A Primer on ADA Guidelines for Restaurants

Ensuring ADA Compliance in Foodservice Facilities

What ADA Compliance Means for Restaurants

The Americans with Disabilities Act, more commonly known by the acronym ADA, is federal legislation designed to ensure the "built environment" is accessible to all Americans. As such, it places requirements on public and commercial facilities, including restaurants and other foodservice operations, that all people be capable of accessing the building.

"The ADA is not a building code, as many people think it is. It is civil rights legislation first and foremost," says Stephanie Brewer Cook, ADA coordinator for the city of Knoxville, Tenn.

While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 stipulated that no public or private entity may discriminate against an individual or group of people, ambiguity remained as to whether that applied to those with disabilities. To settle the matter, advocates like the National Council on Disability helped push lawmakers to enact the ADA in 19901. There have been a handful of updates and amendments since then, including one in 2010 with similarities to the accessibility standards in the 2009 update of the International Building Code2.

While most areas do not require inspections for ADA compliance, your operation can be held responsible and face steep penalties in civil court if you're not providing access to every potential visitor. Cook says many business owners make the mistake of believing that because a person with a given disability has never been in his or her facility, there's no need to make accommodations for them. In actuality, it may well be the refusal to make that access possible that has kept those folks out. While that may seem like a small thing, it excludes a large and growing portion of the population, and can earn your business a devastating reputation.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 56.7 million Americans, or 19 percent of the nation's population, were dealing with a disability in 20103. Of those, roughly 30.6 million had limited mobility, including those who use walkers and wheelchairs. Beyond that, 8.1 million people had vision impairments, 7.6 million had difficulty hearing, and 19.9 million had trouble grasping or lifting everyday items. That's a huge potential customer base that can be excluded from patronizing your business by even one small step along the walkway to your building or a door knob that has to be turned. And those figures are expected to grow many times over as the baby boom generation continues to age.

There are no grandfathered facilities. Despite what you might have heard, no business owner should consider herself exempted simply because she operates out of an older building. And, once those accommodations are made, you must preserve that access. That means you cannot allow a front door ramp to remain snow covered all winter or use the extra room in an accessible stall as storage. Cook says one of the most common issues she sees in restaurants is people cluttering the space required under the ADA with cleaning materials, boxes, and chairs.

"The ADA is all about readily achievable barrier removal, which means making those feasible accommodations," she explains. "But for a lot of people, that's the easy part. The most important part is maintaining that access once it's achieved."

Unfortunately, throughout her time working for equal access, Cook has spoken to several business owners who could not understand the importance of removing barriers for those with disabilities4. The perspective of the proportion of the population that excludes sometimes helps get the point across.

"When you're not providing those needed accommodations, you're not just upsetting the person who needs them, you're upsetting that person's whole party," Cook cautions. "And then those people are going to go back to their family groups, their friend groups, their civic groups, their church groups, and tell them all about that bad experience."

The key to ensuring those folks leave your business with a positive impression and to complying with the ADA standards isn't just or even primarily about a ramp to the front door or recessed hand dryers. Instead, Cook says the most important thing you can do is to train your staff on the law and on the steps you want to take to not only meet it, but to provide a pleasant experience for every guest. That means covering everything from where accessible doors are to whether policies on allowing only one person in a restroom or dressing room at one time can be suspended to allow for those who need assistance in those areas.

Below are some of the key areas Cook says restaurateurs often overlook that you can address to set yourself ahead of the curve in being a good host to every guest. This is in no way meant to be an exhaustive explainer of how you can bring your facility to ADA standards; for that you should rely on sources like the United States Access Board.

ADA Restroom Standards

There can be no doubt that your business' restroom facilities are a critical component not only in serving the public, but also in ensuring guests with disabilities have a pleasant experience.

"If I go to a business and it turns out the restrooms are an issue, I may not stay very long," says Cook, who relies on a wheelchair. "People who deal with these issues literally plan their visits around how long they can be comfortable without needing to the use the restroom in a place like that. Some people will just avoid it altogether."

"Public restrooms are one of the most critical building amenities because they need to be responsive to a wide range of human needs and abilities," is how a planning guide from bathroom fixture manufacturer Bobrick puts it5.

Given that importance, the ADA dedicates a whole section to accessible restroom design and countless resources have been crafted to help guide planning for those facilities. A Google search for the phrase "accessible restroom design" brought up more than 464,000 results in June 2016.

