CHAMPAIGN — Meghan Burke is well familiar with the challenges dining out can pose for someone with a disability.
The ground leading to the entrance may not be level, for instance. It may take more than a limited grasp to get the door open. The condiments may be out of reach on the counter and the soap dispenser in the bathroom may be too high off the floor.
A University of Illinois education professor, Burke and her students have launched a new website to help take the guesswork out of how accessible — or inaccessible — a restaurant may be for customers with special needs.
Access Urbana-Champaign rates 117 full-service and fast food restaurants, coffee shops and ice cream parlors as excellent, good or limited accessibility based on how they perform on 25 accessibility points, such as whether there is sufficient knee clearance under sinks and tables and whether fire and emergency alarms in public areas have signals that can be both heard and seen.
Burke, who teaches physical disabilities and assistive technology, said her own 5-year-old son, Rogan, was classified as having cerebral palsy at the time of his adoption at age 2.
“He wasn’t walking or crawling, so accessibly was really important to us,” she said.
Rogan can walk now but still needs help with stairs for safety’s sake, Burke said. But at an otherwise accessible restaurant she and her family visited for Mother’s Day, the restrooms were down a flight of stairs, she said.
The new website has been modeled on the former Access Nashville, which Burke encountered while she was getting her doctorate at Vanderbilt University.
Many of the restaurants included on the local website are rated good or excellent.
“I think our community is known for being really responsive to people with physical disabilities, so I’m really proud, for the most part, that most of the restaurants were rated so highly,” Burke said.
Not only that, some restaurant staff have been in touch since the website was launched asking what they can do to improve, she said.
She and her students are in the process of developing a template to provide responses. Some restaurant owners may not know, for example, that there’s a free service available to print copies of their menus in Braille, she said.
The public is also weighing in, Burke said. One suggestion has been made to include information on restaurant noise levels, which could have an impact on kids with sensory processing issues.
Burke said she’s also hoping to enhance the website so users can add comments.
Students did on-site research at the restaurants that have been rated — both last fall and again just recently — and the newest information is in the process of being added, Burke said.
It’s important to keep this information up to date, she said.
“The restaurant industry is constantly changing, so it can become obsolete really fast,” she said.