As Zachary Lewis and his friend were riding their power chairs through Center City, they approached a familiar obstacle: Outdoor diners, and their tables and chairs, were spread across the sidewalk, blocking the pathway and making it impossible for them to pass through.
As diners and waiters hesitated to move, Lewis, 38, and his friend started pushing the obstacles aside.
The manager rushed out, apologizing for the inconvenience and clearing the path, recalled Lewis, of West Philly. But as soon as they passed, the manager put the tables right back where they were.
Outdoor dining has always posed accessibility issues for people with disabilities, said Lewis, executive director of Disabled in Action, a civil rights organization that fights disability discrimination. But amid Philadelphia’s reopening, with hundreds of restaurants using the setup to reinstate business, outdoor dining is blocking sidewalks, curb cuts, and accessible parking spaces, inhibiting the paths of people who use mobility aids.
Advocates say it is exacerbating long-standing accessibility issues, making it more dangerous and difficult for them to navigate the city and intensifying feelings of exclusion and neglect. It also highlights, they say, how people with disabilities are often left out of conversations about policies and processes.
“Most of the time there is no room for us to get by unless the tables and chairs are moved by the customers,” said Lewis. “We are a second thought, or not thought of at all, when it comes to outdoor dining.”
Although the city’s outdoor dining guidelines require restaurants to leave a 6-foot-wide pedestrian path, not all spaces are complying. Since outdoor dining was allowed to begin June 15, the city has received 27 complaints about blocked sidewalks, said Lauren Cox, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney’s office said.
Across three weekend sweeps the city conducted to check whether restaurants were complying with the city’s rules, 51 were found in violation, Cox said. In the last month, the city has written warning violations to 46 restaurants — largely for blocking pedestrians’ right-of-way.
Because of density and design, Center City, Old City, and Fairmount are seeing the greatest number of violations, Cox said. The Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities has not received any complaints.
However, advocates believe many violations are going unreported. A few residents with disabilities said they don’t believe restaurants are blocking their path on purpose — the businesses are merely trying to survive — but they said it speaks to the larger, systemic problem of inaccessibility in the city.
“It shows that they don’t care about people with disabilities. They care more about their bottom line, which is the dollar,” said Lewis, who is also an organizer of Philly ADAPT, a grassroots organization that organizes demonstrations on behalf of people with disabilities.
“Everyone at the City takes this issue very seriously, and we share concerns about businesses who may intentionally or unintentionally cause problems for people with mobility issues by trying to work around our clearly established laws and guidelines,” Cox said in a statement.
But advocates say they have had a hard time getting the city’s attention about these issues before, and it’s even harder now, as resources are spread thin.
This month marks the 30-year anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the civil rights law prohibiting discrimination based on a disability.
Philadelphia, with aging infrastructure and historic buildings often exempt from the ADA, is very inaccessible, advocates say, and a lawsuit filed last summer claims that the city’s sidewalks are in such poor condition that they violate the ADA. This puts Philadelphia’s disabled community — which makes up more than 16% of its population, the largest among the 10 biggest U.S. cities, according to the 2018 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey — at particularly high risk when navigating the city.
During pandemic budget cuts, the community saw Kenney propose a slashing of more than $20 million to the Housing Trust Fund, which funds wheelchair-accessibility modifications, among other things. After opposition and protests, the investment was reinstated.
Now, the blocked sidewalks are just one more hurdle.
“It sends a message that disabled people are not welcome in this reopening,” said Emily Ladau, a New York-based disability communications consultant who uses a wheelchair.
Latoya Maddox, a wheelchair user and organizer for Philly ADAPT, said if a restaurant does create a path, there’s still not enough social distancing space from the diners, who aren’t wearing masks.
“If I roll past this table and somebody sneezes, I am now at risk,” she said. “But you have no choice.”
Local groups believe this issue could have been prevented with better, more inclusive planning.
In early March, groups like 5th Square, Philly’s urbanist political action committee, started conversations with the city about shutting down streets to give residents more space, said Dena Driscoll, the committee’s chair.
By early April, the groups formed the Recovery Streets Coalition and put together a proposal for the city with reopening recommendations on reimagining the safety, accessibility, and space of streets and sidewalks, like closing entire streets for outdoor diners and moving tables into parking spaces.
Cox, of the Mayor’s Office, said the city is reviewing “several strong applications” for the temporary street-closure pilots.
But Driscoll said action must be taken now.
“We as an organization really wanted to see the city start to think about this before we actually arrived,” said Driscoll. “But now we are here. We wish they had planned ahead, but they didn’t.”
“Even if you’re not going to the restaurant, you should be able to walk or use your wheelchair freely to get through your neighborhood,” she said. “They’re not one against the other.”
Inaccessibility has been a problem for the restaurant industry, with many restaurants not offering accessible entrances or seating areas being too tight for people with mobility aids to safely move around.
Michele Leahy, chief executive and founder of Leahy Life Plan, which helps adults with disabilities and their families develop life plans, said outdoor dining has actually made some restaurants more accessible, since tables and chairs are more spaced out. Still, Leahy, a self-described “foodie” who uses a wheelchair, said the message that these restaurants have sent to the disabled community is long-lasting.
“Now that it’s accessible for me to eat outside, will they recognize that my dollars spend the same?” said Leahy, 47, who has sued restaurants over inaccessibility. “And will they make those accommodations once inside dining is reinstated? Will they buy a portable ramp?”
Charles Horton, former executive director of the mayor’s Commission for People with Disabilities, said the city relies on members of the community to speak up about issues.
“Everybody wants to get outside the house and use restaurants. We feel the same way as a community as individuals with disabilities,” said Horton, who uses a wheelchair. “The new norm needs to be inclusive.”