ImageIn her song “Raised on Robbery” Jonie Mitchell describes a man “sitting in the bar of the Empire Hotel, drinking for diversion and thinking for himself” while he watches a hockey game that he’s bet on. I thought about that song when I ate lunch with a wheel chair bound at a local restaurant. We had no trouble being seated; there were plenty of accessible tables. What we couldn’t do was see the three large flat screen TVs behind the bar because the bar area only had raised tables and raised booths.

Does the inability to sit in the bar or see a TV amount to discrimination against those with disabilities? It depends on how you look at the business of the restaurant. If the restaurant is only selling food and drink then a person with a mobility disability gets the same thing everyone else does – food and drink.  But if the restaurant is the experience of drinking and watching a hockey game the disabled person is out of luck.

It’s pretty clear that the chance to drink and watch sports on TV is an important part of what this particular restaurant sells. The bar area takes up more than a third of the restaurant, and when we visited there were more patrons at the bar than seated at tables. It’s a safe bet the owner wouldn’t have spent the money to install the TVs if he didn’t think they were a draw. The atmosphere of the bar was different from the atmosphere of the restaurant as well. It was louder and there was a higher level of conviviality. In the Jonie Mitchell song the man drinking alone is accosted by a “woman in lacey sleeves.” I could imagine it happening in the bar of this restaurant, but not in the restaurant seating area.

The ADA Guidelines do address the idea that not all tables are equal by requiring that accessible seating be distributed “throughout the space” of a restaurant or bar, but spreading the accessible seating around may not solve the problem. If there are accessible tables in the bar but they didn’t allow a patron to watch TV the wheelchair bound patron still can’t have the same experience as those who can sit or stand anywhere.

When trying to make sure a facility does not discriminate against disabled patrons an owner has to go beyond the purely technical requirements in the Standards and Guidelines and look at whether a disabled person is able to enjoy the experience that is for sale, or at least as much of that as the disability permits.  That isn’t a new legal principle, but the Chipotle case I discussed in Burrito Tale is a good reminder of it. Chipotle got in trouble with a serving line too high for a person in a wheel chair because it wasn’t just selling burritos; it was selling the “Chipotle experience” of watching the burrito be prepared. Owners of any facility subject to the ADA should ask themselves what experience they want their patrons to have, and then whether those with disabilities can share that experience. If not, there may be an ADA violation.