According to the Centers for Disease Control, roughly 25% of Americans live with a disability of some kind. Many of these disabilities require wheelchairs. A new business requires every customer it can get. Alienating a large percentage of them, along with their friends and family, is a bad plan.

So how do you make your cafe wheelchair accessible? Luckily, I am a freelance accessibility consultant who needs a wheelchair, and I will give you a rundown on how to make your cafe accessible to all your patrons.

  • Build Accessibility in From the Start

  • Make the Entrance Accessible

  • Get Rid of All Stairs in Public Areas

  • Improve Your Interior Design

  • Make Your Bathroom Accessible

Build Accessibility in From the Start

Some business owners (and lobbying organizations) like to complain that making a business handicap-accessible is this Sisyphean hurdle. Don’t buy the drama. Making a business accessible is easy as long as you build it in from the start. The big problem comes from having to close down and make renovations or try to make renovations around customers after something happens.

How To Make A Coffee Shop Wheelchair Friendly ( 5 Amazing Design Tips)If you’re here because you haven’t opened yet, congratulations, you’re already doing something right. The next thing you should do is look at the Americans with Disabilities Act itself. It will tell you in detail what you need to do to be in compliance with the law.

You may want to hire an accessibility consultant as well. Preferably who is disabled. While able-bodied consultants are well-intentioned, they often miss things that a person who regularly uses a wheelchair wouldn’t.

Making the Entrance Accessible

If I’m going somewhere I’ve never been before, whether it’s a cafe or a major gourmet restaurant, the first thing a lot of other disabled people and I do is make the “accessibility phone call.” Now, there are a few key things that I ask about in the accessibility phone call. The first of which is to ask whether or not I can get in the front door. Sometimes, I get “Yes, but (insert some caveat here).” Rule of thumb: If there’s a caveat, it’s not accessible. And the following `answers are completely true answers I have received, and I will explain why they’re not accessible or, in one case, requires some extra work.

“It’s accessible, but….” The Greatest Hits Album.
“It’s accessible, but there’s one step in front.”

Then it’s not accessible. Most motorized chairs can’t do wheelies. They can’t hop up that “one little step” you might see as something minor. Even manual chairs have trouble getting up steps depending on their size. Sometimes a wheelie just can’t get over that “one little step.” Plus, what goes up must eventually come down and for someone in a wheelchair, going down a step is scary. Even hitting a crack in the sidewalk can send us flying if we’re going too fast, and even going over a curb can mean falling out of our chairs and getting hurt.

“It’s accessible, but we need to have somebody come to bring out the temporary ramp from the closet (or some other storage area).”

That’s not accessibility either. Picture this scenario: It’s raining. You want to go to your favorite cafe, but there’s no ramp. Some employees must go to the backroom, get the temporary ramp and bring it out and set it up. This takes around 10-15 minutes because they have to handle the other customers while dealing with the ramp. By that point, you’re soaked and not a happy wheelchair-using customer.

Of course, that scenario assumes that the person with access to the temporary ramp is in the shop that day. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to go somewhere else because the only employee with the key to the ramp was not in the store.

“It’s accessible, but we’ll have to lift you the stair.”

Let me explain why this real answer is bad: Unless they’re under the age of 5, people in wheelchairs do not like to be lifted (and in the case of children, the parents would not like it). It can be scary, and there is the exceedingly real chance that whichever employee gets stuck doing the lifting might drop the chair and damage it and hurt us in the process. It is worth noting that many wheelchairs are as expensive as a used car.

How To Make A Coffee Shop Wheelchair Friendly ( 5 Amazing Design Tips)

Having to lift chairs is bad for your employees too. People have gotten hurt trying to lift these chairs, and in terms of lost productivity and workers comp, it cost the employer more than putting in a ramp at the front door.

“It’s accessible, but you’ll need to use the side entrance.”

