When the COVID-19 pandemic closed indoor dining in Madison restaurants three years ago, outdoor patios bloomed around the city. It seemed like every cafe, sushi spot, tavern and fine dining restaurant had a cluster of tables and chairs on a sidewalk or in a nearby parking lot.
Now, a Downtown Madison Inc. task force focused on making the downtown area more inclusive wants to help restaurants make those spaces more accessible for people with disabilities.
“We determined that there wasn’t a lot of strong guidance about how to make (outdoor dining) an accessible setup,” said Jason Beloungy, chair of the Beyond Compliance Task Force.
“It was sort of like, you need to be accessible but not a lot of step-by-step and what it takes to be accessible.”
Beloungy is also executive director of Access to Independence, Inc., a nonprofit disability resource center. In 2019, a Downtown Madison Accessibility Report produced by the task force found that 45% of respondents had encountered barriers accessing a private business downtown and 23% avoided private businesses downtown due to accessibility barriers.
A downtown Madison task force is working to improve accessibility on patios.
Common accessibility issues include the absence of wheelchair ramps, tightly packed tables that are difficult to navigate around, inaccessibility of toilets and a lack of awareness about rights pertaining to service animals.
The barriers are not just physical.
“Sometimes it’s just how waitstaff, hosts and other folks interact with people with disabilities and their perhaps lack of familiarity with how to support someone and provide accommodations,” Beloungy said.
“We also have to think about creating spaces that work for neurodivergent folks in terms of their sensory needs and how environments can impact that.”
The task force is now working to develop video guidelines that businesses and employees can use to learn how to make their space and practices more accessible.
In 2020, when the city’s expanded outdoor dining “Streatery” program was launched, the task force created a simple two-page guide for businesses to use. The City Council extended the Streatery program into 2021 and approved a permanent expansion to outdoor seating in 2022.
“This year we were discussing the work we’ve done and if it’s making a difference,” Beloungy said. “There are so many things that businesses are already trying to do to operate and stay afloat that we weren’t sure they were getting the necessary information (about accessibility).”
The task force agreed that TikTok style video content would be easier to access than the guide developed in 2020.
“We talked about how to get the information to not only business owners, but also the people doing the work,’ Beloungy said. “Like the folks who set up the street dining areas and (who) are waiting and bussing tables … their own work is impacted by these accessibility guidelines.”
The project is still in the planning stages. Videos will likely cover the value of menus with images, large text and straightforward language, as well as accessible and sensory-friendly seating setups. They could also touch on etiquette for interacting with autistic people who may interpret conversation more literally than others, for example.
The videos will be shot in September, but Beloungy does not yet know where they will be shot and which platforms they will be shared on once they are done. He hopes that, when they are made available, the public will also engage with them so everyone learns more about accessibility issues and solutions.
For updates, follow @dmimadison on Twitter or @downtownmadisoninc on Instagram.
Noreen Sharif is a summer reporting intern for the Cap Times. She is currently a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
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