My mom and I went to celebrate my birthday at a certain fancy-shmancy restaurant in Napa Valley – our restaurant of choice for all birthday celebrations since 1995. My mom went in ahead of me, with the intention of getting us a table. She came back upset by the rude way the hostess had treated her.
I then went in to make a reservation (turned out they were closed for another hour), and the hostess talked to me with some combination of a sour and snippety demeanor. It’s not what she said; it was her body language and tone. I came back and asked my mom what the hostess had been like to her. My mom reported the same attitude.
So we considered ditching the restaurant. I really didn’t feel like dealing with any unpleasantness. Living with obvious physical and mental disabilities for decades, however, my mom unfortunately has learned to suck it up. The upside is it doesn’t seem to particularly get to her, so she didn’t mind going back. She left the decision up to me.
I chose to not let someone’s attitude affect my celebration, so we returned to claim our table. But not before I called and asked to speak with the manager, to share our experience. He was unavailable. We said fuck it and went anyhow.
I don’t know if it was that phone call that did it (perhaps the hostess recognized my voice), or if the hostess had just been in a bad mood previously – having nothing to do with us. Regardless, she suddenly was all smiley and friendly when we came to get our table, which was terrific.
We sat at the edge of the patio, overlooking the exquisite beauty of the vineyard. My mom sat on her walker, as she always does, and put on a full-length plastic bib, as she’s taken to doing recently — to prevent getting her clothes all dirty. I had the sense that the waiter was quietly smirking at my mom, but it was nothing blatant.
When the bread assistant went back indoors, however, I followed close behind, to use the restroom. As soon as I opened the door, I saw the waiter and bread assistant laughing mockingly, and I knew it was about my mom. Confirming my instinct, they stopped as soon as they saw me.
I glared as I passed. I continued glaring as they served us. I also stopped eating, having lost my appetite (which seriously never, ever happens). My mom knew something was pissing me off, but I didn’t want to tell her what it was, so as to spare her feelings.
When I saw the bread assistant standing by himself on the other end of the patio, I got up and walked over to him. “What’s your name?” I asked. He told me. “It is in bad taste to mock disability and age,” I said evenly. “Yes ma’am,” he replied solemnly. I was impressed that he neither tried to deny his actions nor defend them. I walked back to the table.
I couldn’t stand the sight of our waiter anymore. So I asked him to bring over the manager. I reported what had happened and asked for a change of wait staff. The manager apologized profusely and did as requested. I was impressed by what he said:
“Employees can be very good at some things but need life experience to gain the kind of maturity and sensitivity they need in these situations.” I liked the way he not only took the situation seriously but also approached it as a learning experience. That’s very cool.
Midway through our meal, the general manager (another guy) came over and apologized as well for his “immature staff.” He gave me his card. I appreciated the gesture.
The new wait staff doted on us sans attitude. And while I still did feel a damper on the celebratory experience I had sought, I appreciated the experience I got in its place, as well as this insight: Access is way more than physical. It is emotional and psychological too. So what if you have a wheelchair ramp. How do you treat the people who use it?
As my mom said to the general manager, “Lots of people with disabilities hide from places like this. But I go places and do what I need to do so as to be here.” That’s because my mom is a force to be reckoned with – walker, ten bags hanging off it, head-to-toe plastic bib, monster hat, severe arthritis, curved spine, ADD, anxiety disorder, brain damage, and all.
Unless and until it is a non-issue for the millions of people like my mom to be seen in public and get the dignified and respectful treatment that all human beings deserve, our society will still have a long way to go before it can claim disability access.