Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, outdoor patios have become a defining feature of the restaurant industry. These patios were initially created as part of a temporary program aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19, allowing many restaurant attendees to dine outside at a safe physical distance. Their widespread popularity resulted in a unanimous vote by Vancouver city council to maintain the program permanently.
This decision to embrace outdoor patios has been met with mixed support. On one hand, outdoor dining spaces are typically perceived as a safe opportunity to gather and maintain social connections while simultaneously supporting the economic recovery of suffering restaurant businesses. However, often drowned out in this sea of praise are the voices of disabled folks, who have routinely raised concerns over the lack of accessibility at these patios.
The array of challenges many disabled folks have faced when navigating the outdoor dining scene prompts one to question who these patios are truly designed for and at whose expense.
Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants have been designated by the disabled community as spaces in desperate need of accessibility upgrades. As such, when the plan to create a temporary patio program was first proposed, disability advocates were hopeful that the program might be accompanied by improvements to restaurant accessibility. Yet despite this prospect of change, the program did little to address the needs of disabled folks and ended up worsening pre-existing accessibility issues.
Yasin and Fergusson, authors of “Pandemic Patios and “Flat White” Urbanism” attribute the construction of these inaccessible patios to the privileging of economic interests over all else. They suggest that the ableist structure of many restaurants is often overlooked “in favour of aesthetic improvements to the status quo.” As such, there is an evident disconnect between urban planning and the lived experiences of disabled communities.
Although private organizations such as restaurants have specific obligations to disabled folks under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, these obligations are often treated as mere suggestions and are rarely enforced. Due to these gaps in enforcement, accessibility standards vary from restaurant to restaurant, making the dining scene increasingly difficult for disabled folks to navigate.
Mobility Challenges and Physical Space Constraints
According to David Lepofsky, chair of Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) Alliance, outdoor patios compromise the mobility of disabled folks in two key ways.
First, restaurant patrons living with disabilities face barriers when it comes to the inaccessible physical architecture of the patios. Not only are the spaces between tables often too narrow to accommodate wheelchair users but “the tables themselves may not be high enough for wheelchairs to fit underneath” says Haley Flaro, executive director of Ability New Brunswick.
This concern was also raised by participants in our Dialogue Cafes (virtual discussions hosted through our Hot Pink Paper Campaign around a focused issue following a presentation from a leading changemaker in that field). During these discussions, Dialogue Cafe participants also highlighted the importance of wheelchair ramps, stating that any sets of stairs on the patio must be accompanied by a ramp.
The second accessibility challenge Lepofsky identifies for outdoor patios is their placement, which is often in the middle of the street or blocking a sidewalk. Patios that block the sidewalk place many disabled folks in a situation that resembles “a game of Pac-Man” (Richards), where the structure of the patio paired with its proximity to the road limits the ability of disabled folks to move freely.
This is particularly problematic, as many disabled folks are often forced to travel on busy streets and navigate potentially hazardous surrounding areas simply just to get around the patio. Di Meglio, a visually impaired individual from Ontario states that he almost got hit by a truck when navigating the obstacle course-like layout of a pop-up outdoor patio. However, despite multiple calls to the city following this traumatic incident, Di Meglio has noted no changes to the safety of these patios (Campbell).
Vision and Hearing Challenges
Many of these outdoor patios also fall short when it comes to accommodating individuals living with disabilities characterized by challenges with vision and hearing. In an article for Eater, Peneliope Richards notes that menus with large print are not commonplace, making it increasingly difficult for individuals with vision loss to read about the products the restaurant provides.
Dialogue Cafe participants also cited the need for colour contrasts on outdoor patios to ensure that all diners are able to navigate their surroundings safely.
Similarly, patios are often "very frustrating" from the perspective of folks with hearing challenges says Lee Pigeau, national executive director of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association. The combination of music, traffic noise, and loud voices can become overwhelming and make communication all the more difficult.
Recommendations for Improving Patio Accessibility
Hold restaurants to account for their commitments to upholding accessibility standards. Stronger enforcement of accessibility regulations may not only limit the number of accessibility violations on outdoor patios but will set a better standard for the treatment of disabled folks in public spaces.
Listen to people with disabilities and take the time to learn about accessibility and how it can best be respected in and around dining spaces. This includes ensuring that ALL restaurant staff are educated and properly trained when it comes to accessibility standards and procedures.
Build outdoor patios with accessibility as a priority rather than an afterthought. There are plenty of resources to help with the design process, including the following website: http://www.designable.ca/accessible-patio-design.html
As warm weather rolls around the corner, it is important that disabled folks are able to access these summer patios as easily as their able-bodied counterparts.
We hope to see more genuine commitments to accessibility made on behalf of the restaurant industry and encourage the municipal government to better support the delivery of ability-inclusive services in Vancouver.
Campbell, Ian. “Visually Impaired Man in Sudbury Narrowly Avoids Injury with Downtown Pop-up Patio.” Northern Ontario, CTV News, 29 July 2020, https://northernontario.ctvnews.ca/visually-impaired-man-in-sudbury-narrowly-avoids-injury-with-downtown-pop-up-patio-1.5042693.
“Designable Environments Inc..” DesignABLE Environments Inc., 19 June 2020, http://www.designable.ca/accessible-patio-design.html.
“How to Create an Accessible Outdoor Patio (COVID-19)” DesignABLE Environments Inc., 19 June 2020, http://www.designable.ca/accessible-patio-design.html.
Paling, Emma. “Pandemic-Era Patios Still Too Often Inaccessible, Disability Advocates Say.” CBC News, CBC/Radio Canada, 7 Aug. 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/pandemic-era-patios-still-too-often-inaccessible-disability-advocates-say-1.6132490.
Richards, Peneliope. “If Restaurants Can Build a Sidewalk Shed, They Can Accommodate Disabled Diners.” Eater, 22 June 2021, https://www.eater.com/2021/6/22/22538850/pandemic-restaurants-disability-accommodation-ada-guidelines.
Yasmin, Amina, and Daniella Fergusson. “Pandemic Patios and ‘Flat White’ Urbanism - Cip-Icu.ca.” Canadian Institute of Planners, 2020, https://www.cip-icu.ca/getmedia/24aff5ee-8307-4d97-bf47-deb535afde81/Pandemic_Patios_PlanCanada_Winter2020.aspx.