One of the primary mandates is that there be enough space in your restrooms for someone in a wheelchair to be able to turn it in a complete circle with a diameter of 60 inches or to complete a three-point turn. Further, at least one toilet cubicle per restroom or an accessible unisex restroom should be large enough to allow a wheelchair not only to move into it, but also for its occupant to shift from the chair to the toilet seat and back again.

"The biggest problem I see in restaurants is that they've included that bigger stall, but then they've used it for storage and filled it with extra chairs or cleaning supplies or whatever else they need to put somewhere. A lot of times they'll even put a sign on the door saying that the toilet is out of order, but it's not; they just don't want people trying to go in there," Cook says. "That's not allowed."

Here are some of the other basic restroom requirements:

  • Restroom signage should include the standard wheelchair depiction. If a separate accessible facility is provided, only its sign should include the image, with signage pointing to its location if it is isolated.
  • Doors must have lever handles that are easily activated to accommodate those with grasping or turning disabilities. ADA preferred design for large restroom facilities is to use walled entryways with no doors.
  • Fixtures like mirrors and hand dryers or towel dispensers must be mounted 40 inches from the floor. Sinks should be no more than 34 inches high with clear space beneath that accommodate the legs of individuals in wheelchairs6.
  • Faucets should have lever paddles that can be activated with the wrist or a closed fist to allow those with grasping trouble to use them.
  • Accessible toilets and urinals must have an elongated bowl, with no lid and, typically, a split seat.
  • In accessible stalls or restrooms, the toilet must be installed so that the flushing handle is on the open side to allow individuals in wheelchairs to reach it from their seats.
  • Grab bars at least 18 inches in length must be installed on at least two sides of the toilet and must be sturdy enough to allow adults to lift their body weight with them.
  • The area surrounding the toilet must be a washable surface, which means a surface like tile that can easily be cleaned. The ADA does not include in that category drywall, even if it is covered with a gloss or semi-gloss paint7.

Service Animals in Restaurants

While some people are under the impression a business may exclude a service animal from food service areas or from being in an establishment if there is a person present who is allergic to the animal, that is not the case. Service animals must be accommodated in every public space, and there are both strict restrictions on them and frustrating ambiguities related to them.

First, the restrictions:

  • The only recognized service animals for most businesses are dogs and miniature horses. Yes, that does mean your restaurant may have to host an equine assistant8.
  • A business must accommodate those approved animals if an individual claims one as a service animal, even if there are suspicions about the veracity of that assertion. There are only two questions employees may ask: if the animal is required because of a disability and what it has been trained to do. You cannot insist the animal demonstrate its task or work.
  • The animal must be restrained and under the individual's control at all times. If it is not, you may ask that it be removed.
  • The animal cannot urinate or defecate in the business. If it does, you may ask that it be removed.
  • Patrons with service animals must be accommodated as any other customer would be. You cannot isolate them, provide lesser service, or charge a unique fee for the animal.
  • If the animal is causing a disruption, you should not ask the patron and/or his party to leave with it. Instead, you can insist he or she remove the animal from the facility and suggest the individual return after the animal is safely accommodated somewhere else.
  • Unlike dogs, miniature horses may be restricted from entering the facility if it cannot accommodate the animal's size and weight, among other things9.

Unfortunately, abuse of these allowances, particularly the one that essentially provides an all-access pass to service animals, has become a problem not just for business owners, but also for those who legitimately rely on one10. People who insist the family pet is a service animal simply so it can accompany them everywhere have created suspicion that hangs over those who really need one. At current, there is no regulation that a service animal wear a vest of the type you may have seen that might announce something like, "Working animal, do not pet." Additionally, there are no requirements that the animal be given any particular type of training, nor, indeed, that the animal have received any professional training11.

Cook's advice is that business owners know the rules on service animals and train employees on them. While current regulations make it critical that you tread lightly when it comes to dealing with service animals, knowing the rules can at least equip you to restrict them as allowed.

Accessible Furniture and Fixtures

While it can be easy to overlook, the ADA requires that business owners accommodate all customers through the furnishings and fixtures that fill their facilities. That means bars must have wheelchair-level serving areas and hand dryers cannot stick out significantly from the wall in access areas.

"Pub tables are a major issue that I see a lot. They just can't accommodate people in wheelchairs, people who are not tall enough to access them, or those who don't have the ability to climb up to the seat. And I haven't met a bar yet that I can roll up to easily," Cook says. "People just don't think about those issues if they haven't experienced them."

