Dear careless restaurateur: Screw you and your stairs

Dear careless restaurateur: Screw you and your stairs

When you have mobility issues, the message from most eateries is clear: you’re not wanted here.

We are a falling family. We fall down near salad bars, in café courtyards, down flights of stairs studded with fancy downlighters. Most of the time, we laugh it off. My sister will initially refuse the help of a waiter to pull her up off the floor. She’ll close her eyes and count to three as she tries to get up on her own. Then, after a few attempts, she’ll submit to strong arms, swallowing her pride as she is heaved into an upright position, where she’ll need a few minutes to steady herself. “Don’t let me go,” she will urge the waiter. “Just keep holding me.”

Eating out is the only leisure activity my sister can do. It was the same for my mother and brother, before their bodies were eventually whittled away by muscular dystrophy. While she is not confined to a wheelchair, my sister struggles to walk and balance. She can’t do stairs, nor even faintly uneven ground, and grass, cobbles and paving are out. She can’t walk more than 50 metres without getting tired and unsteady, and her poor balance means she has to grope her way along walls and between tables, clinging on to the backs of chairs. And if a restaurant chair or pub bench is too low, she won’t be able to get up. “Just leave me here,” she’ll say. “With a basket of chips and a gin.”

Growing up, our family often went on day trips, with the main purpose being a picnic or a braai somewhere beautiful. They were never fancy affairs: we four kids would pile into the back of my dad’s work bakkie and drive to Nagle Dam, or Giant’s Castle, or Shongweni, where we’d eat Cream Crackers and hard-boiled eggs. Sometimes, usually around pay day, my dad would haul out a metre of wors and a chunk of chuck and throw the meat on the fire, and we’d get grease around our mouths and pretend to smoke sticks.

My father was never scared of driving far. With Giant’s Castle about a three-hour trip one way, we’d leave early in the morning, and by Winterton my brothers would be fighting, and my legs would have gone numb from the engine vibrations. Just before the gate to the reserve, we’d turn into the trout farm, and I’d turn away as my dad picked out three live fish, which were then caught and swiftly bashed against the side of the pool. Sometimes they still had blood around their mouths when we put them on the grill. Sitting on a blanket in the shade of a pine tree, we’d peel off strips of the pink flesh, put them on white rolls spread with too much margarine, and sit in silence as we ate, gazing at the mountains cut out against the blue sky, listening to the breeze swishing through the trees.

Over the years, my dad graduated from a bakkie, to a Passat, to a secondhand Audi. My two brothers and I got acne, jobs and our own bedsits, but our family still gathered for regular meals together: Sunday roasts, Saturday braais, dinners at restaurants, where we sometimes drank a bit too much wine and went home with bags of lamb-shank bones for the dogs. Back then, food was just one way we bonded. My mother and siblings were still mobile and could go for walks, or holidays, or rides on boats. But as their dystrophy worsened, those activities became increasingly out of reach, and going out for a meal, or a coffee, was one of the few excursions they could manage. Once the car was parked, the only navigating they had to do was a short walk to a table, and then there they were – out with the rest of the world, laughing through steam.

But, inevitably, things got worse. My brother began to have problems chewing and would take ages to finish a meal. My mother developed swallowing issues and often choked on her food, making deep gagging noises that would have the whole restaurant swivelled around. Sometimes she threw up. My sister began to need help ascending or descending stairs. But despite these difficulties, we persisted. And as my mum choked, my brother chewed and chewed and my sister struggled to get up from her chair, we would shake our heads and laugh about what wrecks we were. 

Sometimes other people noticed too, and I once lectured a couple of diners who were gawking at my sister as she made her way to the toilet. Like many people with mobility issues, she doesn’t look obviously impaired: there are no missing limbs or scars or injuries. The type of dystrophy she has – myotonic – results in muscle wasting and particularly affects the hip girdle, and face, neck and limb muscles. Hence, she walks heavily, from the hips, with her legs almost straight. When I saw the couple staring at my sister, whispering to each other, and then staring again, I got up, marched over and told them all about muscular dystrophy, and if they had any questions, they should just ask. My sister grinned as she continued on her way.

Nowadays, taking my sister out requires more planning, and I have often got it horribly wrong. But getting it horribly wrong has made me aware of how most restaurants, pubs and cafes fail to make provision for people who are differently abled. Like so many spheres of South African society, they confirm a bias towards a certain, homogenous type of person viewed as desirable: vanilla, snappy, able-bodied, young and straight. The message to everyone else? You’re not welcome here.

