Eating out is usually an opportunity to celebrate, catch up with family and friends and conduct business, but this is not always possible for people with disability.

A new study from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) revealed that many people with disability feel isolated and excluded from eating out, despite years of recognition of their rights and advocacy to reduce discrimination and improve the situation.

The study, Craving inclusion: a systematic review on the experiences and needs of people with disability eating out, recently published in Disability and Rehabilitation, analysed 36 studies focused on research discovering the views of people with disability directly.  Most of the studies related to people with a physical or sensory disability, with only a few examining the experiences of people with intellectual disability, swallowing disability, or communication disability. 

 UTS head of Speech Pathology and lead author of the study, Professor Bronwyn Hemsley described the ongoing barriers to dining out for people with disability as “diverse and pervasive”.

She said the study showed that people with disability cannot take eating out for granted. “Often a café or restaurant is not accessible, or staff show disabling and negative attitudes,” Hemsley said. 

“People with communication disability struggle to get their message across, and those with swallowing difficulty often find there’s nothing on the menu safe for them to eat, or no suitable straws for drinking, and the menu might be inaccessible.  This can lead people to avoid eating out, which means they also have less social interaction and engagement,” she said.

Co-author and UTS research assistant Fiona Given, who has cerebral palsy said: “The lack of research including people like me who struggle with both communicating and swallowing is a surprise, considering how important both conversing and eating are when we go out. 

“The few studies that included people with intellectual disability focused on them being able to order and pay at fast food outlets, rather than on addressing the negative attitudes or lack of knowledge of staff in supporting accessible and enjoyable meals,” she said.

UTS Professor Simon Darcy, who is a power wheelchair user, and study co-author, said operators and service providers need to shift from a mindset of just wanting to meet minimum standards to providing great dining experiences for people with disabilities. 

“People with disability have the same rights as other customers to access safe and enjoyable eating out experiences, and this includes an inclusive and accessible environment and empowering encounters with hospitality staff,” he said. “It is important that people with disability are central to the development of policies and practices, as well as the co-design of future research, to improve the dining experience, which according to our study has seen little if any improvement over the past three decades.”

A range of actions that might make it easier for people with disabilities to eat out at restaurants, include support for effective communication and increased self-determination and self-advocacy, and attention to the design of the environment and hospitality venues, and training hospitality staff about disability access and inclusion.

“A lack of empathy and understanding may indicate that the hospitality industry does not identify people with disability as a potential target market for service, however, given the hospitality industry’s emphasis on personalised service this is perplexing,” Darcy said.

In Australia, approximately one out of every five people live with disability, and at least one million Australians, have a swallowing disability, with many requiring texture-modified foods for a safe and enjoyable meal.