We have an article that explores in-depth the requirements for ADA compliance in restaurant furniture and fixtures, so this piece will not go into detail on the topic. Briefly, the 2010 ADA guidelines mandate that at least 5 percent of the service areas in a restaurant be accessible, including tables, seats, and counters. Accessible dining tables are between 28 and 34 inches tall, while booth seats must be a minimum of 42 inches long with a depth of 20-24 inches and a back support as long as the seat. All access aisles should be at least 36 inches wide12.

ADA Requirements for Providing Assistance

While the ADA dictates accommodations that should be made for those with disabilities, it doesn't require those folks receive special attention from your employees.

"If your employees see someone who may have trouble with something in your business, you can offer assistance to them, but you don't have to go out of your way to do that. You can simply welcome the individual to the business as you would do any other customer and offer to assist them if they need it," Cook says.

For most patrons with disabilities in most restaurants, there are not likely to be such challenges. However, there are some simple steps that can be taken that will not only make that guest's experience more pleasant, it may also earn you a lifelong fan13.

  • For guests with vision or reading complications, the server may quietly offer to read the menu aloud. For the blind, there are companies14 that reproduce menus in braille, though that can be expensive15. Still, the investment may not just be an act of inclusion, it could also make good business sense in some areas16.
  • Make pads of clean paper and writing utensils readily available to serving staff so that guests with hearing disabilities can communicate with those who don't know sign language. If you operate in an area with a large number of deaf people, such as in a town with a school for the deaf, you might encourage servers to keep a pad with them at all times.
  • The same rules apply for employees interacting with service animals as any other person doing so, which means no petting. While a staff member may see that as a way to make the individual and the animal feel welcome in the establishment, it's still not OK and could distract the animal from its lifesaving work17.
  • If you operate a buffet or any other facility where the guest must serve him- or herself all or part of the meal, servers may offer to assist those who may have trouble doing so. That includes individuals with sight impairments18, those who walk with the aid of a walker or similar device, and those who may not be able to reach the serving areas.
  • As noted above, you should equip employees to allow for exceptions to certain rules, including a limitation on how many people may be in a restroom or stall at one time.
  • Though a bit more involved and costly than the other ideas, installing automatic doors can enable individuals who rely on a wheelchair to access your facility without someone holding the door. Additionally, ensure that all doorways offer a wide enough opening – at least 32 inches of clear space – to accommodate all guests19.
  • Perhaps the most important accommodation staff can be taught to make is to treat them as a person. Some people get nervous or uncomfortable around those with disabilities, worried they'll offend the person somehow. Ensure your employees acknowledge guests with disabilities as they would anyone else20.


  1. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Wikipedia. Accessed May 2018.
  2. Accessibility Info. ICC Website. Accessed May 2018.
  3. Nearly 1 in 5 People Have a Disability in the U.S.. U.S. Census Bureau. Accessed May 2018.
  4. ADA Gives Business Access to Customers. Southeast ADA Center. Accessed May 2018.
  5. Planning Guide for Accessible Restrooms. Bobrick Website. Accessed May 2018.
  6. ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Restrooms. Houston Chronicle Chron.com. Accessed May 2018.
  7. Handicap ADA Compliant Restroom Requirements. YouTube. Accessed May 2018.
  8. ADA Requirements: Service Animals. ADA.gov. Accessed May 2018.
  9. Service Animals. Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute. Accessed May 2018.
  10. Four-legged Impostors Give Service Dog Owners Pause. NPR Website. Accessed May 2018.
  11. Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA. ADA.gov. Accessed May 2018.
  12. 2010 ADA Standards. Connecticut's Official State Website. Accessed May 2018.
  13. Reaching Out to Customers with Disabilities. ADA.gov. Accessed May 2018.
  14. Few restaurants have braille menus. WUSA 9. Accessed May 2018.
  15. Do restaurants have to provide Braille menus?. ADA Live! WADA. Accessed May 2018.
  16. The Diner with the Braille Menu. The New York Times. Published Nov. 30, 2017.
  17. Why You Should Never Pet a Service Dog. The Dodo. Published June 30, 2015.
  18. Guide for Places of Lodging: Serving Guests Who are Blind or Who Have Low Vision. ADA.gov. Accessed May 2018.
  19. Chapter 4: Entrances, Doors, and Gates. United States Access Board. Accessed May 2018.
  20. 12 Ways Businesses Can Better Serve People With Disabilities. Huffington Post. Published Aug. 20, 2013.