UI professor, students work on website that assesses restaurant accessibility

Zain+Bando%2C+sophomore+in+Media%2C+sits+in+front+of+Brothers+Bar+%26+Grill+on+Green+Street+on+Thursday.+The+bar+has+a+stoop+and+staircase+that+prevents+Bando+from+entering.

Ryan Chow

Zain Bando, sophomore in Media, sits in front of Brothers Bar & Grill on Green Street on Thursday. The bar has a stoop and staircase that prevents Bando from entering.

By Grace Maloney, Staff Writer

When picking a restaurant for dinner, many will decide based on the food quality, wait time or distance from home. However, people with physical disabilities often must consider many other factors about restaurants to determine if they are accessible.

Meghan Burke, professor in Education, has been working on a project with her students to create a website called Access Urbana-Champaign, a tool that assists those with disabilities in choosing a restaurant. 

“We piloted (the project) with James Scholar students about two years ago, looking at how would this work, as an assignment,” Burke said. “Would it resonate with students? Would they get something out of it?” 

Zain Bando, sophomore in Media, uses a wheelchair. He also has used Burke’s website as a tool to find out which restaurants are accessible. While Bando was still in high school, he was in contact with Burke as well to discuss colleges and disability rights. 

“Overall, the accessibility (in Champaign-Urbana) is really good, most of the restaurants that I’ve been to are actually on that list, which is really cool,” Bando said. “The website is a great concept, probably something that should have been implemented years ago, but I’m glad it’s there now because now I don’t have to question which places I can go to because now I have a resource for that.”

Bando said he also thinks there should be a direct phone number or email listed on the Access Urbana-Champaign website to contact to point out missing places or restaurants that should be removed from the list.

“But really, that’s the only thing I see,” Bando said. “I just think (the website) needs to be more publicized.”

This restaurant accessibility project and website have been a part of Burke’s class: SPED 431, Assistive Technology and Physical Disabilities ,for the past couple of fall semesters. The class is also a requirement for Special Education majors.

“(Accessibility) — it’s something we want our pre-service teachers to be thinking about as they’re entering the classroom,” Burke said. 

For the assignment, each student must complete a review of two restaurants.

“We got a pretty good breadth of restaurants in the Champaign-Urbana area,” Burke said. “From there, we use that data to work with the (Applied Technologies for Learning in the Arts and Sciences) program on campus where their interns develop the website using that data.”

Grace Oberg, junior in Education, is currently in Burke’s class.

Each group had a checklist for each restaurant that required students to take measurements of the heights of counters, doorways, soap dispensers in restrooms and a variety of other components that make a space accessible. 

Oberg said the project assignment made her realize there are many factors that go into making a restaurant accessible. 

“There are even restaurants on Green Street that have a step up in front, so (a person with a disability) couldn’t even get in,” she said. “Just things like that definitely open your eyes … it makes me think twice when I’m actually in a restaurant. If I see something that clearly will not work for someone who uses a wheelchair or has different levels of mobility, I definitely just think about that in a way that probably wouldn’t have crossed my mind as much before.”

Marley Friedman, junior in Education, is also a part of this class. 

“(There are) things that you would never think about that make such a big difference for a person in a wheelchair or someone who has a physical disability, and it was very eye-opening and crazy to see all the restaurants not accessible to them,” Friedman said. “Especially at UIUC, it’s really funny because we have one of the highest populations of students with physical disabilities, yet so many of the restaurants had nothing (accessible).”

Friedman said the Chipotle on Green Street claims its upstairs area is handicap accessible, but there is no elevator to get upstairs. 

“The main eating area in Chipotle is small,” Friedman said. “There’s not much room for people to sit in. So sometimes you have to go up, but for people who are in wheelchairs, they can’t go up.”

Burke said the website has gotten positive feedback from people around the community.

“Some restaurants have actually reached out and asked how they can be added to the website,” Burke said.

Burke said she and ATLAS will be working toward upgrading the website so it automatically updates information from anyone who visits the restaurant.

“We want to make the current information on the website as accurate as possible,” Burke said.

Burke and her students have also expressed interest in assessing the accessibility of other types of buildings on campus and in the community in the future.

“It’s important to note that U of I is really good about being an accessible campus but there are always ways to continue to improve that, and just getting more people aware of what it means for a building or restaurant to be accessible,” Oberg said.

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