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Youth hopes accessibility is the road to Eagle badge

Say you want to go to a particular restaurant, but you can't get through the door.

Or once inside, you won't find a place to sit because your legs don't fit under the table. Maybe, at this restaurant, there's never any place to park.

Think you'd return to the place?

For people in wheelchairs, these are everyday considerations. And thanks to the efforts of 13-year-old Joel Williams, deciding where to dine shouldn't involve wasted trips.

Williams, a member of Boy Scout Troop 10, recently ran a field survey to find out how area restaurants are complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act. He did it to earn an Eagle Scout badge, and in the process got a lesson in empathy.

"I really got a feel for what it's like to be in a wheelchair," Williams said. "I learned a lot about how accessible the restaurants are."

Passed in 1990, the ADA requires that all public businesses provide adequate facilities for the disabled. For restaurants that means a host of accessibility features, from Braille menus to aisles wide enough for a wheelchair to maneuver in.

Williams found that most of the 40 restaurants he visited were helpful and cooperative and had made accessibility improvements to their buildings. That's the good news.

The bad news is that four restaurants wanted no part of the survey. When surveyors tried to get into one restaurant, they were detained by security and told to leave the property.

"I thought they would probably be more helpful," Williams said of the restaurants. "My group had two of the four that wouldn't cooperate right after each other, so I started getting a little scared."

Kim Holm, an independent living peer counselor at Self Reliance Inc., had a slightly different reaction.

"I was surprised that some places did not want to participate in the survey," Holm said. "I don't understand where that attitude comes from. I would think anyone would want them to come in."

Holm helped Williams put together his survey and provided wheelchairs for surveyors to use. Because she uses a wheelchair herself, Holm said she knows that an up-to-date dining guide is overdue.

"I was really excited because here at Self Reliance, we don't have a lot of staff support," she said. "I don't think we could have done it any more efficiently than they did."

Williams chose 52 restaurants from the phone book on the basis of size and popularity. He sent letters to each explaining his project and asking for their cooperation. Eight of his choices were either going out of business or already closed, four refused and 40 agreed.

Williams and 27 helpers spent May 15 hopping from restaurant to restaurant with tape measures and checklists. They spent 15 minutes measuring table heights, counting parking spaces and examining bathrooms for accessible stalls.

They checked the size of the letters on menus, noted whether drinking fountains were low enough to reach from a wheelchair, and even measured the grade on wheelchair ramps.

Wide entrance doors were the single most-reported accessibility feature, with 36 of the 40 restaurants exceeding the 32-inch minimum. Towels, soap and a mirror in the accessible bathroom stalls were the least-reported feature, with only three restaurants passing muster.

To make sure the surveyors understood the importance of their work, each ate lunch at the "Insight Cafe" before setting out. The cafe, really a church auditorium, was Holm's suggestion.

Before lunch, surveyors were assigned a wheelchair or a pair of blacked-out sunglasses or given a rope to tie one arm behind the back.

"It just gives them a different perspective," Holm said. "They might have some discomfort, but perhaps they have some idea what it's like to live their life that way. It's not for sympathy, it's for empathy."

Joy Williams, Williams' 17-year-old sister, drew the sunglasses.

"It was awful," she said. "We would talk, and I like to look at people when I talk and I couldn't, so I was cheating."

If his project is approved by Boy Scout officials, Williams will be the third person in his family to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. His 27-year-old brother, Leslie, earned his badge with the same project 11 years ago in Tallahassee.

Joyce Williams, Williams' mother and self-described project secretary, is hoping Scout officials give her son's project the nod.

"Hopefully, we won't have to do it again," she said.

For information on the accessible dining guide, contact Self Reliance Inc., 975-6560.