I once booked a table at a Cape Town restaurant for my sister’s birthday, forgetting that the only access was via a flight of steps. Determined to enjoy the evening, she took a good 20 minutes to struggle up the stairs, clinging to the railings and dragging herself up while fragrant diners wafted past. Once inside, and after a much-needed cocktail, my sister asked the waiter where the toilets were. “Up those stairs, turn left, then up again, and they’re on the right,” he replied. My sister didn’t laugh. “I really need the loo,” she whispered to me, her eyes wide with panic. I found our waiter and explained the situation, and my sister was eventually led through the kitchen and down a passage, out into a dark gravelled courtyard, to an outhouse with no lights and no toilet paper. We went home early. 

There have been other incidents: the time my mother got stuck on the toilet in a restaurant bathroom because an able-bodied person had occupied the disabled stall. We had to get the manager to climb over the door to unlock it from the inside. The time my sister tripped over a small step in a hotel dining room and fell backwards against the wall, cracking her head. The time we went for a braai at a picnic site, and I had to drive my sister to the toilets, where the rough path felt like a trek up Kilimanjaro for her. 

In 2020, we should be doing better. Why is it not possible for restaurants to install ramps instead of stairs? How about a section in a café for those who struggle with mobility that has higher chairs and smooth floors? Why should the elderly and people like my sister – whose only forays into the world are to eateries – have their options narrowed even further?

But there is hope. As the world burns and squabbles, the global push for equality, inclusivity and dignity is gathering pace. Perhaps in the future, my sister could have a birthday view.

Last week, I visited my dad and sister for the first time since my mother died five months ago. Because both of them are in the vulnerable category for Covid-19 infection, they hadn’t been anywhere since the lockdown began. To celebrate our reunion, we did what our family has always done: headed into the sun, to eat and drink and talk and laugh. The raised deck at the restaurant overlooking the lagoon looked sunny and inviting but was accessed by steep stairs, so we settled for an outside table in front of the building. I clung to my dad like a limpet, and we wore our masks and laughed at stories about my mother’s laundry obsession. My father and I put too much tartare sauce on everything. My sister pulled her sushi apart. 

After lunch, while my dad finished his coffee, I suggested to my sister that we take a short walk to the edge of the lagoon so I could show her where Dwayne, the octopus I regularly saw while snorkelling, lived. She hesitantly agreed. “Look, it’s flat,” I said as we set off along the boardwalk. I pointed out the patch of water where the seahorses hide and the concrete column where I had once found a pair of nudibranchs that had somehow found their way here from the Philippines. 

As we turned back towards the car, my sister tripped, lost her balance, and tumbled to the ground, where she lay sprawled on her back on the grass. Her face mask puffed up and sucked in as she took deep breaths to calm herself. I kneeled next to her, trying to figure out how to pull her up, and then spied a man weeding a nearby flower bed. “Don’t,” my sister said, as I headed towards the man to ask for help. 

With our arms around her waist, the man – Matthews – and I managed to pull my sister up. We held her as she steadied herself, and then walked slowly towards the car park, Matthews gently supporting her at one elbow. As we rounded the corner, my sister told Matthews he could let her go, and thanked him. His face was so kind, I nearly cried. “Don’t tell dad,” my sister whispered, as we walked towards the car. “It makes him sad.” 

“So, how was that?” my father asked, his hair so white in the sun. As we drove home, with no brothers fighting in the car, no cooler box of leftover trout, no Cream Crackers, no picnic blanket stuck with grass, my dad said: “I really enjoyed that. Let’s go again tomorrow.” My sister frowned slightly, gazed out at the lagoon sliding past, its flat surface oily with cloud reflections, and then turned to my dad, put her hand on his arm, and said: “Yes. Let’s.” DM/TGIFood

Helen Walne is an aspirant vegan who detests food snobs, kale fascists, tartare sauce and misplaced apostrophes on menus, but is very fond of broccoli.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Veritas Scriptum says:

    A sad story.
    I just wonder how many people read the article from beginning to end.
    In the end it was more about victims than about empathy. I do not believe it achieved the desired result.

  • Pierre VILLAIN says:

    If you open a campaign to make handicapped people access facilities on building permits for new premises or renovation of existing ones, you will get my support.

    About the article itself, may I support Stefano Magni’s comments?

  • Sarah Hudleston says:

    Few people can put themselves in other less abled people shoes. Restaurants should have better access, but I do find there are kind people everywhere in this country especially when you least expect it. Great piece.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.