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5 Simple and Affordable Ways to Enhance the Experience for Disabled Guests

It’s not about building ramps. It’s about building relationships.

Last year, I took my mother out to dinner. For most people, that’s an easy task. You agree on a time, you meet, you sit down and you eat. But my mother is paralyzed from the waist down, and taking her out is a big deal.

That night, we went to an upscale restaurant chain. My name was called, and the hostess guided us to a booth. I explained that we needed a table to accommodate my mom’s wheelchair – information I already provided when I booked the table weeks prior. The hostess said they gave all of the tables away and that we’d have to wait another hour for one to become available.

Establishments can avoid these pitfalls and create a positive guest experience without having to spend a lot of money. What people like us need – those living with disabilities and their caregivers who are tasked with taking them out – is understanding. From things like sensitive dialogue to table setup, you can affect a guest’s quality of life just by making them feel considered. Here are some suggestions to improve the experience for guests who need accommodations…

1. Always keep a table open

You never know when someone with special accessibility needs will come in, and being ready can prevent a potentially uncomfortable situation like mine. Do this even if you have a packed house. Guests will ultimately respect the fact that you are reserving a table for this purpose and might admire your company more for doing it.

2. Space is everything

When I’m with my mom, I always scan the environment for potential challenges navigating her wheelchair. Narrow spaces are a nightmare. It’s especially frustrating if a chair is sticking out or the floor is littered with objects. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that “continuous clear” pathways be 36 inches wide, but going above and beyond these regulations creates a sense of freedom for wheelchair users. And when guests are comfortable somewhere, especially ones whose needs are often neglected, they keep coming back.

3. Lower your signage

so patrons at wheelchair height can see flyers, menus, and other notices. Oftentimes I find myself in hotel elevators reading about happy hours or holiday events. Does your establishment post this information at eye level? Whose eye level? Those confined to a seated position or unable to stand upright will appreciate access to your marketing material and are more likely to engage with it.

4. Adapt to needs quickly and calmly

Teach staff to anticipate needs. Something as simple as serving glasses of water without straws can create a barrier for a guest with special needs. If there’s an issue, attend to it in a time-sensitive manner. Make sure to ask about special requests as soon as the interaction begins. Whether they are checking in or settling at a table, this moment of attentiveness sets the tone for the type of service guests should expect.

5. Train staff on how to speak with disabled guests

The disabled community considers some terms more appropriate than others. At Disney, cast members are instructed to never point using only one finger because there are cultures that interpret this as an offensive gesture. Intentional training on words, phrases, and even visual signals can bridge the gap of understanding. For example, asking disabled guests to move to a different area or perform a physical task should be approached in a sensitive manner.

The restaurant chain we were at provided ramps. They had accessible icons plastered on the main entrance and restroom doors. They even had a section (albeit a very small one) of their bar built at wheelchair height. But what they did not serve that evening was empathy.

When it was clear my mom’s wheelchair wouldn’t fit at the head of the booth, the hostess suggested I take my mother out of her chair and “slide her” into the booth seat.

In this heart-sinking moment, the restaurant staff did not consider the complication and risk involved in transporting my mother out of her wheelchair. They didn’t ask about my mom’s physical limitations, so they didn’t know that she can’t hold herself upright without her gait belt securely fastened around her chair like a seatbelt. The table’s placement wouldn’t allow me to position myself in front of her, making it impossible for me to lift her. And even if I could, the difference in height between her wheelchair seat and the booth seat posed a danger of her falling in between.

The big takeaway: A poor guest experience kills repeat business

We left, and I vowed never to come back.

My mom didn’t need any major architectural rehauls or even for her food to be prepared in a special way. She needed empathy.

Inclusion is not just a social imperative. It’s good business. Open yourself up to a new community of guests while affirming your brand reputation. You won’t have to spend much at all to make sure everyone can enjoy your services. It’s a win-win.