‘Is it Gabe friendly?’ A push to make the city’s restaurants more accessible

Devon Breithart (left), Gabe Jones and Moriah Dietrich became friends at Games on Tap, a gathering of people who love board games and craft beer that is regularly held at Great Flood Brewing Co. | Courtesy of Moriah Dietrich

Before heading to a new restaurant or bar, 26-year-old Moriah Dietrich said she and her friends scout out the location on Google Streetview: Are there steps? Is there accessible parking?

“Is it Gabe friendly?” Dietrich said, referring to her friend, Gabe Jones, 27, who’s used a wheelchair to get around ever since a blood clot formed in his spine at the age of 14, leaving him wheelchair-bound. “We have to think about that every time we go out, and that shouldn’t even be a thought. It shouldn’t be something that even needs to be brought up. It should be: ‘Let’s go to this place, we want to go here.’ ”

All three have asked business owners or employees about accessibility and whether they’d thought about putting in a wheelchair ramp or making other changes to make the establishment more accessible. They characterized the majority of the responses as dismissive.

“They say it’s very expensive,” said Jones, who works for a home health organization.

Others have, according to the group, noted that they don’t have to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act because the business is locating in a building that is older than 1990, the year the law was enacted.

Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government is hoping to motivate business owners to be more accessible for all. It just tripled the loan amount a business owner can receive to invest in accessibility-related improvements. Another Highlands-specific loan program is in the works, which could offer business owners in that neighborhood even more.

“We want to be inclusive”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2015 that 22 percent of adults in the United States live with a disability — which, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, makes disabled individuals the largest minority in the country. Some 13 percent of adults have serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs — about the same percentage of the U.S. population as African-Americans, according to Census data.

David Allgood, director of advocacy at the Louisville-based Center for Accessible Living, contends that local business owners exclude a large portion of the consumer population if their business is inaccessible. Allgood is active in the creation of the city’s new comprehensive plan, which is looking at the environment, mobility, economic growth and livability in Louisville, among other things.

Allgood, who is wheelchair-bound, did his own informal survey of businesses along the popular Highlands corridor. He started at Payne Street and Baxter Avenue and rode in his wheelchair all the way down to the Kroger on Bardstown Road. By his tally, he wouldn’t be able to patronize at least 45 restaurants, stores and other service businesses along that stretch.

David Allgood | Courtesy of David Allgood

“It’s kind of crazy that 27 years later there is that many businesses that I couldn’t get into,” Allgood said. “If it was any other minority, it would probably be a bigger problem for businesses.”

Many establishments, particularly those along popular roads such as Bardstown Road and Frankfort Avenue, are located on the first floor, but they may still be inaccessible because they have a single step up into the store, restaurant or bar that hinders people with physical disabilities from getting inside without help.

Jones always keeps his manual chair, which is easier to lift, in his van just in case.

“I don’t mind getting it out that much, but it is still a big inconvenience for me and for them having to schlep me in and out of places,” Jones said.

Breithart chimed in that their friends have carried Jones up whole flights of steps before, which they don’t mind doing, she added, but we shouldn’t have to.

“If they just put a small ramp in, it would be accessible,” Breithart said.

What aggravates Dietrich most is when business owners spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate an old or historic building but don’t allocate a portion of the budget to make it accessible. Scrolling through Amazon.com, Dietrich said, she’s seen accessibility ramps for $100 that would work just fine and can be put in place as needed.

“A lot of these new restaurants and things that are popping up are in these old historic buildings, so they can kind of go under the fact that they are historic, but they’ve done all these internal renovations,” she said.

According to the ADA, buildings built before 1990 have to make reasonable accommodations to be accessible, said friend Devon Breithart, an occupational therapist also in her late 20s. The ADA is vague and allows businesses to get around adding in accessibility features, she added.

If you own an older or historic building, “you still have to be ADA compliant,” she said. “You just have to make sure you are trying to preserve the property as much as possible, but you can’t skirt the law just because it’s in a historical neighborhood.”

