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On Second Thought

When the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law on July 26, 1990, many business owners bemoaned what they saw as an unnecessary and costly intrusion into the business of business. Restructuring jobs, altering the layout of work stations or modifying equipment would prove costly, and quite possibly, affect the bottom line.#

Some restaurant, hotel, grocery store and retail store owners, in particular, resented being required to provide wheelchair ramps, accessible bathrooms and menus in braille. Most did not print menus in braille and large print, preferring instead to save money by having staff read a list of available selections to visually impaired customers, an option that is acceptable under ADA guidelines. The law specified that for existing structures, barriers to services must be removed if readily achievable. Ramps cost money, as do handicap accessible bathrooms, so many business owners did the absolute minimum in order to comply with the new law.

Those business owners who resisted ADA were right. Adding ramps, accessible bathrooms and braille/large print menus does have an impact on the bottom line. Unfortunately, for those who don’t make the effort to accommodate the more than one-half million Mississippians with disabilities, the result is less profit.

Mississippi’s blind community is an excellent example of a profitable market targeted by a few progressive and highly successful restaurateurs. Discussions with a few of the estimated 10,000 visually impaired citizens of our state living in places like Tupelo, Hattiesburg, Hazelhurst, Meridian, Biloxi and in metro Jackson produced some interesting findings. Most of those contacted prefer to eat at the following restaurants: Applebee’s, Copeland’s, Cotton District Grill (Starkville), Cracker Barrel, Fenian’s, Harvey’s (Tupelo), Keifer’s, McDonald’s, Red Lobster and Ruby Tuesday’s. What do these restaurants have in common? They go the extra mile, approximately $10 per menu, to offer braille to their customers. According to those in the blind community I spoke with, sometimes it is just nice to sit and read a menu.

When a new restaurant that offers braille menus opens in Mississippi the word spreads rapidly among the blind community. When Copeland’s opened in Jackson last year, stocked with a whopping five braille menus, the Mississippi Council of the Blind reported the event in its statewide newsletter. Is it a coincidence that McDonalds, one of Americas most successful restaurants, was one of the first to offer braille and large type menus?

In our state, when you factor in a 2.5-person family unit, approximately 25,000 Mississippians are likely to dine with someone who is visually impaired on any given day. Mississippians in wheelchairs don’t dine alone either and most of them will be happy to tell you where they never eat. Would you eat at a restaurant with bathrooms that you can not use? Of course not.

Still not convinced.

A recent lunch appointment with a blind associate was quite an educational experience for me. We went to a restaurant in Jackson, one of my favorites, despite her vocal protest. When we got to the counter, there were no braille menus. The place was so noisy that she had difficulty hearing the server, who had to repeat herself several times, while reading the menu. Customers in other lines were also ordering, which just made the entire exercise more confusing. I will not suggest that we dine there again, despite the fact that it is my favorite restaurant. The experience was obviously frustrating for her, resulting in a less than pleasant dining experience for all of us.

Braille and large print menus are so inexpensive that I can’t imagine why any business owner wouldn’t want them. There are a number of resources that provide transcription services. The National Federation of the Blind, (301) 659-9314 and the National Braille Press, (617) 266-6160, have free public service brochures describing many of these resources. Locally braille/large print transcription is done by the Jackson Chapter of the Mississippi Council of the Blind, 1-888-346-5622 or (601) 371-0603.

More than one-half million Mississippians live with some form of disability. For those businesses in our state that are not accessible, that is a large number of customers who shop and dine elsewhere.

Can your business afford to lose customers because your bathrooms are not accessible, you don’t have a telecommunication devices for deaf customers or braille menus? You may be losing customers every day and not even realize it. Contact the Mississippi Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities (601) 969-0601 if you have questions about the accessibility of your business.

Donald Simmons Jr., an award-winning writer and lecturer, received his Ph.D. at the University of Denver. His column appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal.


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