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Dining out with disabilities in Montana no easy task; Advocates call for ADA compliance

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Posted at 10:57 AM, Jun 06, 2024

BILLINGS — Snacking on chips and salsa seems pretty simple, but if you’re a person with disabilities at a local establishment, and the seating isn’t in compliance, it’s a problem. It can even become a mountain too difficult to climb.

Summer baseball and ADA compliance are the topics at hand for Billings friends and fellow disability advocates Ernie Lee and Mitch Bohn.

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Billings disability advocates Mitch Bohn and Ernie lee meet for lunch at ADA compliant Guadalajara Family Mexican Restaurant

“How are you guys today?” says the server at Guadalajara Family Mexican Restaurant restaurant on King Avenue in Billings. “Here’s some chips and salsa for you."

“I have Achondroplasia, which is a form of dwarfism. I'm 4-feet, 4-inches tall,” said Lee. “True story, in another restaurant, I would go to my friend John, and John would literally grab the chair and say okay, get on up there. Honestly, it is a bit embarrassing because obviously you have to ask for assistance.”

When these Billings residents go out to eat, there’s often homework involved. The first step is searching for online images to see if ADA-compliant seating is available.

“How would you feel about not being able to go to your favorite places because they did not have seating for you? That's how I've felt multiple times in Billings, and in my opinion it needs to stop, and it stops with our community,” said Bohn. “I don’t think they are meaning to be non-compliant or non-ADA. It's just ignorance.”

Since 1992, the Americans with Disabilities Act has required 5 percent of restaurant and bar seating to be ADA-compliant. That means low tables among the tall, making both atmospheres accessible to everyone.

“Trust me, when the pictures online show a lack of short seating, people don’t stop at your establishment. They go elsewhere,” said Lee.

ADA enforcement is another story. Despite the law, ADA-compliant seating doesn’t exist in dozens of Montana establishments.

“That's one of the common misconceptions about the ADA, is that it's proactively enforced, but it really isn’t. There’s no ADA inspection or ADA police that happens,” said Emily Shuman, director of the Rocky Mountain ADA Center, which helps individuals and organizations navigate the ADA.

“That's one of the things that the disability community tends to be most frustrated by, is the fact that it does put the ownership on the person with the disability to sort of self-advocate and file that complaint themself,” said Shuman.

That's one reason Bohn has taken matters into his own hands. Born with spina bifida and wheelchair-bound, he’s advocating for himself and others via social media, calling out establishments that aren’t in compliance. Guadalajara Family Mexican Restaurant was one of those restaurants.

“I saw a post from Mitch stating how it was really difficult for him to go to some places because it wasn’t accessible. It really just brought awareness, and we quickly put in the table so he was able to come,” said Veronica Nuno, co-owner of Guadalajara's Restaurant.

“It seemed like it was almost instant,” said Bohn. “I made that post and I think within a day or two they said we have one on order and it will be here within a week. I came in with my dad once, and someone was sitting at this table and they saw me, and they were like, 'Hey, can we have you move because Mitch is here.'”

“We all love him. Everybody here just adores him. We call it Mitch's table,” said Nuno.

But Guadalajara's is one of just a few success stories. A quick scroll through Mitch's social feed, and you’ll see complaints about the Den Sports Bar and Ale House, Peppers, and even Old Chicago and Red Robin.

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“It’s segregation and that’s just not right. You want to watch the sports on TV,” says Ernie Lee.

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Q2 did reach out to the restaurants but received just one reply. Red Robin says they do have a portion of the bar counter at standard height and are now actively ordering an ADA-compliant lower table as another option in the bar area.

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Bohn and Lee are a pair on a mission to give everyone a seat at the table.

Answers to all ADA questions are a phone call away. The U.S. Department of Justice operates a toll-free ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301. Businesses, non-profits, and government entities must adhere to ADA requirements.