By Susan Odgers
— Here is a letter I received:
This summer I read that famed chef and northern Michigan enthusiast Mario Batali named a Traverse City fine dining restaurant amongst his nine worldwide favorites. While I'm thrilled that he appreciates our area, I find it wrong that the eatery he favors is inaccessible to people with disabilities.
As a person who uses a wheelchair, I have had to decline numerous invites to this downtown restaurant because of the stairs and inaccessible restrooms. This is a well-established and thriving business. I don't understand why other businesses have had to follow the law and make their sites accessible, and this one has not. Why in 2012 would Mr. Batali celebrate a public facility that doesn't want me, and all people with disabilities, as their customers?
Because of Mr. Batali's celebrity endorsement, I wonder how many local employers and families intend to have their holiday parties at this restaurant.
In the four years I've written this column, I've received many letters like this one.
Before I get into this letter, I want to share a related situation from my own life.
A few years ago, I was invited to friend's holiday work party at a different establishment. I asked my friend if the spot was accessible. She assumed it was. Because this friend was fairly new to access, I decided to call the restaurant and ask a few specific questions. Quickly, I learned that the place was actually very inaccessible. We would be dealing with a long steep set of entrance stairs, a tiny bathroom and a room packed full of tall tables and bar stools.
If I wanted to attend, I'd have to be dangerously carried up all of the steps in my formal attire, not drink anything for several hours because I wouldn't be able to use the restroom and I'd have to look up at people all night because of the height of the tables. I decided to not attend the party. My friend was crushed. She had been looking forward to a fun evening together where she could introduce me to her professional colleagues.
So, what could she do? As a fairly new employee, she didn't know how much she should push her employer to move the gathering. She also thought her career would be hurt if she didn't attend the celebration. This was also where the yearly recognition awards and bonuses were distributed.
My friend went to management. They moved the site of the holiday party. I went and watched her receive public recognition from her boss for her advocacy. Years later, she still works there.
Back to the above letter. I am all too familiar with the situation the writer addresses.
I've been told that several people in our community are currently working to find a solution to this specific problem. From what I've heard, folks are collaborating with many other people with disabilities. They're reaching out to include able-bodied allies. They're writing and calling the owners of the restaurant. Again. Letters are also being written to Mario Batali. They're researching the facts with city and state building code enforcers. They're arranging meetings with elected officials, creating a public education campaign and consulting with legal experts.
Ed. note: The restaurant that Susan Odgers is referring to is The Cooks' House at 115 Wellington in Traverse City. Chef and owner Eric Patterson responded Friday that the restaurant is housed in a circa 1860s building whose previous occupants were granted an exemption from requiring handicap access because there is no feasible way to install a ramp.
"It's not like we've snubbed our nose to the handicapped ... do you know what it's like to get the ADA board to give you any sort of OK to not have handicapped accessible? If they would have thought it was feasible to get a ramp in here, they would have forced them (previous occupants) to do it when they turned it into a restaurant.
"That said, we are doing our very best, and it is in the plans to get maybe a lift of some sort."
Adding a lift would hinge on cost, however.
"This building is 150 years old," he said. "It's not even my building. I think it's unfair to paint us in that light."
Perhaps at the holidays, even more so than other times of the year, all of these issues for some people seem more vivid.
Susan Odgers, a resident of Traverse City for the past 25 years, has used a wheelchair for 36 years. She is a faculty member at Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State University. She can be reached via the Record-Eagle.