Give a Hand to Disabled Patrons

How tasting rooms can improve the visitor experience

by Jane Firstenfeld
wine vineyard tasting room consumers
When it comes to serving disabled tasting room visitors, having appropriate parking and ramps is just a start.

Vallejo, Calif.—This “season of giving” invites a timely reminder to owners and managers of winery tasting rooms: Please be kind to your disabled visitors. There may be more than you think, and being mindful of their special needs can build your reputation among them and their friends.

I write this as a disabled person myself—parking placard and all. Although I still drive, tasting rooms are among the few destinations that still lure me for personal and professional motivations. I’m not in a wheelchair or on a walker. I do have a cane, but don’t always use it: It can actually be a hindrance to mobility. Mobility is not the only disability, of course: Sight and hearing problems come to mind as well, but I’m not personally equipped to address those, so mobility is my main focus.

As in my case, it’s not always obvious that a person is disabled. I walk slowly and painfully, and must always be careful of my balance: On many occasions, I’ve fallen and needed help to get up, including one call to 911 when my helpful neighbors were not around.

When planning a tasting room visit, I always check and am almost always assured “We are fully ADA compliant.” The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is supposed to ensure that both staff and clients are extended assistance to work or visit. (For California’s ADA requirements, click here.)

Early in the 2000s, Northern California wineries were besieged by a disabled attorney who claimed not even to drink wine but wanted to verify disabled access to tasting rooms and other businesses. When George Louie wasn’t pleased, he filed lawsuits: many, many lawsuits.

Fines for access violations started at $4,000, but defense fees and building improvements multiplied those costs. The town of Yuba City, Calif., settled with Louie for $150,000, with the promise he would never sue another business within the city limits. He claimed to have sued more than 500 commercial establishments, collecting $500,000 in a single year.

Personal recommendations
Louie seems to have moved on to other targets, but as a reporter and supporter of winery tasting rooms, I hope these simple suggestions will be helpful to you and your disabled clientele.

Seating: Provide accessible and comfortable seating for all patrons. As someone who has warmed countless barstools, and once owned a bar myself, I find my present inability to perch atop a barstool ironic and frustrating, but it’s my new reality. Most barstools are too tall for me to clamber into, even with assistance. On the other hand, low upholstered chairs may be easy to ease into, but without sturdy arms, rising from them can be almost impossible. If you can furnish something in the middle, please do so. For the wheelchair bound, tables sized to be rolled up to and under are a must.

Restrooms: For any business serving the public, disabled-accommodating facilities are required. But if these are separate, and normally kept locked, please make sure servers know where they are, have a key handy and willingly provide it. Not too long ago, I visited a tasting room that would have become a hangout, but the facilities were tucked away up a narrow flight of stairs. Although I was having a wonderful time, after a couple of hours of tasting I had to go. I went home.

Teach your servers well: At one tasting room, the manager asked me an awkward question. “What happened to you?” she said. I was dumbfounded (a rare occasion for me). “Did you fall?” she continued. She didn’t really care to hear about the many times I’d fallen, so when I started my boring litany, it effectively stopped that intrusive query.

Later I checked online and found a helpful list of “Seven Things Never to Say to People with Disabilities,” on the DiversityInc website. That question was No. 1 on the list.

Also on the list:
• Speaking slowly or loudly to a person in a wheelchair. (They are physically disabled, not necessarily hard of hearing.)
• “I don’t even see you as a person with a disability.” (It is still a reality.)
• “But you look so good,” or, “Oh, you’re here, so you must feel better.” (Many of us have faced the fact: We’re never going to feel better, although some days may be better than others.)

Also, unless requested, don’t offer unsolicited assistance. My colleague and frequent tasting room partner usually carries my purse and helps me in and out of vehicles, but she knows me and my limitations. Like a cane, your “help” may actually prove confusing, painful or even damaging.

Like the beautiful lighting we normally encounter in tasting rooms, these few changes and tips could easily enhance the entire experience for your disabled patrons and their companions. I do urge you to consider them in this or any season.

Wines & Vines contributing editor Jane Firstenfeld has been writing about the North American wine industry since the 1970s. She covers news, packaging and, of course, tasting rooms in Tasting Room Focus.



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