Going Out to Dinner

By Ivan Suzman

When you have Parkinson's disease, going out to a restaurant can either be a fun-filled adventure or a challenging experience. So how can you make it work? Before you make that dinner reservation, here are some common-sense tips to make dining out enjoyable.

Choosing the Restaurant

First, call the restaurant beforehand to confirm that it has accessible facilities and policies (all restaurants should, but it is good to be on the safe side). As you read this column, jot down notes on your special concerns - for example, the availability of wheelchair-accessible seating - and make sure to address these issues when you call.

You may also want to restrict your choices to places that serve the meal at your table. Buffet-style restaurants that require the customer to juggle a tray with a dinner plate and a drink can present special difficulties for someone who lives with Parkinson's. And if you have a problem with balance, backing away from a buffet table could cause a fall!

Another consideration is timing. Because most people go out to eat after 6 PM, you may want to get there before others arrive - sometime around 5 PM is best. This option has several advantages: you will be seated more quickly, get your food faster and be able to dine with more privacy. Just be sure to coordinate your eating time so that you are dining when your medications are most effective.

If you have dietary restrictions, ask about the menu and specific food choices. Hilary Blue of Virginia reminds vegetarians to verify in advance that vegetables are offered not just as side dishes but also as main courses. This is especially important for people who live with Parkinson's, as some find that protein-heavy meals can interfere with their medications.

Navigating Wheelchairs and Other Mobility Devices

For people who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices, there are several important factors to consider before going out to eat. If a restaurant has a parking lot, make sure that it provides accessible parking for the disabled. If the only parking available is on a public street, find out ahead of time if the street has sidewalk curb cuts (also known as curb ramps) to facilitate wheelchair access. If the path is not clear, ask the restaurant's manager for an alternative method of providing access.

Find out about the main entrance, and confirm that you can get through the door. If there are stairs or steps, make sure that they can be "ramped." Also, take special note of where the restrooms are located. If they are below or above the floor on which you are dining, make sure that an elevator or ramp is available. There should also be enough space in the restrooms for you to turn easily.

Wheelchair users should check to see if the restaurant's dining tables are at least 28 inches from the floor to the top of the table. If a person wishes to transfer from the wheelchair to regular seating, the restaurant staff should offer to move the wheelchair to an area of the restaurant where there is less traffic.

Leisurely Dining

Even if you do not use a mobility device, it is still a good idea to pay attention to the seating. Mrs. Paul Coressel wrote from Ohio to tell us about her husband's preference for chairs with arms. She explained how much easier the arms make it to get in and out of the chair.

If you experience difficulties with speech, it is important that the restaurant's employees communicate effectively with you. They should allow you sufficient time to speak, or supply a pen and pad if you request it. Note that all restaurants are required to allow service animals to accompany customers with disabilities.

Most restaurants make reasonable modifications to their policies and procedures to accommodate customers with disabilities. These include keeping bendable straws on hand and providing a glass, cup or dish of a different size if requested. For meat-lovers, Mrs. Joseph J. Liantonio of Florida suggests asking the waiter or the chef to cut up steak or chops into bite-sized pieces before being served. This helps her husband, who has PD, enjoy the experience of dining out. While enjoying your after-dinner coffee, be careful to avoid spills and burns. Lillian Scenna of Maine recommends asking for only half a cup at a time.

These measures are courtesies that are generally accepted as good business practice. Remember, thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), no restaurant can deny service to a person with a disability simply because of that disability or because of behavior that results from it. For more information on the ADA, visit www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/adahom1.htm. You will usually find that most restaurants are happy to have your business, and are more than willing make the necessary adjustments to keep it. After all, the customer is always right!

Ivan Suzman has lived with young-onset Parkinson's disease for 20 years. He resides in Portland, Maine, worked with PDF on various projects, including writing this regular newsletter column, The Parkinson's Mailbag.

Originally published in the Fall 2005 issue of PDF News & Review.