Restaurant Accessibility for People of Size

With accessibility gaining prominence and awareness, people with disabilities are on the path toward industries finally meeting their needs, but accessibility also needs to meet the needs for people without disabilities — specifically people of size. 

It’s a taboo topic, but people of size exist and deserve to live as comfortably as any other person.  

Society has permeated the belief that talking about weight is “wrong” or something to only be discussed in private with a closed group, but the matter of the fact is industries aren’t currently designed to be inclusive of this group of people, and the restaurant industry certainly is at fault. 

Have you ever considered whether you’d fit into a restaurant chair or boothOr if sitting down on the furniture will give you bruises or press into you? Are you able to easily move through the aisles without bumping into tables? Do menu labels make you uncomfortable? 

If you can answer yes to any of those questions, you can better understand the restaurant experience for many people of sizeTheir experiences can become fraught with unnecessaranxiety and embarrassment because rather than restaurants including them, they accommodate themThe reason why this word distinction must be made is because “accommodate” implies this group of people is abnormal for not living within a specific weight range, when the term “normal” itself is merely an arbitrary societal construct. While healthcare professionals outline and promote “healthy lifestyles”, this doesn’t mean people of size are abnormal for not existing within that label. 

Now, for restaurants to be inclusive, this means keeping people of size in mind when designing the space and training employees. In a New York Times article, many people of size explain their experiences about how many restaurants inadvertently become exclusive spaces for them. At best, restaurants may have designated seating areas to accommodate people of sizebut as the article outlines, most of the time, the restaurant is ill-equipped to respond to this group of people and meet their needs. 

It might be argued that obesity isn’t a disability and therefore not something that restauranteurs must address. While obesity is not classified as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), law claims have recently called for obesity, in certain circumstances, to be considered a disability, shifting obesity into a grey legal area.  

Regardless of the legalities behind this issue, it shouldn’t require a law for restaurants to be inclusive of all groups of people, and if you’re having trouble thinking of concrete ways to create a more inclusive restaurant space, let’s unpack several examples 

  1. Inclusive Employee Training

The way employees interact with customers is critical to a restaurant’s success, and it starts with employee training. During employee training, include a section addressing people of size in your diversity and inclusion training segment. 

What is meant by this is that you should provide employees with respectful language to use when referring to people of size. The words “fat”, “obese”, “overweight”, “unhealthy” and “large” may be offensive to people of size, so instill the importance and value of using the term “people of size.” They’re people, too, and their size doesn’t define them. Additionally, try to eliminate subconscious gestures, such as staring, that are rude and can be hurtful to people of size. These gestures perpetuate the idea that people of size are abnormal and can lead to poor customer-employee interactions. 

  1. Thoughtful Restaurant Seating

It’s obvious that people like to feel comfortable in their environment. In dine-in restaurants, customers typically spend approximately two hours on the furniture you use, whether that be stools, bars, or chairs. That’s a long time for someone to sit, and if your customer felt uncomfortable in their seat within the first few minutes, by the end of their meal, it’s unsurprising if they’re irritable and aching. Choosing furniture with wider seats, comfortable seat backs, high weight support, and no armrests are easways to be more inclusive of people of size.  

Furniture design isn’t enough, though. The second factor to regard is the layout of the dining area. Are the tables and seats spaced apart enough for everyone to easily move through? Is it possible for people to bump into tables while walking through the dining area? Nobody likes to feel crowded while eating, regardless of their size, and research has even proven customers feel less satisfied when tables are closer togetherSo, space your furniture farther apart. 

  1. Sensitive Menu Labelling

Many restaurants offer alternative menus or menu categories with labels like “skinny menu” or “healthy choices”, but these labels can be hurtful but also perpetuate misinformation. What defines a person as “skinny” or “healthy” varies according to each individual person, and associating those terms with lower calories can actually misrepresent them 

For instance, a “skinny menu” may have a menu item high in fat and sugar, but because it’s a smaller portion, it has lesser calories than its counterparts and is now deemed “skinny”, when in reality, the menu item will not contribute to a person losing weight or eating “healthy”. These menu labels can inadvertently cause customers to become self-conscious, which may prompt them to order from these menus, and even then, these menus may not even support their claims, which actually hurts the people who order off them.