I have entered many restaurants through the kitchen door over the years.
Many facilities had front door steps or other barriers that did not provide easy access when accompanying a friend using a wheelchair or other mobility device. But the entrance to the kitchen door was usually ramped to allow easy access for deliverers.
Some of the inaccessible restaurants in New Mexico were in historic buildings; others were built before the federal law governing Americans with disabilities.
According to the US Department of Justice, which develops and enforces the American with Disabilities Act, if it is “easily accessible” and does not jeopardize a building’s historic significance, removing barriers is necessary for businesses.
Architects try to preserve the intended experience of a historic site when adding accessible features for customers with disabilities.
It is important that both the outside and the inside of the building are accessible.
Historic sites attract visitors who help the local economy.
Local government has a role in helping businesses make improvements and making sure the path to a business – like a street or sidewalk – can accommodate mobility devices as well.
If toilets are part of the character of a historical building and cannot be easily changed, a facility will build a barrier-free unisex toilet elsewhere.
Whenever possible, local government must be involved in design solutions, including the use of level entrances or low-grade ramps to avoid the need for handrails in the event of abrupt changes in height.
“Easily accessible” is defined by the ADA as “easily feasible and feasible without great difficulties and costs”.
A ramp or elevator can be installed in many facilities with little effort for a company.
After the ADA came into force in 1990, the standards for accessible design were developed in 1991. The latest version of the ADA Title III regulations are the 2010 Standards for Accessible Design.
The ADA accessibility guidelines are flexible when applied to historic buildings.
Still, public housing is required to remove architectural barriers, including communication barriers such as traditional signage inaccessible to the blind and visually impaired and audio systems inaccessible to the hearing impaired.
The Department of Justice’s Checklist for Easily Accessible Barrier Removal is a useful self-assessment of facility accessibility and is available at ada.gov/racheck.pdf.
The checklist updated in 1995 does not include the 2010 ADA standards, but it does include most regulatory requirements.
The Justice Department recommends that each public accommodation have an implementation plan in place to identify the steps to take to remove obstacles and a timetable for implementing the improvements.
According to the department, the implementation plan can serve as evidence that “there is a good faith endeavor to comply with the regulations”.
Today, most restaurants are barrier-free and meet the requirements of the ADA standards of 2010.
However, staff must be properly trained and prepared to serve customers with disabilities.
The staff should be patient and provide additional support for customers with disabilities and always make them feel welcome and at ease.
Andy Winnegar has a career in rehabilitation working in Santa Fe as a training assistant for the Southwest ADA Center. He can be reached at email@example.com.