At what point does a disability become a disability?

I’ve been wondering about what makes a disability a ‘disability’, (and I apologize in advance for any mistakes in terms of legal definitions or assumptions - I imagine this could be a contentious issue, and I don’t mean to offend).

Let’s take a restaurant, a privately owned one. It’s my understanding that the restaurant owner is obligated to provide a certain degree of access; that is, that while not all tables must be accessible by wheelchair, a (certain?) percentage must be. In the restaurant I work at, about 1/3 of the tables are accessible by wheelchair, as well as the entire bar area.
Perhaps a person in a wheelchair is too transparent of an example; there are all sorts of disabilities that do not carry such a visual sign. A person may have a back problems that prevents them from sitting in certain positions, or limits the time they can sit in one place.
Why does a restaurant have to provide wheelchair-accessible seating but not differently-styled chairs for those people that may have back problems? Is it a question of numbers, ie, the percentage of disabled people that are in a wheelchair?

I think I may be conflating two questions here: at what point does the ADA dictate to businesses and cities changes that must be made, and why? Is the goal merely access or accomodation? Secondly, what differentiates a person with some sort of physical problem/ difficulty from someone with a disability? Is is just a legal distinction?

Well there could be a dozen different types of back problems, and each could warrant its own type of chair type for the required comfort. Don’t mean to be rude, but that is just impractical and can be expensive. Where as if you’re in a wheel chair, the only requirement is that you get access. You don’t see those with back problems screaming that they can’t get into a place… it may hurt going in, but they can get in.

Examples of what the restaurant owner should be considering (without answers :wink: )

  • if only a proportion of tables are wheelchair-accessible, how are they allocated? What if all are taken, and somebody turns up in a wheelchair?

  • A customer has sight problems, and cannot read the menu. What do you do?

Why not the ‘back problem’ chairs? Wheelchairs are easily identifiable and can be provided for with little problem. ‘Back problem’ means a unique diagnosis in each case.

On the other hand, one of my employers has invested heavily in computer peripherals to assist people with RSI etc.

The ADA legislation merely requires employers and people holding open spaces for public use (whether for profit or not) to take reasonable steps to make facilities handicapped-accessible. If one customer in 5,000 requires a cervical-pillow support, he’s not obliged to keep one on hand. But making a restroom handicapped accessible or installing ramps to enable handicapped customers to access the facilities at all, is considered reasonable.

To switch to your other alternative, it would be reasonable to expect a restaurant to have a waitress read a menu to someone whose vision is so poor he cannot read it himself. But expecting one to have a waitress trained in American Sign Language in case a deaf customer comes in alone is not reasonable.

There are a lot of specifics in ADA and supporting regulations and opinions as to what constitutes “reasonable” and what is not; a lawyer, planner, or architect might be able to go into substantially more detail.

It’s a question of the likelihood of the disability and the means needed to ameliorate it. Obviously if one person in a million has a problem, or the disability totally precludes the activity in question they’re just SOL. But it’s also a question of whether the issue requires structural/procedural accomodations on the part of the owner. A ramp or a handrail would be one such example. Someone who needs a special back pillow can bring their own special back pillow, there’s no reason the owner should have to keep one on hand.

Many disabilities can be dealt with by simply changing normal procedures. A waiter could read a menu to a blind patron instead of having special braille menus printed. You can make the General Tso’s Chicken without the peppers for the guy with food allergies.* These are virtually free to the proprietor, and allow for an expansion of the customer base.
*No idea why all my analogies are for restaurants, I must be hungry.

Tsk tsk. Deaf people can read just fine, thank you. :stuck_out_tongue:
Sorry, couldn’t help myself.

I know McDonalds has printed menus with the images of the products on them. A deaf (or non-English speaking) customer can just point at what they want to buy.

I’ve read about a theory of a difference between a physical disability and a social disability. I don’t know if there’s anything to do the ADA and those theories, but they’re out there. The physical disability theory is something like a person in a wheelchair not being able to go ice skating because they are physically unable. It’s a social disability if the person in the wheelchair can’t get into the ice rink in the first place.

To fill the above response out just a little, since I don’t totally agree with it as it’s stated. ----

The place of business, and not just the sort of disability, is also considered when deciding when an accommodation is “reasonable” or isn’t. For example, an organization that has a high volume of customers and/or doesn’t suffer an “undue burden” when providing something that the 1 in 5,000 accommodation decribed ----- may very well be required to provided that accommodation. It’s a case by case ddetermination -

I know that – but communicating that you want the steak medium rare; please omit the cucumbers in the salad, I’m allergic to them; what are the ingredients in the restaurant’s signature barbecue; and all that sort of thing requires direct one-on-one with the waitress. Obviously, a Signing companion or a handy notepad (assuming the waitress can read!) will get around this, but I assume you see my point.

You must be a pain in the ass to wait on.



He’s the worst kind; he’s high-maintenance, but he thinks he’s low-maintenance.

Just to answer the question raised by the OP title (I know the discussion is actually on a slightly different point):

A physical or mental condition is a “disability” when it significantly impairs the sufferer’s ability to perform the activities of daily life (AKA “ADL”). In the alternative, it is when a person suffers from two or more conditions, which individually do not so significantly impair ADL, but in combination do so.

That, at least, was the Social Security definition of “disability” in the early 90s, the last time I work in the field of disability law.

Back to your discussion.