There are about 7 million people with vision loss in the U.S. Not every restaurant is equipped to welcome and serve them properly. Here are some steps any operator can take to make a difference:
• Offer braille/large print menus. Companies like Braille Works offer business-to-business braille translation and transcription services. You can also contact local agencies for the blind to see if they can do this service as well. For patrons with low vision, you can offer a menu that’s been photocopied or typed into large print, roughly 16- to 18-point type. If this is not feasible, the server can offer to read the menu to the patron. Instead of reading the whole menu, ask the guest which section they’d like to hear about.
• Make your website accessible. Many restaurants are posting their menus online these days, but the majority of these are photos which are inaccessible for braille and screen readers. A text version helps the patron immensely as many prefer to read the menu before their visit.
• Offer to guide visually impaired patrons to their table. If they consent, let them take you by the elbow or shoulder (so they're half a step behind and can sense the direction you’re moving). Let them know about steps up or down and any obstacles on the way. At the table, place the patron's hand on the back of their chair, this way they can move their hand down your arm onto the chair and seat themselves.
• Ask about seating preference. Many patrons with low vision need a brightly lit area. An optimal spot is a window table where they can sit with their back to the window and everyone else faces the window. Others are sensitive to light and prefer a dimmer area.
• If you have a buffet, label it. Because of low vision, the patron may have trouble identifying foods; labels ease this confusion. For blind patrons, offer to guide them around the buffet and tell them what’s available.
• Describe the plate. When you serve the food, tell the blind patron where everything is on their plate according to a clock face; in other words, "Meat is at 3:00, veggies at 12:00." Also point out where things may be on the table such as where the salt and pepper or condiments are.
• Provide visual clues. Offer to describe the restaurant surroundings, food specials posted or other things of interest. When offering the check, offer to read it aloud to them, and then if they don’t have a signature guide for writing, place their credit or debit card just underneath the signature line to indicate where to sign. When they are leaving, offer to tell them when their ride has arrived, whether they’re with a companion, a ride service or public transit.
• Be respectful. We're all adults here. There's no need to shout or to be condescending, and people with low vision don't need help cutting their meat like children. There's no need to feel awkward, nervous or apologetic for not knowing what to do. Most patrons with vision loss are proactive about their independence and will tell you what they need.
Following these pointers will help your vision-impaired guests and help to ensure their repeat business.
Tracy Stine is a deaf, legally blind freelance writer.