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Woman with a disability had to eat off chair during Special Olympics fundraiser at Tully's Good Times

 On the left is a photo of Tully's Good Times in Cheektowaga on an overcast day. On the right is a photo of Jill (left) and Nicole (right) at a hockey game.
Left - Dallas Taylor, WBFO; Right - Courtesy Nicole Shields
On the left is a photo of Tully's Good Times in Cheektowaga on an overcast day. On the right is a photo of Jill (left) and Nicole (right) at a hockey game.

If you’ve ever been to a fundraiser at a restaurant, you know it’s a chance to have a great time with friends and support a cause. But for a local woman with a disability, a trip to Tully’s Good Times in Cheektowaga for a Special Olympics fundraiser, ended up being a bad time, as she was left to eat her meal off of a chair.

“I will say, sadly, I'm kind of used to it because a lot of times in the disabled world, you have to adjust to certain circumstances. So that's not the first time I've eaten off for two chairs, and probably won't be the last time," said Jill Turchiarelli.

 A photo provided by Nicole Shields of the chairs Jill had to eat off of because the tables they were seated at were too high for and inaccessible to Jill to reach in her wheelchair.
Courtesy Nicole Shields
A photo provided by Nicole Shields of the chairs Jill had to eat off of because the tables they were seated at were too high for and inaccessible to Jill to reach in her wheelchair.

Turchiarelli, who uses a wheelchair, took paratransit, a pre-scheduled point-to-point public transit service for people with disabilities, to the restaurant on Aug. 8. The fundraiser was one where youbring a coupon and a portion of your meal proceeds go to Special Olympics. She wheeled in to meet her group of nine friends and waited to be seated. When they were seated around 6:15 p.m., they were brought to a set of high-top tables, too high for Turchiarelli to reach in her chair.

“You're dealing with the disability population as it is with the Special Olympics. I mean, you can’t tell me they didn't know that there was going to be people in wheelchairs, that were going to come in there that day," Turchiarelli said.

That’s when her friend Nicole Shields spoke up.

“I said, 'Well, this isn't gonna work.' And then I saw that there was two other tables," Shields said. The tables Shields is referring to, she took a photograph of. They were two regular-height tables, with a center pedestal. According to her, no one was sitting at them while they were there. Only a walker was parked in-between. “I asked her [the server] if they could be moved, and I believe she said, 'No, it's not possible. We can't move tables.' And then I'm like thinking myself as three of the taller tables were pushed together to make our table for our big group."

"And then I said, 'Well, can I speak to a manager about this?' And then she brought the manager out a couple minutes later. And then the manager said, 'Yeah, no, we can't move tables. The only other option would be to wait another hour,'" Shields said.

But Turchiarelli couldn’t wait another hour. She had to be ready for her paratransit bus, which must be scheduled in advance, to come anytime between 8 and 8:30 p.m. So they ordered, got their food between 7 and 7:15 p.m., and Jill ate off a chair, while her friends ate off the table.

"The burning part was the fact that they would not move the table over and there was nobody sitting there, so they very well could have," Turchiarelli said.

Turchiarelli and Shields both said in August that the way their request was received by staff bothered them and they wondered about the staff’s training.

“You could see them getting frustrated, because we kept asking about for the tables, you can see their eyes getting a little frustrated," Turchiarelli said. "Their attitude was changing a little bit every time. And even the manager came out a couple of times and said, 'We can't do that. We can't do that.'”

Turchiarelli’s experience is not uncommon in the United States, despite Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act focusing on discrimination in private businesses.

“We see the lack of accessible tables and bars as being a very common issue in any kind of venue serving food or drink," said Minh Vu, an attorney and the co-head of the Title III ADA team at Seyfarth, a national law firm. Prior to Seyfarth, she also worked in private practice and for the Department of Justice, overseeing the enforcement of Title III and Title II of the ADA.

Vu says part of the issue is businesses may not even understand all the regulations that apply to them.

“The problem is that the ADA standards and the ADA generally is not just about big picture issues. I mean, there are a gazillion, OK, maybe not like a gazillion, dozens, OK,, when you're talking parking, route, even the tables and the bathroom? Oh, my goodness, that's probably 100 requirements right there. That's a lot," Vu said.

