Skip to main content

New Website Rates Accessibility in Local Restaurants in Illinois

October 29, 2019

Dining out can be challenging for people with disabilities. Accessible parking spaces may be limited, bathrooms may be cramped and large-print or Braille menus may not be available – causing what should have been an enjoyable outing to become overshadowed by frustration and embarrassment.

A new website, Access Urbana-Champaign, was created by a University of Illinois faculty member and her students to help people with disabilities determine – before they visit – whether the ice cream parlor everyone’s raving about or the restaurant with the tantalizing aromas is designed and equipped to accommodate customers with diverse abilities and needs.

Special education professor Meghan Burke developed the website in collaboration with undergraduate and graduate students in special education, the James Scholar honors program and student interns from Applied Technologies for Learning in the Arts and Sciences.

ATLAS is a unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that provides information technology services to researchers, students and staff members on campus.

Access Urbana-Champaign rates 117 local restaurants as having excellent, good or limited accessibility based upon a 25-item survey completed by Burke’s students, who assessed each building’s accessibility and compliance with universal design standards.

These standards include doors that can be opened easily by patrons who have limited grasps, for example.

With surveys in hand, students in Burke’s class visited each of the restaurants during the 2018 and 2019 fall semesters to assess accessibility, meticulously measuring the dimensions of dining tables, doorways, bathroom stalls and fixtures. They noted whether the restaurant was on or near city bus routes, if the entrance was on level ground, and whether accessible parking spots were available in its parking lot or within one block of the building.

Website visitors can view the full criteria and each restaurant’s assessment.

Along with formal restaurants, the site includes coffee shops and cafes, bakeries, doughnut shops and ice cream parlors. Users can sort the list of restaurants by their accessibility rating or alphabetically, by price or by their score on a popular customer-rating website.

To plan their visit, users can select a link that maps the restaurant’s location.

Maureen Gilbert, the coordinator of the Office of Campus Life in the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services, who reviewed the website prior to its debut last month, said it is “very well done. It is very organized, easy to use, and the creators spent time ensuring it has met accessibility standards.”

Burke’s inspiration for Access Urbana-Champaign was a similar but now-defunct website called Access Nashville, which rated Music City’s restaurants on accessibility. That project was part of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities’ Tennessee Disability Pathfinder.

Burke, who attended graduate school at Vanderbilt University and joined the College of Education’s faculty in 2014, said replicating the site provided learning opportunities for her preservice students in special education at the U. of I.

“One of the courses that I teach is ‘Assistive Technology and Physical Disabilities,’ so the project fits nicely into that topic. And I also now have a son, Rogan, with a physical disability, so accessibility hits home personally,” she said.

As the surveys indicate, the accessibility of local restaurants varies widely, Burke said.

“The Champaign-Urbana area is, for the most part, very disability-friendly and interested in being responsive to that population,” Burke said. “Some restaurants have contacted us to ask how they did on the survey and if we had suggestions on how they could do better.”

Currently, Burke’s James Scholar students are investigating how the survey rubric could be adapted to inclusive design standards for people with nonvisible disabilities such as autism.

The ATLAS program provided two student interns each semester to develop the website. Lily Ho, the current student technical coordinator for ATLAS internships, joined the project team last spring. Her work included creating a user interface for updating the surveys, digitizing the survey and refining the restaurants page.

A senior majoring in computer science and astronomy with minors in business and informatics, Ho said the team may develop a certificate – similar to the health code certificates that local eateries currently display – so the restaurants can promote their accessibility.

Burke said that as long as she is teaching the course, she will have students conduct the surveys regularly so the website can be updated to keep users aware of renovations that impact restaurants’ accessibility and keep the list of restaurants current.

Source: Illinois News Bureau