Q. After having another Friday night with friends ruined due to a lack of access at our favorite neighborhood watering hole, I need to find out what regulations might be in place regarding accessible seating for wheelchairs. I found that the ADA covers fixtures like tables as long as they are bolted to the floor, but could find nothing about the movable tables of differing heights that are found in so many public places. As background, I use a power wheelchair and often find myself unable to join my friends if an establishment is furnished with tables designed for standing patrons or those sitting on stools.
That is not my only concern. A lot of restaurants are placing their booths on raised platforms, making transfers difficult and eating at the end of the table impossible because my wheelchair is on a lower level than seating at the table. They are also in very inconvenient locations; having the back of my chair bumped by wait staff moving in and out of the kitchen is annoying, to say the least.
It is also a bit intimidating to be parked in what feels like a forest of tall tables and standing customers clustered around our lone accessible table. It is even worse if I have forced people to move in order to clear a pathway so that I could reach that location. Am I being unreasonable in thinking that I should be given a space to park my wheelchair where I can actually see and enjoy what is happening?
Who came up with the ADA guidelines regarding table heights? It seems that no one takes into consideration the amount of space needed for parking wheelchairs. Am I wrong to think that most or all of these conditions are in violation of some regulation or law? If I am right, what can I do about the situation?
— Seeking a Seat at the Table
A. The law governing these situations is the Americans with Disabilities Act. The federal Department of Justice maintains the text of the law and guidance concerning its implementation on the ada.gov website and in publications directed toward the entities that are covered. This includes those that are identified in Title III of the law as public accommodations, such as your favorite “watering hole.”
People with disabilities are not to be segregated or isolated but should be able to enjoy any of the activities taking place on the premises. If at a sports bar or venue with live entertainment, that means being able to watch the screens or view and hear the performers. To facilitate that, businesses are required to maintain a path of travel to wheelchair accessible spaces that are a minimum of 30 by 48 inches and clear of the walkway, whether at tables or in some other type of seating arrangement.
The design standards found in the law have been developed over a long period of time in cooperation with both government and private entities. The dimensions found in the law and its guidelines when it comes to table height and clearances are a compromise that should work for the majority of people who use wheelchairs. Updates occur after consideration of public comment regarding the need for any proposed changes.
The design standards require that a minimum of 5 percent of all fixed features — including counters, bars, tables and seating — needs to be accessible. Where movable features are used in lieu of fixed, that same percentage and relevant dimensions would apply.
If you believe that your local place of business is not in compliance, there are a couple of steps that you can take. The first, and perhaps quickest, would be to discuss the issue with those in charge so that they are aware of your concerns and the law. Printing a copy of the ADA Guide for Small Businesses, or providing them with the URL so that it can be accessed online at the DOJ website, should allow the establishment to take the necessary steps to gain compliance and make it easier for you to join your friends. If the table height of the accessible tables creates a problem for you, point out that there are adjustable tables available that would improve access for all customers.
If you face resistance to your suggestions, it may be necessary to file a complaint or initiate a lawsuit for violations of the ADA and similar state laws, if there are any where you live. Contact your state’s nonprofit Disability Rights Network to determine what laws are in effect and to seek assistance if you decide to take formal action.
• ADA Guide for Small Businesses, www.ada.gov/smbustxt.htm
• National Disability Rights Network, ndrn.org/en/about/paacap-network.html
• DOJ Title III regulations, www.ada.gov/regs2010/titleIII_2010/titleIII_2010_regulations.htm#a203
• U.S. Access Board, www.access-board.gov