Dear service industry

On Friday night, my sister and I took my dad to a fancy Italian restaurant for a belated Father’s Day dinner. Our meal – including wine, an appetizer, entrees, desserts, and tip – was almost $300.

Unfortunately, our experience was really frustrating and disappointing, and it was because of the way that the restaurant’s staff treated my dad.¬†My¬†father had a significant stroke in January 2015. As a result, he walks with a cane because his right side is affected, and he speaks slowly.

When we arrived for our reservation, we were told that we were going to be seated upstairs. This wasn’t an outright dealbreaker; dad can handle stairs within reason, so we figured we’d check them out and see what our options were. That’s where the trouble started.

Our hostess sped off at the speed of light to supposedly show us to our table. I always thought that showing you to your table meant you, you know, walked with the people you were taking to the table. That’s what I was taught and did as a hostess. But she apparently found it too taxing to walk at my dad’s pace, so I had to tell my sister that I was going to run to keep up with her and would come back to them to direct later.

We turned the corner to the stairs and found two long, narrow staircases that only one person at a time could comfortably use. I went back to my sister and said I didn’t know if he could make it up the stairs, but he wanted to try. Our hostess continued to speed away toward the table, and I followed.

The table was in the cocktail bar, and it was a high-top. My dad has sat at high tables before, but they’re difficult for him to get into. At this point I started intimating to my sister that we probably needed another table, so once she got dad to the table, she left to find a manager.

I spent five minutes trying to help my dad into the high-top seat. None of the staff asked if I needed help, or if they could offer an alternative. The only time anyone said anything to me was when I finally got dad into the chair and a server came by to brusquely tell me that “he can’t be this far out; you need to push his chair in” because we were in a tiny bar area. He then proceeded to push my dad’s chair in while my dad protested.

By the time dad got into the chair, my sister had spoken with the manager, who said she didn’t have anywhere else to put us and we’d have to figure it out. Someone else came to our table after a few minutes to say they don’t have any more tables, and it was up to us to tell them if we needed accommodations because their restaurant is three stories.

Should we have asked about the seating arrangements? Maybe. Usually when my sister makes reservations for us, if the restaurant is multiple floors, they will ask if anyone in the party can’t handle stairs. This restaurant didn’t, and instead of offering us any kind of help or guidance or even apologies, they basically said “well, you should’ve known better than to bring your dad here.”

The food was really good. It’s a bummer that I never want to go back there again.

So, dear service industry, based on this experience, I’d like to make some suggestions to you on serving someone with a disability:

  1. Talk to them, not to me. My dad is a grown-ass man. Not only can he hear you, but he can understand every damn thing you say. Don’t ask me if he needs help; ask him.
  2. Politely offer accommodations, but don’t push. The restaurant should have said “We had you penciled in for a table on the second floor. Will that work for you, sir? If not, we can offer you an appetizer while we wait for a table to open up on the main floor.” That way, dad can make his own decision. On a related note:
  3. Ask before you offer physical help. My dad is very proud. He does not like to be helped unless he absolutely has to be. And if he does, he will tell you. Which leads to #4:
  4. If he doesn’t want or need your help, leave him alone. Well-meaning people will often try to help dad. They often do this by holding on to his side or his chest when he’s trying to navigate stairs or a tricky area. While it’s not meant to be invasive, it absolutely is. You know that feeling when someone you don’t know touches your arm to emphasize point? Feels awkward and icky, right? Now imagine someone you don’t know grabbing your entire side – that you’re trying to use to balance – or touching your chest.
  5. The person with a disability is your customer and needs to be treated as such. My dad’s drink took awhile to make. While the server told us our wine was coming, he never told my dad his drink was on its way, and he didn’t apologize for the delay. It can be intimidating dealing with something you don’t understand – a lot of people don’t have experience with someone who’s had a stroke, so they don’t know what their level of cognition is. But always remember that this person is a person, they are your customer, and they are paying your tip. Even if (unlike my dad) they’re not able to process what you’re saying, it will make everyone feel better if you treat them just like anyone else.

Have you had similar experiences as a person with a disability or a loved one of a person with a disability? Share in the comments, and let me know if you have other tips!

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