In order for a restaurant to be considered accessible, the premises must be "reachable and enterable by all who so desire," says Gus Reed of the James McGregor Stewart Society (jmcgs.blogspot.com). "And patrons may want to use the washroom," he continues, "so there needs to be an acceptable facility."
These would seem to be pretty basic standards, but upon closer inspection, a surprising number of HRM eateries are not accessible. No ramps, narrow doors, cramped washrooms, tables crowded close together---all common situations.
I spoke with three Halifax-area restaurateurs who currently have non-accessible eateries. (All declined to be named.) The number one reason given was the cost factor: Restaurants have a very low profit margin, especially in the first few years of business, and the cost of ramps, accessible washrooms and wider doors is prohibitive.
"If the building is not already accessible, then it's probably not ever going to be. The cost of renovation is too much," says one. "I can't afford it," confesses another. "I hate to sound heartless, but it's too much money for just a few people."
Reed responds to the money issue with a blunt "Not my problem," and cites the Charter of Rights & Freedoms Section 15: (1) Every individual is equal and has the right to equal benefit of the law without discrimination.based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.
Does that mean Jewish diners can demand kosher? Those with physical conditions such as celiac disease have limited options when dining out---should all restaurants be forced to offer gluten-free options?
Nowhere in the Charter is the right to eat out discussed; access to a private sector restaurant could not be considered a right---or should it? And Reed is wrong when he says it's not his problem, according to one restauranteur. "Any expense is passed back to the customer, usually in the form of increased menu prices or smaller portions."
Reed cites three causes for the ongoing access issues: lack of government standards, followed by industry awareness and misinformation. Owners of historic buildings are permitted to apply for grants up to $10,000 for exterior preservation work, which can be used to make the building accessible. And the Canadian National Institute for the Blind will provide a Braille printout of a restaurant menu. But, tellingly, none of those that I spoke with were aware of these points.
On the JMS blog, there's a list of restaurants in Halifax that are inaccessible. At one end of the spectrum is Henry House, where the steep outdoor steps and tiny basement washrooms would need major renos to allow access for all. But then there's Gingergrass, at street level with a wide front door. A ramp would seem to be a relatively easy fix.
As a wheelchair user, where do you look to find a restaurant that you can access? Unless you're intimately familiar with the local scene, there seems to be no source of information that is both updated and correct. The Canadian Paraplegic Association's index has restaurants listed have been closed for decades. Abilities.ca has the same problem.
There are a few safe bets---most chain restaurants (Eastside Mario's, Montana's) are accessible; larger hotels are always accessible, and their restaurants follow suit (the Prince George's Gio comes to mind).
For the wheelchair gourmet, there are a few solid options: Da Maurizio, CUT, Onyx, Cha Baa Thai and Opa! are all accessible and worthy of the trip.
While I don't think the situation is as cut and dried as Reed does, I do think that there is a lot of room for improvement. As to how to effect those changes, that's food for thought.