You may hear friends complain about how hard it is to get in their favorite restaurant because of slim reservation openings post-Covid. But for some Charlestonians, the challenges of getting into a trendy restaurant is literal because they have a disability that makes entry an impossible dream.
Charleston is known for its cute cobblestone streets and narrow, colorful historic buildings. But the city that is a tourist’s dream is a disability nightmare.
“I think the downtown part of Charleston is not as accessible as other cities,” said Alex Jackson, a Charleston accessibility advocate, who gets around in a motorized wheelchair.
For people with mobility issues, and for their friends, the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) on Meeting Street offers a list of accessible restaurants, but the list is self-reported and circumstances can change, said Janet Schumacher, the city of Charleston’s American with Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinator.
Many mobility challenges
Even with restaurants offering accessibility, mobility challenges can arise before getting to the restaurant.
“It can be hard to find a taxi that is able to take my chair,” Jackson said. “The first question you ought to ask when you’re going out is whether there is accessibility parking near the restaurant.”
Elevations to get to the entrance are supposed to be less than a half inch to be ADA-compliant, but Jackson said an amazing number of restaurant staffers seem to think that if he could step out of his chair for a moment, they could lift the chair over the step.
“It’s not going to happen. I can’t get out of the chair and the chair itself is 250 pounds,” Jackson, who has a spinal injury from a traffic accident when he was 9 months old. “I’ve had to go through back alleys and in through the kitchen before. It’s not a very attractive way to enter a restaurant on a night out.”
He said a portable ramp could solve that problem, but Schumacher said even that might be an issue for downtown restaurants, as steps are not high enough to adequately accommodate the height of a ramp.
Even without steps at the entrance, the ADA calls for an entry door that is 32- to 36-inches wide so that a wheelchair will clear it, but because restaurants in historic buildings aren’t allowed to destroy historic materials to create accessible venues, doors remain metaphorically closed to those with disabilities.
“I always feel like people who use the historic thing as a reason are just selling away their imaginations,” Schumacher said. “If the door frame can’t be destroyed, hinge the whole frame so the frame itself swings. Or find an alternative entrance.”
Schumacher gave The Grocery high marks for having a doorbell that calls staff to open a more accessible entry away from the restaurant’s front door. Next to Magnolias restaurant on East Bay Street is a cobblestone alley but right down the middle is a smooth stretch of concrete, suitable for rolling a chair. Even Brasserie la Banque at One Broad St., which she said, has many stairs at its historic entrance, has a lift around the side that can elevate chairs to the dining level.
“There are no barriers if you put your imagination to it,” she said.
Seating and bathrooms
Once inside a restaurant, Schumacher said seating is important.
“I always ask if they have a way to seat a wheelchair that doesn’t have someone sticking out into the aisle,” she said. “And I ask if they have tables, because those cute little bistro tables offer you no stability if you’re trying to stand. You have to think: Transitions, standing from sitting, or in and out of the car or house — that’s the scariest time for us from a safety perspective.”
One big barrier for people with disabilities is the restaurant bathroom, often tucked down stairs or in a tiny hallway. Not everyone uses their compliance budget on the bathroom, and even when they do, such as at The Grocery, Schumacher said, “sometimes the restaurant staff is busy, and they will put things in front of the bathroom or in the halls to the bathroom. If you have a reservation somewhere, alert them to the fact that someone in your party may have to use the retrofitted bathroom.”
Jackson said he tries to plan his meals so he doesn’t have to even use the restroom.
“That’s usually a whole different hurdle. I make sure to go beforehand and then go somewhere else afterward. … Restaurant owners need to make sure that all of their customers have equal access.”
One key, as with any dining out experience, is well-trained and empathetic staff.
“I like to go to CODfather [in North Charleston],” Jackson said. “Even though it’s a little tight inside, the staff is amazing, even down fixing my drinks since it takes me a bit longer with my right arm and hand, which is the only extremity I can use. They make sure I have all my condiments handy, that kind of thing.”
Schumacher said the best strategy is to communicate with staff in advance, but even that can be difficult with so many restaurants not answering phones and directing callers to online apps like Resy that don’t have a way to search for restaurants with special accommodations.
Still, Charleston is better than it used to be. And both Schumacher and Jackson say they have favorite fall-back restaurants where they know they are welcome and comfortable.
For Jackson, who says he’s a foodie, it’s the CODfather. Other top spots include DIG in the Park, EVO Pizza, Taco Boy and Mex 1 in Westh Ashley.
For Schumacher, it’s The Grocery.
“Right there by the door they have a sign with the international depiction for a person with a disability and you ring the doorbell.”
Schumacher and Jackson agree it’s important to communicate and advocate in advance. But even then, all it takes is one careless person pushing chairs into what should be a clear hallway to make a dinner turn out unappetizing.
The CVB offers this list of ADA-compliant restaurants, but call first and make sure the compliance fits your needs, Schumacher and Jackson say.
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