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Sidewalk seating is good for restaurants. It’s a challenge for disabled people.

Patio chairs and tables are stacked up outside a restaurant in downtown Salt Lake City, UT. (Kim Raff/FTWP)

Lucy Trieshmann, a law student at New York University, walks her dog about four times a day. Trieshmann uses an electric wheelchair, and those trips involve making her way around and through many of the sidewalk restaurants that have been set up near her home in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.  

“One of the really big problems is the tables are so close to the curb that there is often barely room for me to squeeze by,” Trieshmann said. “Certainly not me and my dog. And certainly not me and a person walking towards me.” 

She isn’t alone. While sidewalk dining has helped keep restaurants afloat over the last year and a half, it has also transformed pedestrian thoroughfares in cities around the country, narrowing pathways, cluttering concrete with cables and equipment, and clogging the flow of traffic as servers come and go. Those obstacles have introduced new challenges into the lives of many people with disabilities, making the difficulties of negotiating urban spaces that much harder. The issue demonstrates how cities too often see the needs of disabled people — who are also among the most vulnerable in the pandemic — as unimportant, while they try to make life convenient for everyone else. Even in normal times, disabled people tend to be treated as afterthoughts, but in many cities during the pandemic, their needs have simply not been factored in at all. 

“Sometimes you might even have a piece of the sidewalk when it’s cracked,” said Dustin Jones, a member of the board of directors for the Center for Independence of the Disabled, NY, who uses a manual wheelchair. “And where you could normally avoid it, now you can’t, because you’re being pushed off, either towards the road or you’re being pushed off towards the building facade itself.”

At many establishments, outdoor dining areas have canopies whose supports are braced against the sidewalk, which are also hard to navigate. And as Trieshmann points out, even when you can move through an area, doing so can present other risks. The buildouts of many restaurants make it difficult for people to remain socially distanced on sidewalks, since steering around obstacles can bring wheelchair users like her into closer contact with other people than might be comfortable, even during these seemingly waning days of the pandemic.  

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The Americans With Disabilities Act mandates that sidewalks be at least 36 inches wide. But Mia Ives-Rublee, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, said that often is insufficient because as many restaurants expand outdoors, they aren’t thinking about those requirements. As sidewalk seating sprung up quickly during the pandemic, there wasn’t much guidance on how to make sidewalks accessible, she said.  

Ives-Rublee is adamant that discussing the lack of accessibility isn’t a matter of pitting businesses against disabled people. By the same token, Jones said the restrictions make him less likely to visit certain areas.  

“That’s not fair, because I might want to patronize my favorite ice cream store, but there’s a diner that’s blocking him,” said Jones, whose wheelchair can be difficult to maneuver around “chairs and tables, and people walking around serving them with hot food.” 

In theory, there are mechanisms for enforcing the rules against such barriers. But the problem, Ives-Rublee said, is that government in general doesn’t play an active role in enforcing the ADA. People have to put in complaints and wait for officials to review them. That puts an even bigger burden on the people affected by violations.  

“I think unfortunately, like with a lot of things, the burden falls on disabled people themselves to come up with the solution and address it, because nobody’s going to do it for us,” Trieshmann said. “I think something that would be super helpful is just making sure that people know where to report things like that.” 

That assumes disabled people even want to get into it with business owners in their neighborhoods and communities. “I don’t want to have a confrontation with every single restaurant owner who’s just trying to survive right now as well, that lives down the block from me that I want to support,” Trieshmann said. 

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Some cities are trying to make their sidewalks more accessible. Hannah Schafer, a communications coordinator for Portland’s Bureau of Transportation, said the Oregon city has a rigorous process to ensure that businesses leave room for pedestrians: “If we do receive a complaint, we send an inspector out to measure and take pictures. Then we contact the business and share what we’ve learned, and we require them to make those changes and send pictures back to us that show that they’ve made those accommodations.” Afterward, the city sends another inspector out. 

Disability rights activists in Seattle have pushed to make sure dining establishments there are more accessible, and the group Disability Rights Washington produced a video with the city describing how much clearance to leave on streets and how to place chairs to maintain accessibility, among other things. Anna Zivarts, director of the group’s Disability Mobility Initiative, said the video wasn’t released until January, when the weather for outdoor dining wasn’t ideal. “But considering we’re still in pandemic mode, I’m hoping that it continues to get used to educate cafe owners,” Zivarts said.  

The outdoor dining issue underscores how easily some cities appear to disregard what disabled people need. “Especially in the West or in cities that aren’t New York or D.C. in the U.S., there’s this assumption that everyone drives everywhere,” Zivarts said. “Many disabled folks can’t drive. So sidewalks are how we get around.”

That will remain just as true after the pandemic. As we look forward to whatever comes next, we can hope that cities will learn from the challenges that people with disabilities are facing now. As cities resume indoor dining, some outdoor setups are likely to stay in place, which means disabled people probably have to continue to adapt to whatever bars and restaurants decide. But the right to move freely supersedes the right to go out to eat. We may not be able to anticipate the next pandemic, but we can ensure that sidewalks are navigable, no matter how the world stretches and contorts itself in response to current events.

Twitter: @EricMGarcia

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