Restaurants for People who are Blind

People with visual impairments or blindness are as diverse in their needs and preferences when dining out as are any other group of the general public. Let’s highlight the differences of a first impression whether its through the eyes, or the ears, nose and tactile/kinesthetic senses. Eating out is more than the mundane act of shoveling calories into one’s mouth. It involves ALL the senses. Decisions about where to eat and whether to return for future meals is based on whether the staff takes the time to make you feel comfortable.

You need to consider:

  • Smells that are inviting and compelling
  • Physical layout
  • Noisiness
  • How the menu is presented (online, large print or Braille)
  • Service and sensitivity of the restaurant staff
  • Does the patron feel his or her business is valued

How gracious the staff is has an impact on the welcoming “feel” of an establishment.

Seeking out a restaurant

There are many options for learning about places to dine for people with visual impairments. The recommendations of friends, advertising and web directories such as BluePath are great places to start. When hearing of a new place, I often go to their website to learn more.

  • Is their site accessible to screen readers and smart phones
  • Is it easy to read and navigate
  • Does it provide a menu along with prices
  • Are there more than pictures to describe menu options. A well-written description of what a dish contains is much appreciated! For example: indicate whether a dish contains penne pasta or linguini. (one is far messier than the other!)
  • Is accurate information given over the phone about location, hours and options?

Good customer service in these areas can set the stage for a positive experience.

Olfactory impact

Imagine walking down the street looking for somewhere to have dinner. As you approach a diner, the scent of freshly baked bread enters your nose. Your mouth begins to water and your stomach growls. Olfactory advertising at its best! Now imagine the same diner with the same delicious bread. Unfortunately, the odor greeting the passerby comes from the dumpster – definitely don’t want to go in there!

Once inside, what scents greet patrons? Is the bathroom clean? Is there sufficient ventilation to remove the smells of previous patrons? Are the rugs and drapes capturing the smells of spilled beer, cigarette smoke and other odors? I have friends that frequent a Mexican restaurant which has great food and a wonderful atmosphere, but unfortunately for me, smells like an old cat. I will eat there, but only under duress for I have never really liked cats!

Physical layout

I’ve checked the restaurant out on-line, been enticed in by the great smells coming from the kitchen and am not turned away by the odor of old cats or the smell of a dirty lavatory. Now it’s time to consider the physical environment of the restaurant.

Is there enough room to get into and out of the table without invading the personal space of other patrons? Recently I went to a small bistro, and on the way back to our seats I accidentally bumped into a nearby table, hard enough to rattle the wine glasses and silverware. That’s extremely embarrassing. Did I do any damage? What if something spilled? Leaving clear paths of travel helps everyone feel more comfortable. No twisting sideways! You might be able to squeeze in a few more tables but why create an atmosphere of overcrowding and a sense of claustrophobia?

Background noise

Dining out is an intensely social experience. People go out to get away from home and enjoy spending time with friends. Those moments between sitting down and eating are very important. Can patrons converse without screaming at one another? I recently attempted a meal at a sports bar and never finished it. The noise was tremendous. The wait staff could barely make themselves heard over the televisions and intoxicated patrons. I ordered, ate a portion of my meal and escaped to the blessed silence of the parking lot, ears ringing and nerves jangled. My general rule is that if I have to shout to make myself heard, it’s not a place worthy of a return visit.

Service and support

The difference between going once and returning frequently to a restaurant most heavily depends on the level of service and support from the staff. Do they take the time to make sure you are comfortable?

Here are 5 basic tips which can help:

  1. Offer to provide information about the restaurant. Important landmarks include the location of  restrooms and table features like napkin dispensers. Some guests may appreciate holding onto an arm when walking to the table. This means allowing the patron to lightly hold an upper arm just above the elbow. It isn’t always necessary, but the offer is always appreciated. Don’t push or pull a person needing assistance – that’s intimidating for everyone involved. When you arrive at the table, position the patron so it is obvious where the chair or booth is located. Inquire if more information is necessary for the diner’s orientation.
  2. Take time to read a menu or explain a dish. If the establishment has a braille or accessible online menu, fantastic! But if not, please take a few minutes to explain the specialties of the house and make a recommendation. The wait staff should be well versed in menu and drink options, and feel comfortable describing what’s in a dish.
  3. Don’t just drop food and drinks on the table and walk away. Statements like: “Beer on your left” or “Caesar salad with garlic bread” are very helpful. It’s off putting to need to tactilely search for, and then guess, which glass contains which beverage on a crowded table. It’s socially awkward to say to a dining companion: “Is this my water?”
  4. Take time to read the bill out loud to the patron. A statement like: “Your check comes to $32.49 and includes the bread, appetizer, pasta primavera and a glass of wine” will help insure the bill is correct and no questions about charges remain. Offer to assist with finding the signature line and to provide a customer receipt.
  5. Relax! Blind patrons are not much different than other diners. We come for good food, good company, and a chance to unwind and relax. We want to be treated with courtesy and sensitivity.

Please remember, those of us with visual impairments are people first. Our needs are as unique and varied as those of any other social group. But our goals are the same – to have a good time. We come to have our senses stimulated, to share conversation with friends, and to feel our business is appreciated.