ADA compliance in restaurants

As of 2015 a reported 12.6% of the U.S. population—or, about 40 million people—has some type of physical or cognitive disability. The food service industry is one of the top four job areas in which people with disabilities are employed; along with retail, landscaping, and janitorial work, these industries employ about 60% of the disabled community

With the higher-than-average turnover in the restaurant industry, turning only to able-bodied and neurotypical populations as potential employees not only violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it is simply a bad business practice. Your customer base is made up of people from all walks of life—why shouldn’t your staff reflect that image back? 

Ensure Your Restaurant is ADA-Compliant

Before you can welcome any disabled staff or customers into your restaurant, you need to make sure they’ll have the same type of experience that a non-disabled person would. This means eliminating all barriers, both physical and otherwise, from the customer experience.

You might be wondering why so many restaurants are allowed to stay open and in business while they are clearly not following the rules of the ADA. This is partly because the agency doesn’t have the bandwidth to go around looking for violations in the more than one million restaurants in the U.S.—rather, they rely on citizens to call in and report violations and even then it is time-consuming and difficult. 

Many people don’t have the time or energy to call in every restaurant that is not accessible to them so they generally will just not visit non-compliant businesses. To make sure you being inclusive to everyone at your restaurant, you need to meet the following accommodations at the very least.

  • ADA-compliant parking spaces that are close to the building and have ample room for vehicles with wheelchair ramps.
  • ADA-compliant building entrance that is flush to the ground or at the end of a ramp with a slight slope and safety rails. If this is not possible at your main entrance but your employee entrance is accessible, make that door clearly available to patrons with disabilities.
  • ADA-compliant doors and walkways should be at least 36-inches wide to accommodate for wheelchairs.
  • ADA-compliant restaurant tables should available for wheelchairs users that don’t require them or their friends to move any furniture around.
  • Include an automatic option for doors or, if that is not possible, a solution that makes it easy to open the door and maneuver a wheelchair at the same time.
  • Have ADA-compliant menus available including ones that are in braille, photo-only, and colorblind-friendly (if your regular design is not already). Make sure your website is accessible in the same ways!
  • Have at least one ADA-compliant restroom that is clearly marked with both visual and braille signage.
  • Hold regular disability sensitivity trainings for your staff so they are able to provide the same level of hospitality to all guests.

Implementing some of these accommodations can be costly, but keep in mind that there are tax benefits available to you to help cover the costs of renovating your location to become ADA-compliant. 

For some businesses, it isn’t possible to make these updates to your restaurant—maybe landlords won’t allow it, it’s a historically protected building, or there simply isn’t space. You can still do your best to serve disabled guests by providing a top-notch, accessible online ordering system with a variety of delivery and pickup options.

ADA compliance in restaurants

Hiring Employees with Disabilities

In some states, it may be required to go through a vocational agency in order to hire someone with certain types of disabilities, so make sure you are well-versed on the rules before reaching out to potential new hires in the community. It’s also a best practice, when posting the job description, to make it abundantly clear that those with disabilities are not just welcome, but encouraged to apply.

The interview process

While some disabilities are apparent upon first meeting someone, not all types are visible. It’s illegal for you as an owner or manager to ask about someone’s disability status during the interview process. However, once a job offer has been accepted you may ask if they are in need of reasonable accommodations—just make sure you are asking this of all new hires, not just the ones you assume may need it.  

Making reasonable accommodations

The ADA requires you to make reasonable accommodations to disabled employees in order to allow them to perform their jobs. This means that you must work with the employee to either modify the way in which their job is done or, if those accommodations don’t work, move them to a different position if one is available.

For example, if you own a quick service restaurant and you hire an employee who is proficient at working the cash register and has great customer service skills, but struggles to be on their feet for an extended period of time, providing a chair for them to sit in while they work is a simple solution. Providing that chair allows them to continue to do their job without causing you a major financial burden. 

If for any reason that employee is still unable to perform their job tasks, but you have a prep position that may be better suited to them, then you should move them to that open position to better accommodate their needs. 

Download the free Stellar Guide to Guest Communication to make sure all your customers’ voices are being heard.

Finding strengths in every employee

Some folks may not be able to do everything, but everyone can do something. If a restaurant owner or manager has had limited interactions with people who have disabilities they may be wary of hiring them out of fear or misunderstanding. 

However, with a current wave of successful businesses operating with disability-inclusive staffs (see some examples below!) it’s clear that those with differing abilities are thriving in this industry. Training is an essential part of success for both your disabled and non-disabled employees alike, so it’s important to hire a trainer who specializes in training those with different needs to ensure everyone is set up for success.

Disability-inclusive Restaurant Staffs

Bitty & Beau’s Coffee – Wilmington, NC; Charleston, SC; and Savannah, GA

Owner Amy Wright employs 80 individuals with differing abilities across her three locations, with a fourth slated to open in Annapolis, MD in Fall 2019. Her business is named after the two youngest of her four children, who both have Downs Syndrome. “With over 80% of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) unemployed nationwide, Beau’s Coffee created a path for people with IDD to become more valued, accepted and included in every community.” 


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Brewability Lab – Denver, CO

Brewability is a beer brewing company that employs adults with developmental disabilities in every aspect of their business to growing hops to giving brewery tours to guests. Their website states, “We proudly offer a disability friendly and blind friendly bar, with a founding history of providing training, support, and entertainment for adults with disabilities by introducing them to the ever growing industry of custom crafted beer.”


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Howdy Homemade – Dallas, TX and Salt Lake City, UT

This two-location ice cream shop, according to their website, “is on a relentless pursuit to provide employment for individuals with special needs.” Their belief that the restaurant industry is about “people first, then food” seems to be working out very well for them—the owners have helped open 13 restaurants and counting in the past two decades. 


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Puzzles Bakery & Cafe – Schenectady, NY

When owner Sara Pratt realized that there weren’t a lot of job opportunities out there for her sister, who is on the Autism spectrum, she decided to create one. “In addition to serving delicious food, the bakery-café provides adults with developmental disabilities with an opportunity for personal growth, as well as a source of income, social interaction, and a sense of purpose,” says the Puzzles website.


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Universo Santi – Cádiz, Spain

Universo Santi is an “Haute Cuisine School and organic garden” run by Regina Santamaría, daughter of the late Chef Santi Santamaría, the first-ever Catalan chef to earn three Michelin stars. “There was no better way to pay tribute to my father than to continue cooking and making food guests enjoy while working for a society in which we all have a place, whatever our condition,” Regina says.


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Starbucks – Washington, DC

In 2018 Starbucks opened a location in the nation’s capital that employs an all-deaf or hard-of-hearing staff fluent in ASL, has uniforms custom-embroidered by a deaf supplier, carries exclusive merchandise featuring artwork by deaf artists, and is designed to be sign-language friendly, which includes an open concept design with low-glare surfaces.


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You can control the conversation and change the way guest communication is handled with proper staff training.

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Stephanie is a Providence, RI native and eight-year food industry veteran. As Upserve's Content Marketing Coordinator she creates materials that help restaurateurs, managers, and service professionals succeed. When she's not writing, Stephanie is most likely traveling, cooking, or trying new restaurants.