Access all areas: How to create an accessible, welcoming eating environment for all

Access all areas: How to create an accessible, welcoming eating environment for all

Our Eating and Drinking Guide reviewer Ellen Renton discusses the importance of disability access and the small, crucial steps every eatery can take to get it right

Every year, The List's reviewers visit around a thousand cafés, bars and restaurants across Edinburgh and Glasgow for our Eating & Drinking Guide. Checking disability access is just one of the areas they look at, but it's a critical issue for many.

Accessibility is complex, and often the conversations we need to have about it are sidestepped for fear of saying the wrong thing. We generally associate 'access' with the wheelchair symbol: in the restaurant world that might mean adding a wheelchair ramp or accessible toilet. But, according to Disability Sport, fewer than 8% of people with a disability use a wheelchair – and often even basic physical access needs aren't met. It's clear we need to rethink our cultural approach towards accessibility.

Getting access right isn't just about doing the right thing. With over 13 million disabled people living in the UK, failure to accommodate their access needs means alienating a huge potential market, as well as contributing to the exclusion of people with disabilities in our communities. As a partially sighted person, it's increasingly difficult for me to find fully accessible cafés and restaurants. Trends like mismatched furniture, cluttered layouts and overhead chalkboard menus have a real impact on my experience. Of course, layout and design are crucial elements to consider when trying to create the perfect atmosphere, but the apparent prioritisation of aesthetic over customers' comfort risks making people with disabilities like mine feel awkward and unwelcome.

Many places are getting things right though, and positive changes are afoot. May saw the opening of Sensoriale – a Kirkcaldy café specifically designed to provide an accessible sensory experience for every customer. As manager Melanie Lingwood explains, 'Sensoriale's mission is to be fully inclusive, and by fully inclusive we really do mean all disabilities. Our staff, who are all on the autistic spectrum, are learning sign language, and we're bringing in Braille menus. We want to raise awareness about disability generally.' Financed by crowd-funding, it's early days for the venue who admit they need to be welcomed by both disabled and non-disabled customers to make ends meet. But their approach is refreshing and a real example of what can be achieved.

While not every venue can purpose-build or make structural adaptations, details like cushion choice, remote-controlled lighting and providing sectioned plates are easily adopted. Edinburgh café Di Giorgio is one example of an operator trying hard to make small changes. Their proximity to The Yard, a play space for young people with disabilities, has made the café popular with members of the disabled community, and knowledgeable staff do what they can to provide assistance. For example, they balance their commitment to the environment with their commitment to customers by keeping back a small supply of plastic straws for those who can't drink without them (alternatives to plastic don't work for everyone).

These small details often make a huge difference, in particular signalling a welcoming attitude to customers with disabilities. No one wants to feel like a nuisance when they go out to eat. I don't want to bring a café to a standstill while a helpful member of staff reads me the entire menu from an illegible chalkboard on the other side of the room. I just want to enjoy my coffee and cake like everyone else.

A Di Giorgio
1 Brandon Terrace, Canonmills, Edinburgh, EH3 5AE
Smart and friendly family-run deli café adding a modern twist to traditional homemade Italian favourites.
B Sensoriale
28-30 Kirk Wynd, Kirkcaldy, KY1 2JF