Bite Back: Has patio dining affected sidewalk accessibility in Boston?

And other questions with disability rights activist Olivia Richards

by Dana Ferrante for BCN #135

May 8, 2021



For over a month now, patios, igloos, outdoor dining of all kinds has returned to the city Boston. While a huge boon for restaurants and bars that have spent the winter ‘hibernating,’ for lack of a better term, the outgrowth of booths, platforms, dividers, and planters nevertheless changes how one experiences each city block street. At worst, these outdoors spaces might also be infringing upon the accessibility of the sidewalk.

To find out if these temporary build-outs are affecting the accessibility of city streets, I talked with Olivia Richards, a long-time housing, health, and disability rights activist who has served on the Boston Disabilities Commission Advisory Board since 2018. A regular MBTA bus rider and self-described “rolling human megaphone,” Olivia and I chatted about what the Commission has done to help outfit the city’s patios with ramps and how she can’t wait for the arrow stickers on the floor of Whole Foods to disappear.

Which neighborhood of Boston do you live in?

Olivia: In Brighton!

Since the start of the pandemic, how do you think outdoor dining has reshaped Brighton, if at all?

I noticed that outdoor dining has come back on Harvard Ave. It’s not a problem because they build it out so that it affects parking and not movement on the sidewalk.

And they have it set up so that you don’t have to go over the curb to access the patio?

They do, yes. This particular restaurant does, Falafellas. Though, I have been more of a let's-have-it-delivered person, I am in the high-risk category, so I haven’t really been out and about.

In your travels across the city, have you found that most outdoor dining spaces are wheel-chair accessible?

The regulation is pretty clear that you have to [design the patio] so that it doesn’t block traffic, and doesn’t block sidewalk access. As far as whether they are level with the sidewalk, that has been a mixed bag. But the Disability Commission has been giving out ramps for free to businesses that are doing outdoor dining, so that they can make it accessible for people in wheelchairs. The commission itself has done a good job making sure the program is well-known. They have encouraged constituents to let businesses know, so that their favorite eating establishments can continue to be patronized.

Aside from the work of the commission, what other systems are there or should there be to make sure the sidewalks are accessible?

I have to say, [City of Boston] Inspectional Services has done a really great job. Occasionally, you get bicycles that are locked up inappropriately; that’s an ongoing issue, you run into them, they block the sidewalk... As far as patio dining, people are generally doing a very good job of containing it to the patio, and not having things hanging out on the sidewalk. Boston has an ordinance that the sidewalk has to be passable by a certain number of inches—I think it’s 42—so that a wheelchair and stroller can get by. It’s the same thing with shovelling during the winter.

It’s [also] about reporting. If there’s a problem, and no one says anything… the city won’t know about it until it hits 311. It’s not like there are roving inspectors who are looking for problems. People have to be proactive about these things and speak up. The city has made it easy by using the [311] app to [report problems], and they’re pretty responsive.

[Dana remarks on how crazy the sidewalk in the North End is]

I will admit, for everything that the city has done, I avoid the North End, and I avoid Beacon Hill as much as I can, because of the brick, and because of how narrow the sidewalks and streets are. In general, they’re older construction, and tend to like it that way, and I just don’t feel like fighting it.

What’s grocery shopping been like during the pandemic?

It’s been rough. I live [near] a Whole Foods Market, and it frequently goes over capacity, and you have to wait in line in order to be allowed in. They don’t run out of stuff, that’s not the problem. It’s more trying to get around and navigate one-way aisles in a wheelchair, [that’s] a real problem for me, like when I am trying to grab something, and there’s someone who’s trying to get by me...that type of thing. The aisles are narrow to begin with, and making them one-way has caused a traffic jam.

Have you been able to take advantage of the extended hours?

I have! I have actually done that at Target. The Target at Fenway has extended hours for folks with disabilities and the elderly, so I took advantage of that to grab what I needed, and that was really smooth sailing.

Is there anything that’s changed about the city that you hope will stay with us after the pandemic ‘leaves’?

The seating arrangement on the T has been helpful on the buses. I haven’t had to compete with a lot of strollers for the wheelchair spot, because you’re not allowed to stand there. That’s been extraordinarily helpful on my local bus.

[Dana remarks on how empty the buses/T have been]

Yah! I wasn’t used to how busy the College Line gets until this past weekend when I was [on a shuttle bus], and I got whacked in the head with a bag [laughs], someone was standing next to me, because the shuttle bus was that full. And I was like, oh, I don’t miss this! [laughs]

I loved to know more about what the Disability Commission has been working during the past year.

We’ve been focused on quite a few things. One of the latest things is the classification guidelines of who gets vaccinated early, and what’s considered a comorbid condition. They’re very strict, and there are a lot of medical conditions that aren’t considered in that guideline, and people who would really benefit from having the vaccine. Right now, personal care attendants (PCAs) are considered healthcare workers. So, one of the things the Disability Commission came up with was, why don’t we have something where, if a PCA is going to get vaccinated, they take their consumer with them, and the consumer can get vaccinated at the same time. [That would] cover people who need 24-hour PCA coverage, and people who can’t be left at home for some reason while the PCA goes and gets [vaccinated]. [In general,] we would like to see more of a functional list, rather than a medical categories list. People who are affected, rather than it being, “you have asthma,” you know? We just feel that people are being left out who shouldn’t be.

Another thing we’ve been working on, we’d like to see an ordinance put into Boston city code that wherever there are TVs in public accommodations like bars and restaurants, the [business should be required to] turn on the closed captioning. We’re currently in the process of trying to get something introduced to the city council. It benefits everyone! Places get loud. It’s not just the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community that benefits, I think everyone does. And this is something that doesn’t cost anyone anything, all they have to do is push the setting on the television. All new televisions have closed captioning.

What’s the best way for a business owner to get in contact with the commission, if they’d like a ramp or need other guidance?

Email disability@boston.gov, or call 617-635-2541.

If people are looking to get more involved in housing and transportation accessibility activism, do you have any recommendations?

They should contact the Boston Center for Independent Living. There are some community organizers there that are working on transportation and housing access. If they’re interested in transportation, there is the Riders' Transportation Access Group (R-TAG) at the MBTA.

Once we’ve reached herd immunity, is there anywhere you’re looking forward to eating out at?

There’s a restaurant in Brookline that I love called Zaftigs. They’re a Jewish food place. They’re amazing! But it’s sit-down eating. They established outdoor eating early [on], they own a lot next to the school in Brookline, but I just haven’t been able to get there with my friend. I don’t want to eat there alone!


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