explained founder David Friedman, 38. People without disabilities often don't fully understand the obstacles encountered by those who have them, he said, and people with disabilities want to eat at places where they will be spared hassles, obstacles, and condescending or insensitive staff.
Friedman, a special education elementary school teacher who suffers from a progressively debilitating neurological disease, began the blog last year, shortly before he became almost constantly wheelchair bound.
He not only evaluates the freshness of the fish and the saltiness of a restaurant's soup, but discloses whether diners will encounter wide, level, wheelchair-friendly entryways and adequate room to maneuver in the dining area. The site discusses whether tables and countertops are at a comfortable height for wheelchair users and if bathrooms are accessible, equipped with grab bars and reachable sink handles. It also discloses whether Braille menus are available for blind people and if light levels are sufficient for the vision impaired.
"I started including the noise volume and its level of severity recently," for hard-of-hearing readers, added Friedman, who travels to restaurants on buses or Access-A-Ride. ("I won't even attempt the subway," he noted. "The wheelchair gets stuck in the gap between the platform and the train.")
Whether he was treated in a welcoming manner or as an unwelcome headache is also chronicled.
"The biggest thing is the attitude of the staff," and whether they evince goodwill toward accommodating disabled diners, Friedman said.
Pet peeves? Being told on the phone that a restaurant is accessible only to discover on arrival that the staff plans to carry him up or down stairs. Being carried "is such an indignity," said Friedman, who noted that portable ramps are a preferable option.
Separate but supposedly equal entrances for wheelchairs, while better than none at all, are also irksome: Why should people in wheelchairs be forced to wheel through dingy back entrances and through kitchens when "everyone else gets to go through the front door?" Also, the "it costs too much!" attitude to make things accessible: One restaurateur "acted like printing one Braille menu would make him destitute and put him out on the street," Friedman recalled.
There are almost 890,000 NYC residents with disabilities of all kinds, according to a 2011 report by the Center for Independence of the Disabled.
But only 48% of disabled people eat in restaurants at least twice a month, compared to 75% of their able-bodied peers, according to a national 2010 survey of people with disabilities by the Kessler Foundation and the National Organization on Disability.
While disabled people have higher rates of poverty than able-bodied folks, inaccessible facilities, negative public attitudes and personal discomforts are also likely factors in keeping them away from restaurant tables, said the report.
Under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, all construction from 1993 must be "readily accessible" and existing facilities must be made accessible if it is "readily achievable" to do so.
But the law doesn't address whether noise levels must be kept low to accommodate hard of hearing people and only "arguably" requires that Braille menus be made available, according to an official at the U.S. Department of Justice.
In 2013, the U.S. attorney's office for the Southern District of New York reached agreements with the owners of Carmine's Restaurants to make their eateries compliant with the law (Carmine's agreed to pay a $10,000 civil penalty) and the owners of Rosa Mexicano (which agreed to a $30,000 civil penalty) to make their restaurants ADA compliant.
"No one should be unfairly deprived of the opportunity to enjoy the city's world class dining offerings and we will take all reasonable legal steps to make sure they are not," Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, announced in 2011, when revealing his initiative to review the city's top restaurants for ADA compliance.
Yet, there can be a gap between legal ideal and reality.
"I want to sing the praises of the restaurants getting it right and take more of an educational approach," Friedman said. He also wants restaurateurs to realize "there's this huge market," of disabled people that could help their businesses be more profitable, if they were made to feel welcome.
One restaurant on the West Side of Manhattan could have accommodated Friedman by opening a door that was at street level, "but they wouldn't let me in!" Friedman recounted. The food was not reviewed because he couldn't get in to eat it. "There was no entrance that we were allowed to use by restaurant staff," he noted.
He and his husband of three years, social worker Norman Candelario (who is relentlessly mentioned on the blog) wound up lunching that day at a nearby Boston Market. Dining at a chain restaurant was a compromise for a foodie partial to S & S cheesecake, but the Boston Market "really got it right," in terms of accessibility, he noted.
So far, Friedman has reviewed more than 40 NYC eateries, reserving his highest marks for the Gansevoort Market Food Hall, the Francois Payard Bakery at Columbus Circle and Boulud Sud.
"Bravo!" to the restaurants that provide true hospitality, Friedman said. "They demonstrate true humanity and compassion, and the disabled community should definitely reward them with our business."