Accessibility survey of downtown Iowa City restaurants in the works

Iowa City ped mall at night. — Photo by Alan Light

Local disability rights activists Harry Olmstead and Jeffrey Ford are teaming up with University of Iowa students, city officials and other community partners to survey downtown Iowa City restaurants for accessibility. The project may eventually expand to include other businesses as well.

“This is happening all over the U.S. with people in the disability community,” Olmstead said. “Everything from parks and rec to restaurants to lodging, we’re saying they’re not accessible, and that’s the truth.”

Volunteers and possibly University of Iowa Social Work 101 students will disperse throughout Iowa City in late August armed with knowledge, forms and tape measures. Businesses that are found to be accessible will be given a sticker with a wheelchair graphic so that passersby will know if they’re accessible before they visit. Restaurants that take steps to come into compliance will be able to request an inspection at any time.

“It creates the opportunity for conversation and that’s where change can start to happen,” Michael Daly, a UI graduate student who helped develop the project said.

Olmstead emphasized that the project is a partnership with local restaurateurs and can be a learning opportunity. The effort will be guided by a coalition that will include members of the restaurant community, city officials and people with disabilities. A longer-term goal of the coalition is to bring experts and business owners together at an educational conference on barriers to accessibility and the most practical ways to address them. They hope restaurant owners can learn from each other about overcoming challenges, Samantha Mestan, a UI graduate student who helped develop the project, said.

Restaurants that pass inspection will be given this sticker. — Photo by Eleanore Taft

“Accessibility has many different meanings,” Olmstead said. Barriers patrons with disabilities face, and the challenges restaurants face in addressing those barriers, can be unique and varied. The group toyed with a number of more complex and varied sticker designs to reflect the complexities of accessibility, but ultimately settled on a simple design that won’t require as much background information to understand. The group plans to develop a website where more detailed information will be available and all the restaurants in compliance will be listed along with links to their websites.

“The challenge was to create a simple intervention for a complex problem,” Michael Markham, a UI graduate student who helped develop the project, said.

The project will focus on entrance accessibility, tables height, distance between tables, bathroom door handles, accessibility of sink faucets, grab bars around toilets, toilet height and possibly the availability of braille menus, which can be ordered from the Iowa State Library for the Blind.

“We’ll be as non-biased as we can possibly be with something like this,” Olmstead said.

Olmstead said the cost of the project should be minimal, since the stickers have already been purchased and most of the work will be carried out by volunteers. Olmstead is still looking for a sponsoring local organization to help cover the cost of materials.

To volunteer with the project, get involved as a restaurant owner or for more information, contact Harry Olmstead at or (319) 855-2666.

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