What Breithart and Dietrich want is for other people to recognize the additional hurdles that disabled individuals have to overcome just to go out for a bite to eat or a drink with friends. They want business owners to make a greater effort to meet the needs of disabled individuals.

Devon Breithart | Courtesy of Moriah Dietrich

“You don’t want to go to a place that doesn’t consider it a big deal,” Dietrich said. “We want to be inclusive, and we want everyone to be able to hang out and have a good time.”

Breithart personally has sent letters to the U.S. Department of Justice, the authority that takes ADA complaints, about a couple of local businesses that aren’t accessible and weren’t responsive to her inquiries about ADA accessibility. However, she said, the DOJ wasn’t much help.

“I finally got a response to both of (the letters), and it was just this pre-filled out form that says ‘Due to the nature and volume of inquiries, we can’t investigate every particular violation. Here’s some lawyers and law references in the state of Kentucky,’ ” she said.

Allgood said he’s filed three or four complaints with the Justice Department against businesses over inaccessibility. In two instances, the cases went to meditation, and the business owners finally agreed to institute changes.

“They have to be kind of dragged or forced to make these changes,” he said.

Allgood said he’s seen improvement in accessibility for disable individuals since the ADA was enacted, and he’s hoping the aging baby boomer generation will prompt more change.

“I just think as the baby boomers get old and they have a lot of disposable income and they acquire a disability of their own, I’m hoping that will make a difference,” he said. “That creates federal and state tax dollars. It’s a win for everyone.”

Allgood added that items such as ramps and large bathrooms that make businesses more accessible also would benefit parents with strollers and workers moving boxes or equipment in and out.

Building codes only go so far

In some cases, nothing can be done unless the business owner or property owner relents.

David Marchal, assistant director of Develop Louisville | Courtesy of Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government

David Marchal, ‎assistant director at the city’s land development arm, Develop Louisville, said in more urban areas, it can be harder for businesses to add in accessibility elements. For example, ramps can’t jut out onto the sidewalk, which is considered the public right-of-way. City employees will work with people to see if ramp can go in on the side or in back of the building then.

“If you can do it, then we are going to make you do it,” he said. “People have to get creative.”

To a certain extent, the city’s hands are tied as well. If a restaurant in an older building closes and a new one opens in its place, then the city’s Department of Codes & Regulations can’t force the new restaurant owner to make accessibility-related changes.

However, Marchal said, if it goes from a restaurant to a store or changes use in any way, then the new owner must try to bring the building into compliance with the ADA, no matter how old it is. He added that the department works with business and property owners to make sure they know the building codes.

“We are really trying to support redevelopment and try to make the rules and requirements really clear to those folks,” Marchal said.

Still, there are buildings in which accessibility is just structurally not possible, he said. “Oftentimes, it’s on a case-by-case basis.”

For those who can’t find help from building code requirements, Marchal suggested filing a complaint with the Louisville Human Relations Commission, which responds to complaints in the city about discrimination of all forms. Martha Lawfer, a supervisor with the commission, said it could only act based on complaints and that it could talk to businesses about becoming more accessible but couldn’t force a business or property owner to make any changes.

“We could suggest that that would be a good thing to do,” she said, “but if it’s not a requirement, we could not force them to do it.”

Other than businesses knowing that they need to follow ADA requirements, accessibility isn’t a topic that really comes up in the restaurant industry, said Stacy Roof, head of the Kentucky Restaurant Association. It is not emphasized in any way.

Incentivizing accessibility

The city is trying to incentivize businesses to be more accessible when possible. It recently increased its accessibility loan limit to $15,000 from $5,000.

Louisville Metro Councilman Brandon Coan | Courtesy of Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government

Louisville Metro Councilman Brandon Coan (D-8) is planning to throw some of his district’s money behind accessibility as well. For fiscal year 2018, Coan told Insider Louisville that he would dedicate a portion of District 8’s yearly allocations to a fund that would loan $5,000 to businesses in his district to help pay for accessibility upgrades.

“We are creating a dedicated account that will revolve,” he said. “There are lots of bars and restaurant there built in old houses that predate the code.”

Coan added that the loan program will debut in July, the month that the ADA turns 27.

