Observations From Below: Pancakes and Big Macs

It all started at a Woolworth's lunch counter in my home state of North Carolina. The year was 1960 and four young African-American college students began a civil rights protest. They just wanted to eat wherever everyone else ate and have equal treatment within restaurants. I'm pretty sure that most people would be able to tell you the basic details of this famous incident. Most of those same people don't know that people with disabilities have many analogous situations with many of the civil rights milestones.

Segregation came out of a set of laws referred to as the Jim Crow Laws, which were a series of "anti-black" laws, according to a website by Ferris State University. There were another set of laws that most people don't know about called The Ugly Laws, in communities across the U.S. According to Simi Linton, author of the book Claiming Disability, one of the laws read like this:

"No person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city, shall therein or thereon explose himself to public view, under penalty of not less than one dollar nor more than fifty dollars for each offense."

You will never guess what inspired people to challenge these laws. Pancakes. A true story dramatized in the 2007 film The Music Within featured two individuals, one with CP and one who was deaf, went to a local place called the Pancake House to celebrate one of the men's birthdays and were arrested for "turning the other customer's stomachs." This protest and others like it finally led to the repeal of the ugly laws. The last city to repeal was Chicago, where the laws were in effect until 1974. Even with the laws repealed, the treatment of people with disabilities was still unequal. Several McDonald's demonstration made the news. ADAPT, which has the reputation of being the most aggressive disability rights group, shut down multiple McDonald's to protest them not being accessible. All they wanted were hamburgers. They couldn't get into the building and were told they couldn't use the drive thru because they weren't in cars, so they got angry and enlisted the help of other people with disabilities and shut business down by blocking the doors, drive thrus and parking lots. McDonald's mishandled the situations, so the problems began to escalate and then multiple stores were under protest. You can read more about these in Fred Pelka's book, What We Have Done.

Long story short, McDonald's eventually succumbed to pressure and added a bunch of accessibility features to their stores.

I've been in local McDonald's and it is one of the more accessible restaurants around. Title III of the ADA guarantees access to public accommodations including restaurants, but like most of the civil rights laws, it has taken society a long time to fully adjust and become compliant. I have yet to find a bar or a lunch counter, that I can belly up to. We still have a long way to go, but in my opinion, it is slowly improving.

Business owners should keep in mind that there are approximately 57 MILLION people with disabilities in the U.S. alone. That's a lot of cheddar, bread, lettuce, moola, greenbacks... you get the idea. Our money spends just as easily.

I may not have ever been arrested under the ugly laws, but I have been blatantly ignored. In high school, I went out to dinner with a friend and our mothers. When we got to the restaurant, our moms decided to check out the bathroom. Matt and I were seated at the table across from each other. His power wheelchair is as big as mine. The server came by and set out bread plates like I'm sure she always does. But, she never spoke to either one of us. No "what would you like to drink?" No "do you need anything?" Nothing.

Now I'm a fairly intelligent guy, and Matt was a senior who was getting ready to graduate from Wake Forest. The only reason we could think of for her rude behavior in not talking to us was that we are both good looking guys and she must have been intimidated. When the moms returned to the table, the server took our orders as though nothing happened.

The pen is mightier than the sword. My family sent the article to the restaurant and to their corporate headquarters and they sent me a gift certificate and posted my article in their break room.

Contrast that experience with a recent experience. It shouldn't come as a shock that if you treat me well, I am a repeat customer. I have a list of favorite restaurants and even favorite days to visit them. For example, my grandparents and I like to frequent the Ruby Tuesdays in Clemmons. We go so often, that when the staff sees us pull in, they start to ready my table. I have a couple of favorite servers. They always stop by and say hello, whether they are our server or not. They each speak directly to me. I have trained them well.

Now, for all you servers, it is very important for you to talk directly to each person seated at the table. Don't be put off by the way someone looks. Just because someone is in a wheelchair or blind, or deaf, or good looking doesn't mean they aren't capable of placing an order... or leaving a tip.