Outdoor dining mixed bag for those with disabilities

Some cramped, enclosed spaces not accessible

THE PANDEMIC shift to patio seating has been a lifeline for restaurants and many patrons are embracing open-air dining. But for people with disabilities, the nearly-overnight redesign of the cityscape poses new challenges for navigating spaces rarely designed for accessibility.

Claire Bergstresser, an East Cambridge resident who uses a manual wheelchair, said curbs are her biggest hurdle. During the pandemic, restaurants were allowed to set up dining areas in on-street parking spaces. That means diners have to navigate from the sidewalk down to street level to reach tables. Restaurants are obligated to have a ramp available, but Bergstresser said she’s often told there isn’t one. Instead, staff often insist on helping her navigate the curb, which can damage her wheelchair and undermine her autonomy. 

“The question is not, is it accessible,” she said. “The question is how many hurdles do I have to go through to be able to eat where everyone else eats?” She estimates only about 15 percent of on-street dining areas are easily accessible for her. 

Especially in Boston, much of which was built long before the Americans with Disabilities Act came into play, navigating the urban landscape has always posed a challenge for wheelchair users. As COVID-19 pushed eating, shopping, and other activities outside onto sidewalks and into streets, the issue was exacerbated. People with wheelchairs and walkers have found themselves trying to squeeze through small spaces or fit into areas that don’t easily accommodate them. 

The landscape’s evolution happened fast. At the beginning of the pandemic, Gov. Charlie Baker issued an emergency order allowing cities and towns to grant temporary licenses for restaurants to offer outdoor dining. What used to be a months-long process involving multiple steps and various fees was streamlined to allow restaurants to start serving outdoors within days. The result was hundreds of newly constructed dining areas. Nearly all of them should be fully accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but many are not. As the pandemic drags on and policies are extended, it’s becoming clear that these spaces are not temporary. 

Abby Swaine, who lives in Brookline with her 26-year-old son who uses a wheelchair, said many patios are too cramped for wheels. Brookline allows restaurants to use up to two street parking spaces for dining. With barriers, the limited width doesn’t leave space for wheelchairs, ramps, and accommodating tables. Some restaurants have installed picnic tables, which are typically not accessible if there isn’t a section extending past the end of the bench.

Swaine’s greatest frustration isn’t with the dining areas themselves, but the way they change the streetscape by creeping onto sidewalks. Barriers around a dining area, a pushed back chair, a dog lying beside a diner, or an extra person crowded into a table can make a sidewalk too narrow for a wheelchair to pass. 

Even if it just comes down to a polite request for someone to scoot a chair in, nobody wants to have to ask a stranger to move just to continue down the sidewalk. “It can just be kind of embarrassing and awkward to get by; it can be impossible to,” explained Swaine. 

Chris Hoeh, who lives in Jamaica Plain and uses a power wheelchair, has often been frustrated trying to enter restaurants. Even after calling ahead, he will arrive to find stairs or crowding that make it difficult or impossible for him to navigate the space.

Outdoor dining can eliminate some of these accessibility barriers, many of which occur at the entrance to a building. In Jamaica Plain, he said, many restaurants have built raised platforms to make their street dining flush with the sidewalk, precluding the need for a ramp. Others have a ramp set up or advertise that one is available. 

When he passes an eatery that has clearly been built with accessibility in mind, Hoeh feels seen. “[It] just seems to show a recognition that those of us in wheelchairs exist and that they want to welcome us,” he said.

Hoeh said restaurants are especially important for people in wheelchairs. While their own homes are built or modified for wheels, the homes of friends and family usually are not, so sharing a meal and a few hours of socialization isn’t always possible. Accessible restaurants are a place where people of all mobilities can be together.

David Doyle is one Boston restaurant owner who is attentive to accessibility. He founded Tres Gatos and Casa Verde and co-founded Little Dipper. Hoeh says the three Jamaica Plain restaurants have welcomed disabled people through purposefully built environments. 

When the pandemic hit last year, Doyle — like hundreds of other restaurant owners — applied for a temporary outdoor dining permit but the area he planned to use wasn’t at the same level as the street. He initially relied on a portable ramp, but he wanted a fully-accessible patio, one that didn’t require people to call ahead or wait for a ramp to be dug out of a back room. So he and his staff built a raised platform that met the edge of the sidewalk, creating a level surface. 

It’s not just wheelchair users who benefit, Doyle says. People with walkers, servers carrying trays, and guests who just aren’t looking where they are going are all safer when the lip of the curb is eliminated. Doyle said it also made the area more visually appealing. “For us, that’s made a huge difference in just the quality of the experience,” he said.

Rick Glassman, director of advocacy at the Disability Law Center, said the nonprofit public interest law firm has heard anecdotal reports of problems with outdoor dining areas, but not enough to prompt an investigation. He said individuals with concerns can contact the Department of Justice, the Massachusetts Office on Disability, or the Architectural Access Board.

Videos of the challenges posed by outdoor dining in other cities and around the world have gone viral and a Bloomberg report about the problem spotlighted a number of difficult environments.

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Lily Robinson

Summer intern, CommonWealth
Boston officials said the city’s initial application process for the outside dining areas involved two questionnaires and documents that were reviewed by multiple agencies. After conditional approval was granted, applicants would submit photos of the space or a site visit would be required before final permission was granted. Businesses had to reapply in 2021 and a similar process was followed, but material was submitted using a virtual portal that streamlined the process for the review team.

The mayor’s office said that permits for dining areas on public property in Boston currently expire November 1 and those on private property end in April when the governor’s order runs out. In 2022, a representative said, the process for outdoor dining will not be as flexible but that the outdoor dining team is working to streamline the process and is taking existing issues into consideration for the future.