I’ve never seen anyone relish a restaurant like Jonathan O’Grady. He glows with the pleasure of eating. And no it’s not a booze glow. There is no wine. Eating with him is an education in enjoyment and an eye opener into precisely how lucky I am to be able to walk in, sit down at a table and order dinner.
O’Grady has never walked. Born with spinal muscular atrophy, his condition is progressing gradually as his muscles lose their strength. “I used to be able to lift a pint of Guinness. Now I have to drink it through a straw,” is his pithy summing up of his life. How does Guinness taste through a straw? “It’s fine but you get pissed very quickly.”
It’s typical of the answers from the man across the table from me in The Fish Shop on Dublin’s Queen Street (soon to be relocating to Tullamore). What he doesn’t say is that an assistant has to put his straw to his lips, along with every forkful of food he eats. Tonight Boby Thomas, one of his four assistants, is feeding O’Grady so deftly it becomes barely noticeable. We are three people eating a meal together. And that, for O’Grady, is the joy.
“I always like to say at the table everyone’s equal. We’re all sitting down and we’re here for the food. We can look across the table at one another as equals.”
The ability to eat in a nice restaurant may not be everyone’s priority, O’Grady appreciates. “But if we want to create an inclusive society, when we go out for dinner we need to see all of society,” he says. “It’s no good an architect going out for dinner and never seeing anyone in a wheelchair. People with disabilities will consequently not be in that architect’s mind’s eye, and the cycle continues.” And so it goes for town planners, lawmakers, employers. When we factor in our aging society access is “a problem with significant reach”.
Over the weeks that follow, O’Grady keeps in touch, sending me a brilliant piece from the Guardian by journalist Emily Yates describing her visit to Breda, a Dutch city that has made accessibility a priority. She sees shopkeepers putting out their portable ramps when they roll up their shutters in the morning. Instead of congratulating themselves on what they’ve achieved, the Dutch are determined to do more.
He sends a New York Times opinion piece by Andrew Soloman, a Columbia professor who describes disability as the glass ceiling with “the fewest cracks in it”. A quote from Soloman sums up O’Grady’s love of restaurants. “Some have rich lives despite their disability,” Soloman writes, “but others would say they have rich lives at least in part because of their disability.”
O'Grady knows he doesn't speak for all wheelchair users, but the lack of a wheelchair toilet will not rule out a restaurant for him
O’Grady knows he doesn’t speak for all wheelchair users, but the lack of a wheelchair toilet will not rule out a restaurant for him. “The business of not having a step and being able to get in is 90 per cent. The rest is just frills,” he says. In truth, he hates wheelchair toilets “with the stupid sink and bars up the wazzoo”. Even the newer facilities can be too small to accommodate his wheelchair and assistant. “I have to pee with the door open in Dundrum shopping centre, and if Dundrum with its billions can’t get it right, how is a neighbourhood restaurant going to manage?”
He has eaten in many countries and travelled widely when his condition was milder. In 2006 he moved from Switzerland to live in Boston. “There were a number of places I couldn’t get into, the places with character mainly.” And the new places “had about as much charm as an overcooked fried egg.” A waiter in one Dublin basement restaurant once offered to lift him down the steps when he rang to inquire about access. “It’s an electric wheelchair, I told him. Ain’t nobody lifting me unless you’re a crane.”
He wonders if restaurants are fearful of using portable ramps because “they think they are going to have to build a toilet”.
Journalist Louise Bruton chipped away at the glass ceiling of disability with her cleverly named Legless in Dublin blog. It was a way to do something useful with all the research she'd had to compile for her own nights out with friends. Instead of a yes or no answer on access (which reviews like ours have traditionally done), she needed more information: the dimensions of the bathroom, whether the chairs had arms, what the turning spaces were like, how it was floored, and the presence or absence of steps, slopes or bumps. In an information age, this was information the restaurants themselves could provide, but they weren't.
She stopped writing the blog partly because it was self-funded, “and as much as I’d love to, I couldn’t afford to go out eating every week”. But she also grew disheartened at not seeing the information she was offering implemented in new places opening. “It was quite infuriating. It didn’t seem that Dublin was getting better.” That situation has only worsened with rising restaurant rents, as smaller operators are forced into basements or in smaller places.
Bruton would like to see planning inspections introduced when buildings change hands, “if someone could come in to assess a building instead of things just being handed over”. Part of the thinking behind her blog was to give people as much information as possible. “I felt like what was okay for me wouldn’t be okay for other people. Disability is such a big ranging thing.”
You can make accessibility features a very cool design feature
In the information age, it doesn’t seem a huge ask to restaurants to provide as much information as they can. “Access is the best kept secret for restaurants ... that’s where restaurants could be doing a lot better.” Classy restaurants, she says, may not want to talk about toilets. “But they make such lovely websites they could just add another tab called ‘Access’.”