This can be arguable. While some may see having to use a different entrance from everyone else as discriminatory, most of us understand that this is the best a business owner can do if the person he’s leasing from won’t let them put the ramp on the front door. However, some measures should be taken to make sure side entrances are safe and practical. For starters, they need to be illuminated so that users feel safe. A female wheelchair user may not appreciate having to go around a dark alley to get to the side entrance. Secondly, it should be unlocked, or if that’s not possible, the key must be available at all times to all workers so the disabled customer can be let in quickly.

The Doorway

Most standard home doorways are between 23-27 inches. For a wheelchair, this isn’t great. The ADA mandates that a door be 32 inches or more. Not only does this allow wheelchairs to enter, it prevents your door from being damaged and you from being sued. If you ever get the chance, get an automatic door or a door that can be opened with a button.

Get Rid of All Stairs in Public Areas

One weird thing I’ve seen in some buildings is a random inclusion of “a little stair” leading from one area of the cafe to the next. Again, that “little stair” is a big problem. Hazardous to get down, impossible to get up without help. If you can’t help that there’s a stair, plan around it. Build a ramp or get a lift. That way, your disabled customers can see your whole cafe. If you have special events, make sure they’re accessible. It’s a bad look when a cafe that markets itself as “inclusive” holds most of its events down in the basement where no wheelchair-using people can go. On another note, make sure decorations for special events don’t impede accessibility.

Check out what customers want in a coffee shop HERE.

Improve Your Interior Design

Of course, getting into the cafe is pointless if there’s nowhere to sit. You should endeavor to have some seats specifically for disabled customers. Or better yet, places with no seats so a person in a wheelchair can just park there. Failing that, inform your customers that an area is set aside for disabled people and that if a disabled person needs to use it, the able-bodied customers will need to trade spots.

One weird trend in the restaurant industry has extra tall tables and chairs. Maybe it’s some sort of avant-garde thing. I find this baffling because I’ve never seen those chairs used unless it was a rush and there was nowhere else to sit. Short people can’t use them even if they are able-bodied. Transferring from a wheelchair is out of the question. It astounds me that an establishment would spend money on chairs a large number of customers can’t use or won’t use unless there are no other options. Keep your tables and chairs normal-sized.

Your cafe will likely have a self-serve station for things like cream and sugar. Sometimes, this station is too tall for people in wheelchairs. You should make sure it’s around the height of the average table or have a separate station for disabled or short people.

How To Make A Coffee Shop Wheelchair Friendly ( 5 Amazing Design Tips)


On average, the second question I ask when making an accessibility call is whether or not the bathroom is accessible. However, there does seem to be some confusion on what an accessible bathroom is.

Some business owners think that you can slap some grab bars onto a bathroom stall and call it accessible. While grab bars are important, they’re a small part of accessibility. If the wheelchair can’t get into a stall, it’s a pointless exercise. Your bathroom stall should meet ADA requirements. The door should be more than 32 inches, and they should be able to turn around and shut the stall door.

One ingenious idea I’ve seen is to put the stall at a right angle. The person can go in, turn around, shut the door and go to the bathroom.

One less genius idea is using the handicap bathroom as a spare storage area. This is not a good plan. Keep your bathroom stalls clutter-free.

Don’t forget to make sure sinks, soap dispensers, and mirrors are also at a height people in wheelchairs can use comfortably.

How To Make A Coffee Shop Wheelchair Friendly ( 5 Amazing Design Tips)

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What are some other accessibility tips?

Your accessible spots for tables aren’t in the aisle. That can be a fire hazard and a problem for all involved. You should also keep all cords away from the aisles, so they don’t get tangled up. Train some employees to help carry things for a disabled customer upon request.

2. Does accessibility help able-bodied customers?

Absolutely! Like I said earlier, when you have a self-service station for people in wheelchairs and forego the tall tables and chairs, you help shorter able-bodied customers. When you have a ramp at the front door, you’re helping the person in the wheelchair and the lady with a kid in the stroller. This is a phenomenon called “the curb-cut effect.” When you make your cafe more accessible for the disabled, you make it more accessible for everyone.

To learn more on how to start your own coffee shop checkout my startup documents here

Please note: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal expert to address your specific needs.