With its overflowing garden tucked away on a quiet street in Jamaica Plain, the outdoor patio at Tres Gatos is a welcoming place to enjoy a meal outside on a summer day in Boston.
Built over the past year as outdoor dining became a lifeline for restaurants during the pandemic, this particular patio is welcoming in more ways than one — it is the “crème de la crème” of outdoor dining in terms of accessibility, according to disability advocate Michael Muehe.
The patio was built on a raised wooden platform so that it is flush with the sidewalk, meaning that guests who use wheelchairs or mobility devices are able to access the whole patio.
“From the perspective of a wheelchair user, it means I don’t have to deal with a ramp that might be really steep, having to come down, [or] at the bottom of the ramp, there isn’t enough space to turn,” said Muehe, an access analyst at the Boston Center for Independent Living.
Disability advocates say outdoor dining can be a mixed bag when it comes to accessibility — a walk along Centre Street in Jamaica Plain reveals plenty of obstacles for wheelchair users, from wobbly ramps to high tables to steep curbs.
“What’s unfortunate is the inconsistency, how accessibility is embraced in each place," said Colleen Flanagan, a Boston-based disability rights activist and co-founder/executive director of Disability Action for America.
Flanagan said she is glad Boston is embracing a more pedestrian-minded approach to make the city more walkable, as patios take over parking spaces and side streets. But, there’s good and bad when it comes to outdoor dining.
Outdoor dining means sidewalks are more crowded. "People with mobility disabilities, including blind people — are expecting part of the sidewalk to stay safe and free,” Flanagan said. “And since the outdoor dining has become way more popular, sometimes you find yourself competing with wait staff bringing plates out.”
Despite the challenges for wheelchair users, Muehe says outdoor dining is also an opportunity to accommodate diners with disabilities, as it can create access for restaurants that previously had barriers.
“It happens quite a bit, where you have an older place that has one or two steps at the entrance, not really accessible, and now they have accessible dining for the first time ever,” he said.
Over the past year, Muehe has worked with city officials and the Mayor’s Commission for Persons with Disabilities to help make accessibility part of the application process for outdoor dining.
City regulations require that at least five percent of tables be accessible to people with disabilities. But some restaurants, like Tres Gatos, have gone further in building accessibility into their outdoor dining spaces.
Owner David Doyle says building the patio at Tres Gatos automatically increased the percentage of accessible tables at the restaurant, because many of the indoor seats were high-top tables or bar seats. Doyle previously worked as a physical therapist, leading him to think about guests with disabilities.
“Professionally doing that for several years and working very closely with individuals learning how to use a prosthesis, how to use a wheelchair safely, has led me to look at spaces differently with an eye towards accessibility,” he said.
Doyle admits that a custom built patio, constructed in sections so that it can be stored during winter months, can be costly for struggling restaurants.
“It’s a big investment in time and it’s also costly to build these,” he said. “I think our big concern, for those of us who have made the effort — will we be able to re-use them next year?”
Still, Muehe says there are plenty of less expensive solutions to make outdoor dining space more accessible — such as collapsible ramps, tables with extensions and signs or a buzzer outside with a number to call for assistance.
Last summer, Boston launched a program to provide portable ramps to restaurants that were approved for outdoor dining. The Disabilities Commission program, with support from Citi as part of the Empowered Cities Initiative, loaned around 160 ramps to restaurants across the city free of charge, and provided them with an accessibility toolkit.
“Restaurants excel at food and hospitality — they’re not architects. So we have to help them,” said Kristen McCosh, disability commissioner for Boston. “No one had done this before. And we really became a model for other cities.”
Back in Jamaica Plain, Muehe isn’t afraid to politely raise concerns with restaurants when he sees them. At another nearby restaurant he noticed a wooden ramp to the outdoor seating area. It was slightly uneven under the wheels of his powerchair, and there was a cart at the bottom of the ramp, limiting space for him to navigate to the picnic tables, which are not ADA-accessible. Muehe pointed out to an employee that the ramp moves and asked him to share that observation with the owners.
With some tweaks and adjustments to the crowded sidewalks, restaurant owners and disability advocates like Muehe and Doyle want outdoor dining to continue, as the pandemic brings more uncertainty.
“Those of us in the disability community may have become accustomed to outdoor dining,” Muehe said. “We want to see that be maintained in some realistic way.”
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