For example, restaurants are required to have 5% of their tables, in each area accessible. So outside, 5% of tables need to be certain dimensions with space underneath, rather than a center pedestal, so someone with a wheelchair can access them. The same goes for indoors, 5% of seating needs to be accessible. That’s one example. But when a customer is seated somewhere inaccessible, they do have another right.

“If there is any sort of need that an individual with a disability might have, so that they can access the goods or services of the restaurant, due to their disability, then under the reasonable modification principle that I mentioned earlier, the restaurant has a separate obligation, even apart from the physical accessibility obligations, to essentially engage with the customer to figure out what modifications to the restaurants, policies or procedures, the restaurant might need to make to provide service and full and equal access to the customer with a disability," said Kristina Launey. She's also an attorney at Seyfarthand advises companies on ADA compliance.

While Vu and Launey could not speak to the specifics of the Tully’s situation, they both say generally if a restaurant engages in that conversation, and tries to do the best they can, it ends better for both parties.

“What is the specific modification needed here? What is the specific communication need here and the type and context of the conversation? You can't just assume that you have a preset answer, that's going to be one set, one size fits all, in those sorts of circumstances," said Launey. "Sometimes employees just say, 'Oh, no, we can't do that,' rather than engaging and having the conversation to figure out whether there is something that's reasonable, that can be done, ultimately, to Minh point, which is just generally good customer service as well.

After their experience, Shields was contacted by Tully’s, who apologized, but Turchiarelli was not contacted. Shields then filed a Better Business Bureau complaint, on Aug. 11, which Tully’s never responded to.

After WBFO called Tully’s in September to ask about the situation, and if staff had ever received training on working with people with disabilities, we never heard back. But Shields says after we reached out, Tully’s contacted both Shields and Turchiarelli to apologize, told them employees had been retrained but claimed the restaurant remains up to regulations. They also sent Turchiarelli gift cards.

WBFO also attempted to reach out to Tully’s by email, Instagram, and Twitter, twice on each platform, but never heard back. We also visited Tully's in person with a letter asking for comment before this story aired, but still did not hear back.

“You realize that this stuff is gonna happen sometimes and you have to adapt to it. However, it does not make it right at all," Turchiarelli said. "It does do something to your self-esteem.”

Shields says after she and Turchiarelli heard Tully’s retrained their employees, they were satisfied. To avoid situations like this, Vu says there are simple steps restaurants can take to create better experiences for patrons, including going over do’s and don’t of interacting with disabled patrons with employees, having a checklist of physical features to maintain, and having a way to escalate concerns made to frontline employees to management. Without knowing Tully’s actions after the incident, Vu also shared that when disabled patrons do express that they had a bad experience, it is good practice to follow up, apologize, and offer them a chance to come back with a gift card.

“I don't think most people with disabilities genuinely want to file lawsuits or pursue claims, I think it's exhausting. You know, it's a lot of work, to commit yourself to that kind of activity. What they really just want is to have a great experience, not to have to think about what's going to happen when I go to the restaurant," said Vu.

WBFO also asked Special Olympics New York for their comment on the situation ahead of this story airing.

“Hundreds of people do the Polar Plunge each year to raise money for Special Olympics New York. In this instance, a participating individual approached Tully’s about donating a percentage of sales to their Polar Plunge and Tully’s agreed. Special Olympics New York did not have a direct role," wrote Casey Vattimo a spokesperson for Special Olympics New York over email. "Tully’s has been a good partner to Special Olympics New York for many years. We do events with them throughout the year to raise money for our organization. They have hired a couple of our athletes after meeting them during events and learning more about their abilities. We know Tully’s to be a disability-friendly business that values inclusion. We certainly plan to keep working with them.”

The United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division does offer resources on understanding the requirements of the ADA for businesses here.

Seyfarth also produced a video series on 30 tips on ADA compliance.

Copyright 2023 WBFO. To see more, visit WBFO.

Emyle Watkins