“You can make accessibility features a very cool design feature,” Bruton says. In her review of the National Gallery, she describes how it “manages to combine modern design with a building that was opened in 1864 and make it perfectly accessible. The National Gallery of Ireland is the greatest when it comes to access. If I could give 100 points [she marks out of 10] I would.”
Restaurants spend money on design features such as light fixtures or imported tiles, Bruton says. “Maybe they can focus on someone coming through the door rather than on the light fittings.”
It’s clear we need a new accessibility lens to apply to the restaurants and cafes we love, and there is a very good business reason for those places to take a hard look at themselves. “There’s a huge loyalty with access,” Bruton explains. “I will keep returning to places with decent access.”
And that’s not one customer. It’s that person in a wheelchair and the friends and family they’re eating with. Even when the wheelchair accessible infrastructure is in place it needs to be maintained. She has encountered situations where the wheelchair toilet is used as a storage space for boxes, or the disabled lift as a place where staff keep their bikes. “I just show up and you can see everyone’s jaws drop and then they never do it again.”
She worked as a consultant for a while but found that dispiriting. Restaurant owners came to her talks and sessions with very good intentions but they were slow to do any of the things she was telling them needed doing. “These are physical adjustments and it needs money. It’s both a lack of empathy and a fear of doing it wrong.” One restaurant in Galway told her they were worried about an insurance claim if they installed a ramp.
It hasn’t all been negative. In a review of Pablo Picante on Dublin’s Clarendon Row, Bruton noted that they only had high tables. The following week the cafe put in a low counter at the window.
Her heart sinks when high tables and communal seating become trends. They cut out people who can’t hop on a stool.
What cities do it well? “Paris is a no-go zone for me,” she says. “It’s all skinny and towering buildings. Barcelona down the seafront is good. But then that’s gentrification, and you realise what’s good for me might not be good for local culture. LA was great.
“In areas of the States where they’re quite proud of veteran soldiers there’s a widespread acknowledgement of the importance of wheelchair access,” she adds. As a result “certain pockets of Texas” are great for wheelchair users.
Tokyo struck her as “a city that’s always striving for perfection”, so while food was being served in tiny restaurants, the transport network had state of the art public toilets which made these tiny restaurants accessible.
Properly maintained public toilets provide small businesses with a facility to operate in tiny premises, and remain accessible. Belfast has 14 public toilets in the city, 13 of which are wheelchair accessible. The removal of public toilets from Dublin streets has had a huge affect on disabled people, she says. “The city is so small, if public toilets were brought in you could plan an evening out so much more easily.”
She has a complicated mental map of the nearby businesses with accessible toilets. “I can go for a pint in Grogan’s because there are bathrooms in the Market Bar the next street over.” At the Honest to Goodness market in Glasnevin, a large shared wheelchair toilet means small food operators, who could never afford such a facility, can now offer food that’s accessible to everyone.
Planning regulations could help change things. Peter Hogan, co-owner of The Fish Shop, says their generous wheelchair toilet was a stipulation of their planning. Because they’re building was a “change of use” to a restaurant, they had to install it.
Irish Times reader Paddy Boyce is continually annoyed when I give high marks to inaccessible restaurants. He was particularly struck by the review of Pi Pizza. "So this is the best pizza in Dublin? What I said to myself was, anybody in a wheelchair can't actually eat in this pizza place in Dublin." He built wheelchair access into the former Iveagh Baths back in the 1990s when he developed it into a private gym, he says. Accessibility is not rocket science, even in an old building. 14 Henrietta Street, Dublin's tenement museum, maintained the historic look of the building, which dates from the 1740s, but also installed a lift for access.
Belfast reader Edna McMinn also sees red when I give top marks to an inaccessible restaurant. “In this day and age, how can you say a restaurant is really good,” she emails, “when it is completely inaccessible to someone in a wheelchair? Why doesn’t [your reviewer] just say that certain places are just for fit, able-bodied diners?”
Neither Boyce nor McMinn are wheelchair users, but feel accessibility is crucial to running good businesses. As part of her work with a carers company, McMinn inspected public toilets. She was frequently annoyed to find the wheelchair toilet often didn’t have a mirror, “as if just because you’re in a wheelchair you don’t need to put your lipstick on”.
She respects the small restaurants that set aside space for wheelchair toilets and good access. They will win her favour every time.
As a result of these conversations, The Irish Times recently added an accessibility rating to our restaurant reviews. Marks out of five are now given. Five is a fully accessible restaurant or cafe with a wheelchair toilet. A score of two is a venue with an accessible room but no wheelchair toilet (ie no steps or obstacles to entry, appropriate table height and turning space). Zero is given for no access and no toilet.