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Don’t let bad disability etiquette turn off guests Recommendations on how to make guests with disabilities feel welcome

Are you inadvertently losing business because of how you communicate with guests with disabilities? Many restaurants don’t know how to make guests with vision, mobility or hearing impairments feel welcome, much less make it easy for them to order.

“Our No. 1 request for topics is disability etiquette,” says Marian Vessels, director of the Mid-Atlantic ADA Center, which provides information and training on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Business owners and their employees want to know what to say and how to say it, she says. “They’re so scared they will be offensive, they don’t say anything.”

Vessels and her staff are trying to change that. As one of 10 regional ADA centers funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the Mid-Atlantic ADA Center educates businesses, consumers, schools and governments through workshops and online courses. Here are some of her recommendations to improve disability etiquette:

Incorporate disability training into your training program. Make disability etiquette part of basic customer service. Train staff to treat guests with disabilities as they would any other guest. “Do what you normally would do: Go up and greet them,” Vessels says. Be patient and sensitive, and look guests in the eye as you engage them. Listen to what the guest says and how you can help.

Adopt “people first” language. Train staff to change the way they refer to guests with disabilities. Instead of referring to “the blind guy in the corner,” say “the gentleman who is blind,” “the man with the black shirt,” or “the man with a service animal.” Avoid terminology that stigmatizes your guests, Vessels says. Talk about words not to use, such as crippled, deaf and dumb.

Be aware of guests’ need for physical access. Walk through the restaurant to look for ways to make accessibility easier. For example, make sure pathways are clear from the seating area to the restroom. “A lot of times we find hallways cluttered with supplies, extra chairs or high chairs,” Vessels says. Or businesses sometimes store cleaning supplies in an accessible bathroom. That makes navigation difficult – and unsafe -- for people who use crutches, canes or wheelchairs. Tables with posts in the center and booths can be challenging, so place tables with four legs on outer edges of your seating area. Train hosts and hostesses to keep those tables open for people with possible needs.

“When I make a reservation at a restaurant I don’t know, I let them know I’m in a wheelchair,” Vessels says. “If the seating structure is so tight, the last thing I want to do is ask 40 people to get up. As a restaurateur, you don’t want that either.”

Adopt procedures to help people who are blind or have poor vision. Train staff to offer to read the menu, including the specials of the day. Create a few copies of your menu with large type, an accommodation that will please many older guests as well, Vessels says. Most restaurants can create menus with 18-point text inexpensively on their own printers and computers. As an added bonus, some restaurants offer a selection of reading glasses in various strengths (and clean them after each use). 

“That’s over-the-top customer service for little money,” Vessels says.

Similarly, look for ways to better serve clientele who are deaf or have hearing disabilities. Print documents that list the day’s specials for people who might not be able to hear servers read them. If you don’t print your specials, make sure servers know to write them on paper for guests with hearing disabilities. Be sure to include the price.

Be respectful of people with intellectual disabilities, including Down syndrome.  “Don’t presume they don’t have any intellectual capabilities,” Vessels recommends. “Presume total competency. Treat them as any other guest.” If you realize they don’t understand, try communicating in simpler terms.

Focus on the guest, no matter the disability. Train staff to engage with the guest, not his or her dining companion. “Automatically going to a guest’s companion is a huge no-no,” Vessels says. If the guest has a challenge in communicating, his or her companion might jump in. But usually, the customer has worked out ways to communicate. He or she will indicate how you can help or will point to things on the menu.

Explore apps and other easy technology. Some restaurateurs use programs or tablets record their menus in several languages. Guests hear and order from the menu in their preferred language, and the device translates it to the server’s language. NRA Show exhibitor Menus That Talk customizes the tablets for each restaurant.

Train staff to be aware of apps, such as text writers that can help them interact with guests on phones or tablets. Guests with speech difficulties, such as cerebral palsy, often pre-program sentences or requests into their smart phones. Some blind guests use a free app from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing that scans currency and tells them the denomination.

Train staff who take reservations or takeout orders to understand relay services. Deaf or hard of hearing people use special telephone, video or computer services to communicate by phone. Sometimes restaurants hang up when they get a call from a relay operator because they don’t know what it is.

Get more help. Explore the ADA National Network’s resources and training sessions, or find a regional center near you. 


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