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Friday, September 14, 2007

Revelation for the NYT Dining Critic

New York is a hard city. It is an even harder city when a person who uses a wheelchair wants to dine out. Althought the New York Times dining critics include brief reference to wheelchair access, I have learned not to rely on this information. Most people who use a wheelchair and dine out know they are too often directed to the worst table in the dining room. Getting to and navigating within a dining room can also be a challenge. As for accessible bathrooms, that is a pipe dream. This is hardly ground breaking news but for the NYT critic, Frank Bruni, it is. In a recent column, When Accessibility Isn't Hospitality ( he is amazed to discover that even though he asked about access for his reviews he "didn't appreciate the obstacles people without full mobility face until I dined with one of them". No wonder I don't trust the NYT.

It was nice of Mr. Bruni to dine out "with one of them". Aside from the demeaning choice of words, Mr. Bruni seems to have discovered what I and most people who use a wheelchair already know--there is giant gulf between what is perceived to be accessible and reality. The barriers encountered are architectural--even 17 years after the ADA was passed--and attitudinal. For example, if a dining room is accessed by a wheelchair lift I will routinely encounter one of the following problems: the lift will be broken, the power turned off, the key used to operate it missing or the lift itself filled with trash or used as a storage closet. I have also learned that many restaraunts have what I call the "cripple table"--the one table where all people who use a wheelchair are directd to. Generally this table is in a corner and as far away from others diners as possible.

What Mr Bruni and his temporarily disabled friend with whom he dined fail to realize is that the ADA is not just about wheelchair lifts, elevators, and accessible bathrooms. The ADA is civil rights legislation first and foremost. Access is not provided because businesses want to be accessible out of the goodneess of their heart but rather due to the fact it is the law. Diners who use a wheelchair have the same rights as those that walk in the door--and those rights are violated on a daily basis. The violation of these rights are not, as Mr. Bruni writes, relatively minor inconveniences. Such "inconveniences" are illegal. Why is it okay to "inconvenience" a person who uses a wheelchair but socially unacceptable to make all black people sit in a particular area? Segregation eneded a long time ago for blacks but remains socially acceptable for crippled people. As for Mr. Bruni's temporarily disabled dinner guest, she too does not understand the meaning of access as required by the ADA. If she had a glimmer of understanding, she would not have carried a 12 pound fiberglass ramp with her to get into restaurants with a step or two. In carrying this ramp she is accepting a subserviant social status and sending a very bad message--access is an individual person's problem. Businesses need not be accessible, it is their problem not mine.

I appreciate Mr. Bruni's effort to understand the inherent problems diners who use a wheelchair encounter. I think he would be well served, pun intended, if he dined regularly with a person such as myself who has used a wheelchair for over thirty years. Like others who have thought long and hard about the inequities associated with using a wheelchair, I pereceive the ADA as it should be--ground breaking civil rights legislation. When businesses, restaurants and ordinary indviduals such as Mr. Bruni come to this realization, perhaps I will be able to dine out like any other bipedal person.

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