Photo Credit: Public Domain
Published August 5, 2021
The Tennessee Conservative [By Jason Vaughn] –
Pandemic reopening guidelines forced businesses and restaurants to make a number of changes to their normal operations. Advocacy groups for the disabled are speaking out against changes that have made these businesses less accessible for some individuals and have pushed businesses to be out of compliance with federal laws protecting the rights of those people.
The restaurant industry in particular has been marred by these changes. Indoor capacity was decreased, outdoor seating was expanded, and preventative tools such as sneezeguards and hand sanitizing stations were set up in an attempt to serve customers while minimizing the spread of the virus.
While these changes may have allowed restaurants to open their doors, they are not opening them to all customers. Many of these changes, such as setting up chairs and tables on public sidewalks, have created additional difficulty for disabled individuals.
State Representative Darren Jernigan of Old Hickory – a wheelchair user – says these changes are not just an inconvenience – they are a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This legislation provides specific guidelines for restaurants and other businesses about accessibility for individuals.
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“That was stunning to me, that they’re just going to block the sidewalk for people to sit,” Jernigan said. “For folks, especially folks in chairs, I had to go to the other end, cross the street, and use that (and) go back the other way.”
Advocates for the disability community hope that loosening COVID-19 restrictions will lead to a return of those accessibility options.
“Accessibility is good business,” said Brandon Brown, executive director of Empower Tennessee. “When you can make your business accessible to the greatest number of customers, then your ability to widen and deepen your customer base and your bottom-line profit increases. Why wouldn’t a business want to do that?”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are over 1.7 million Tennessee residents with some form of a disability – nearly one-third of adults in the state.
Advocates say that businesses are cutting themselves off from a large number of customers by pushing the needs of those people aside.
“(Restaurant owners) are in the business to make money, I get that. So as many tables as they can fill, obviously, the better off they’re doing,” said Evan Espey, Technology and Access Coordinator at Empower Tennessee. “But remember, people with disabilities do have money to spend as well.”
Not only do businesses risk the loss of profit from those individuals, but they potentially lose out on money from the friends and families of those people as well.
“The disability community is a very tight-knit community,” stated Jernigan. “If you find out some place doesn’t have access, we just don’t go there.”
Other COVID regulations, such as masks, have created unnecessary problems for others, such as those who are hearing impaired and rely on reading lips for communication.
Espey says that he hopes the changes made at a moment’s noticed because of the pandemic will show restaurants and other businesses just how easy it is to make adjustments to accommodate people.
“I’m hopeful that, at least on an individual basis, (the pandemic) will enlighten owners and managers,” Espey stated. “Oh yeah, we can easily flip some tables. Just give us a couple of minutes, and we can easily accommodate you.”
The Tennessee Disability Coalition provides guidelines on their website, reminding people that “the rights of people with disabilities to accessible programs and services remain and cannot be waived during a pandemic.”
About the Author:
Jason Vaughn, Media Coordinator for The Tennessee Conservative
Jason previously worked for a legacy publishing company based in Crossville, TN in a variety of roles through his career. Most recently, he served as Deputy Directory for their flagship publication. Prior, he was a freelance journalist writing articles that appeared in the Herald Citizen, the Crossville Chronicle and The Oracle among others. He graduated from Tennessee Technological University with a Bachelor’s in English-Journalism, with minors in Broadcast Journalism and History. Contact Jason at news@TennesseeConservativeNews.com