If you work in the restaurant or hospitality industry, you’ve seen it all. You’ve seen impatient jerks, nice guys, great tippers, and probably even last-minute “tables for fifty, please!”. Now, let’s talk specifically about the customers you probably have seen but might not have seen you. I’m speaking about serving customers with blindness.
With approximately 1 million Americans aged 40 years and over having blindness, it’s likely that some will visit your restaurant.
Can you recall a time recently when you had guests in your restaurant who were blind? Did you wonder how to best serve them? Were some of your coworkers caught off-guard?
To help with situations like that, here’s a bit of info about what you can do to better connect with and serve customers who are blind.
It’s said that if you truly want to understand someone, you need to walk a mile in their shoes. So, let’s walk that proverbial mile in the shoes of someone with blindness. We’ll go over a possible restaurant experience.
Imagine you’re headed out for a night of fun with some friends. Like always, it takes a while to agree on a restaurant. Even though all your friends say “we can eat anywhere,” you know that’s not true. Someone’s far too picky for that! But tonight, your group feels adventurous, and you decide on a new place.
You and your friends load up into a car and head out. You arrive at the restaurant, and you can’t help but wonder how anyone gets around with the tables so close together. It’s especially difficult for people with blindness who may be using a white cane to navigate their way to the table.
You’re seated near the bar in this busy restaurant. You find an array of cardboard cutouts and laminated plastic sheets sticking out of the centerpiece on your table. They’re all nice pieces, you assume, of marketing and advertising that were likely expensive but are completely worthless to you. After moving those to the side, your friends start talking about what looks good on the menu.
The server shows up to take drink orders, and you ask if there is a braille menu available. He informs your friend (but not you) that they don’t have any braille menus but he could read the specials aloud. Instead, you ask if they just have a chicken sandwich and fries. You do this so everyone at your table won’t have to listen to the server yell out details of their Deluxe Jumbo-Wumbo Beefy Burger and new Banana Fries, or the million other things on the menu.
While the chef prepares your food, you wash up in the restroom. Every bathroom is different, but chances are the sink is near the front. You hear water dripping and head in that direction. Where’s the soap? After feeling around for just a moment, you find it to your right. Your hands are clean, but now you need to dry them. It felt like there was a paper towel dispenser next to the soap. Yep, it’s there. Thank goodness! It’s never fun feeling around a bathroom, especially when your hands are clean.
When you get back to your table, you realize that your drink has been refilled, which is great. However, in refilling it your server moved your glass from where you left it and you almost spilled the drink while trying to find it. When your food arrives, the server talks only to your friend again about your food and hands the person sitting to your right your set of silverware. You decide not to make a big deal of it so as to not ruin your night out with friends. Still, you can’t help but think it’s weird that people think your blindness has something to do with your hearing.
After you finish your meal, you ask your friend to tell you the total on your bill. You sign your name, leave a tip, and head back home after navigating an obstacle course of seating on your way out the door.
That’s just one example of an experience that people who are blind might have at a restaurant. It’s not like this for every person or every restaurant. In fact, many restaurants are very accommodating and considerate towards all of their guests. But it’s easy to see there’s a lot of room for improvement when it comes to serving customers who are blind. Remember, if the dining experience is challenging for your customers, it will be a problem for your restaurant.
Being more accessible is not just helpful to people with disabilities; it’s also good for business. When you treat guests well and they have a good time, they’re far more likely to return.
It still holds true when serving customers who are blind. Imagine the impact braille menus have on sighted guests. They see your restaurant as caring and considerate of customers with disabilities.
Here are some tips on understanding those pain points from the story and some ways that you can help:
Problem: Having tiny aisles maybe wasn’t something that you considered a problem before. But think of how many times you could barely get past someone while carrying a tray. Lack of space to use assistive devices is frustrating for some, but being cramped with no clear paths can frustrate everyone.
Fix: Regularly clear aisles of any obstructions. Ask guests to pick up purses or other belongings. Push in unused chairs, move tables out of the aisles, and keep floors clean.
Problem: Reading the menu aloud is technically an option but not a customer-friendly one. For your blind guest, it’s often easier to stick to a safe meal you like, than to inconvenience your friends and others around you. This is especially true when you can’t read the specials because the menu isn’t available in braille or another accessible format.
Fix: Try telling your managers about braille menus. It’s the same message and the same menu items. But, it’s created in a way that’s actually useful for your customers who are blind. Letting your guests know about new items, specials, and drink options traditionally involves a menu. So, doesn’t it make sense to open up that option to more people?
Problem: Moving items around on the table without letting the guest know you did.
Fix: It’s entirely reasonable to do this in most cases. But letting the guest know when you walk up, what you’re doing, and where you place things goes a long way in providing stellar customer service.
Problem: Not speaking directly to the person with a disability.
Fix: Speak directly to the person. If you’re ever uncertain about something, just ask that person. Please don’t assume that someone else speaks for them or is their guardian. Remember, always put the person before the disability. You’re not “serving blind customers”; you’re serving customers who happen to be blind.
There are a lot of restaurants out there that work hard to make their establishment inclusive for everyone. Many more want to but haven’t taken the necessary steps to become a place that really shows they care. Or maybe they just don’t know where to start.
If you work for a restaurant that wants to start making a difference in meaningful ways for your customers who are blind, here are some quick and easy things to remember:
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