Accessible Practices Exchange
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April 2003

Reevaluate Your Restaurant

Women in wheelchairs at outdoor cafe.

Restaurants Caterpillar Café, Garden Café, and Elements Eatery are just a few of the names we call the places where science center and museum visitors buy food, sit, and eat. Additionally, some museums have places to eat outdoors. Although names, settings, and food choices may differ, there are basics to keep in mind to provide good service to customers with disabilities. The ADA provides a thorough set of guidelines for restaurants and cafeterias, many of which are highlighted here. (See ADA Standards for Accessible Design 5: Restaurants and Cafeterias)

Staff Remind staff to ask customers, "May I be of assistance?" rather than assuming they know what is needed. They can expect that some customers will ask that menus be read aloud more than once, and that others may ask for straws for beverages, assistance with their trays, and that chairs be moved to make room for wheelchairs.

Protruding Objects Protruding coat hooks, signs, telephones, drinking fountains, decorations, etc., can be hazards to customers. Minimum headroom clearance is 80 inches, and objects that protrude more than 4 inches from a wall, post, or other surface must have the bottom edge no more than 27 inches above the floor.

Reaching Food, Beverages, and Utensils Some shelves, cases, and dispensers make reaching beverages, food, and utensils difficult, if not impossible, for customers who use wheelchairs, while other designs pose fewer obstacles. Those that allow wheelchair users to approach either from the front or from the side are preferable.

The two drawings that follow illustrate the relationship between approach and reach. Specifically, they point out the need to keep approach, height, and reach ranges in mind when designing, modifying, or purchasing shelves, cases, and dispensers for food, beverages, and utensils.

Man in wheelchair reaching for bottle on shelf. The design shown in this illustration allows a wheelchair user the option to approach the shelves from either the front or the side. Note that the lowest shelf is 15 inches above the floor. This allowance for toe space means the customer can get closer. Also note that the items are placed between 15 and 48 inches above the floor, allowing most customers using wheelchairs to reach them.

Man in wheelchair reaching to back of countertop. This illustration shows a counter for utensils and condiments. Without adequate space for toes and knees, the only option for wheelchair users is a side approach. If the counter top is too high (more than 34 inches) and the items placed too far away (more than 24 inches) and too high (more than 46 inches from the floor), they are out of reach for customers using wheelchairs.

Refrigerated units with doors should be located where there is enough floor space for wheelchair users to maneuver and not be in the flow of traffic. Items inside the units and operable portions (e.g., coin slots) should be within reach (for a side approach: between 9 and 54 inches above the floor; for a front approach: 15 inches and 48 inches above the floor). Choose models with door handles that can be opened with one hand without having to grasp, pinch, or twist the wrist. Doors that can be opened with a closed fist will generally satisfy these criteria.

Service and Checkout Counters and Disposal of Garbage and Dirty Dishes Survey your service and checkout counters, and garbage and dirty dish receptacles. As you do, pay attention both to counter height and how far customers must reach to serve themselves, make transactions, and dispose of garbage, trays, and dishes.

Man in wheelchair in cafeteria line. Service counters should be no higher than 34 inches. Any higher and customers using wheelchairs cannot see the food, talk with staff ready to take their order, or serve themselves.

Checkout counters should also be no higher than 36 inches (34 inches is preferable) or, at a minimum, have a portion of the counter length that is no higher.

To be useable, trash containers and tray racks or conveyors designated for placing dirty dishes should be no higher than 34 inches and along an accessible route (minimum of 36 inches wide).

To repeat: Reach ranges depend on whether a customer using a wheelchair is approaching from the front or from the side. For a side approach, the range is between 9 and 54 inches above the floor (42 inches is preferable). For a front or forward reach, the range is between 15 and 48 inches above the floor.

Aisles, Tables, and Seating It's easy for cafes and restaurants to become so cluttered that aisles and food service lines are no longer clear and at least 36 inches wide for wheelchair users to maneuver (42 inches is preferable).

Man and women at pedistal table. Tops of tables should be between 28 and 34 inches above the floor, and whether fixed or non-fixed, a minimum of five per cent of seating at tables and counters should allow knee space of at least 27 inches above the floor, by 30 inches wide, and 19 inches deep.


Fixed seating allows you to have at least a minimum number of accessible seating available to customers who use wheelchairs (minimum of five per cent). Non-fixed seating means you must be vigilant. Why? Because if tables and chairs can be moved, they will be, creating an obstacle course rather than a clear and accessible route. For this reason, you may want to follow the recommendation of some state codes to make aisle widths 60 to 66 inches between tables.

Diagram of tables and chairs.

Other Factors to Consider: Lighting and Color So that everyone can move safely from one area to another, avoid low lights, shadows, spot lights, and flickering lights. Changes in floor levels should be well lighted. Similarly, choose colors for walls, floors, and baseboards with care. Aim for a sharp contrast between floor and walls, tables and chairs, and other furniture.

Read Others' Experiences for more ideas and please Share Your Own.


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ASTC is not responsible for the enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The information presented here is intended solely as informal guidance, and is neither a determination of your legal rights or responsibilities under the ADA, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. This web site is not intended to offer legal, architectural, engineering, or similar professional advice. You should refer specific questions to an attorney, and/or national, state, and local ADA authorities.
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