“It’s a great thing, and ideally, it would be wonderful if some other council people decide they wanted to do the same thing in their area.”

On April 23, Coan and volunteers also will be taking to the sidewalks in the Highlands to evaluate which are in the most need of repairs. Volunteers will take pictures and measure sidewalk displacement; anyone can volunteer.

His top priorities for sidewalk repairs are heavily trafficked intersections such as Bardstown Road and Eastern Parkway as well as the sidewalks within a quarter-mile radius of the busy bus stops.

“People that are in wheelchairs or just can’t drive themselves really depend on the bus,” he said. “If you can’t get to the bus, you’re not getting anywhere.”

The red circles indicate top priority areas, and the tan includes places within a quarter-mile of bus stops. | Courtesy of Brandon Coan

The Transit Authority of River City officials ended up before a Louisville Metro Council committee earlier this year following complaints about unreliable service and reckless driving, mostly in relation to its dedicated paratransit service.

Like Allgood, Coan said, problems related to accessibility will become more prominent as a large portion of the United States population ages.

“We’re all going to have disabilities at some point,” he said. “One day you are going to be 85 years old and whether you are in a wheelchair or not, you will have some of those same issues.”

Finding places to eat and drink

Once Breithart, Dietrich and Jones find a good place, they tend to stick with it.

They like to go to Akasha Brewing Co., Great Flood Brewing Co., Mile Wide Beer Co., Galaxie, Nowhere Bar and Louis’s The Ton.

Shenanigans Irish Grille is located at 1611 Norris Place. | Courtesy of Facebook

“These are places that all have accessible entrances, but even then, there are other accessibility things that people don’t always consider that aren’t just related to the entrance, like the availability of van stops,” grab bars in the bathrooms and sinks that are low enough to reach from a wheelchair, Breithart said.

Jones drives a modified minivan, Breithart said. “He needs it to be parked in a spot that is going to have enough clearance so that he can get out on the side since he has a ramp.”

Although they haven’t gone with Jones, she said, Butchertown Grocery is a business that has gone above and beyond by installing a new elevator that goes up to its second-floor lounge Lola.

Shenanigans Irish Grille in the Deer Park neighborhood also has a metal ramp that it brings out for Jones and other handicapped individuals to use, Breithart said.

Edward Kupper, owner of Shenanigans and Left Field Lounge, said he had a friend make a collapsible ramp after struggling to get a wheelchair-bound patron inside when it started to rain.

“We had trouble getting him up just the one little step,” Kupper said, adding that he now has eight regulars who use the ramp and they’ve since upgraded to a metal version that fits the back door.

There’s no way to remodel the 90-year-old building to make it fully ADA compliant, he said, but they have widened the door on bathroom to make it more easy to access and had the removable ramp made. “We just have to do it our way,” he said.

Kupper said he decided to make the changes because Shenanigans is a neighborhood bar and aims to take cater to all of its neighbors.

“I wouldn’t appreciate being left out because something happened to me,” he said.

Matt Fuller, co-owner of Great Flood Brewing Co., was happy to hear that the Bardstown Road taproom received positive reviews in terms of accessibility.

“It is great to hear we are a place that felt good,” Fuller said. “We did really care about that a lot.”

He added that Great Flood had it somewhat easy when it came to making the business accessible as its taproom is a single story and has a good amount of space. But he and his partners made a conscious decision to incorporate regular height seating with bar height tables and chairs, as well as maintain wide aisles and think about how someone with a disability might use the bathrooms, Fuller said.

“I know some people have complained about that and it’s tough sometimes, but (the city) was really willing to work with us,” he said. “It’s something that you have to do and think it through so it’s a cohesive experience.”

Prior to meeting Jones, Dietrich admitted that she never considered to accessibility.

“It wasn’t a thought in my mind until I met Gabe,” Dietrich said. “It’s very easy to get more involved and passionate when it’s someone you love.”

Now, they are energetic advocates for making businesses more accessible because they want Jones and others who struggle to walk or climb stairs to enjoy the same experience as those without disabilities.

“At the end of the day,” Breithart said, “we just want to go in here and hang out.”