In the 17 years I’ve been writing about restaurants, many people have complained to me about menus with print so fine they can barely make it out and restaurants that are too dark to safely navigate or too loud to hear the conversation at their tables. Dining establishments have made improvements on all of these fronts as more of them install sound-dampening fabric panels, put pendant lights over tables and increase the font size on their menus.
Still, challenges remain for eaters who use wheelchairs, walkers or those cool new knee-scooters for people with leg injuries. And in a town that is home to an increasing number of retirees, mobility is becoming a more important issue in Santa Fe.
Aren't buildings required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and be accessible to everyone? Well, yeah, new ones are. But many of Santa Fe's charming restaurants are in older, historic buildings. Businesses in older buildings are required to remove physical barriers to people with disabilities—if they can do it without much difficulty or expense—but the regulations aren't specific about what's difficult or expensive, says Andy Winnegar, a Santa Fe consultant who specializes in accessibility issues. If the building is remodeled it must be brought up to the standards of the ADA, but off-the-books remodels can slip through the cracks.
Navigating a wheelchair through an older building can be a hassle. Laura McCarthy has often had to park her son's wheelchair outside a narrow bathroom door and carry him in. "Frankly we don't mind maneuvering ourselves into tight spaces when the staff is as helpful and as accommodating as they can be," she says.
Unfortunately, that's not always the case. One Easter she took her son out to brunch at a courtyard restaurant downtown. She had called ahead to let the restaurant know they'd be arriving with a power wheelchair and was assured it would be fine. But when they got there, things weren't so easy.
The restaurant was remodeling and they had to take a circuitous path through the courtyard to their table. "In order to make way for my son, I had to single-handedly move several beer kegs and crates in order to create a pathway ... with nearby waitstaff watching but not offering to help," she says.
Calling ahead is a great way to find out details about access or to let the staff know you might need extra help. If the restaurant has a heads-up that you're coming, it's easier for them to set aside a taller table that a wheelchair can fit under, for example, or arrange a table in a quiet corner where distractions won't interrupt a conversation for diners who read lips.
Some restaurants go out of their way to accommodate customers with disabilities and they reap the rewards of an extremely loyal clientele. Winnegar loves Café Pasqual's, where even though steps make part of the restaurant off-limits to wheelchairs, the staff's commitment to welcoming differently-abled diners has made it a favorite. McCarthy raves about the Plaza Café Southside. "They go out of their way to find accessible, easy-to-get-to tables … and will pretty much bring us anything we ask for (bendy straw, smaller cup, plate, etc.) with a smile," she says.
Winnegar wrote a story last year about a man with a spinal cord injury who asked Tomasita's to help make it easier for him to get his wheelchair into the restaurant—and they responded by paving a small piece of the gravel parking lot right next to the front door. That was in the early 1980s, and he is still touched by the response.
Also, restaurant staff should remember (or be trained to know) that a physical disability is often just that—physical.
"Sometimes when people see a visible physical disability, the assumption is that there is also a mental or developmental disability," says Naomi Montoya. She remembers going out to eat with a friend who had muscular dystrophy. "I was always appalled when people would take my order then ask me what she wanted. I would say, 'I don't know. Ask her.'"
Mary Clark reads lips but sometimes has to ask her husband to repeat what a server said if she didn't understand it. She also doesn't like it when servers ask him what she wants to eat. Her children grew up to be particularly sensitive to the physical challenges of those around them.
"I have one daughter who was a server for a few years and she was good with making sure she spoke slowly and looked directly at the diner," Clark says. "Often she would crouch so her own face was a table height, to enable them to see her better."