3rd December 2013

Mission accessible

Interview with Fiona Jarvis, founder of Blue Badge Style

It’s fair to say that most of us, when dining out at a restaurant, wouldn’t expect to be sent to a pub across the road to use the bathroom. Certainly it would warrant a swift report to the Good Food Guide, and a warning to other diners. Yet for Fiona Jarvis, a frequent restaurant-goer, the experience is surprisingly common.

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Blue Badge Style: iconFiona dines out once or twice a week and knows delicious food, slick service and great atmosphere when she sees it. Yet Fiona also uses a wheelchair, and as such she often comes up against the kind of challenges that many of us would never have to contemplate when eating out. So in 2007 Fiona set up BlueBadgeStyle.com: a guide and community for less able people who want to be able to dine out in just as much style as everyone else. Or at the very least, want to know whether a restaurant has a bathroom you don’t have to cross the street to get to…

The 3rd December is International Day of People with Disability, and we caught up with Fiona to talk about style and accessibility in restaurants.

What’s the aim of Blue Badge Style?
Through our website and app reviews we aim to help make going out fun, with no embarrassing surprises, and to reassure disabled people that they can go out and lead a dignified, stylish life, just as they normally would. Our focus on style is key, because a person’s sense of style is one of the few things that isn’t affected by disability — in fact, being disabled often makes it more important. As a disabled person, I spend a lot of time within the same four walls of my home (often surrounded by distinctly un-stylish equipment), and any trips or excursions require serious planning. So when I go out, I need to know it will be somewhere good, and somewhere stylish.

Fiona Jarvis of Blue Badge StyleWhat are the top bugbears for disabled diners?
Not having enough space between, and under, tables for wheelchairs. Also bar seating is often a problem: a high bar and stools will sadly rule out a pre-dinner drink. Restaurants using disabled toilets as storage space is another bugbear. I was once unable to access the bathrooms as huge piles of bottled water were blocking the way — a very nice member of staff explained that was where water was stored for the dinner service, so once they’d all been drunk the access would be clear! Which although frustrating, was rather amusing.

What are the minimum requirements for disabled diners?
Level access and disabled toilets. It’s understandable that this is trickier for old or listed buildings, but a portable ramp can cost as little as £200. I’m also surprised by how often I visit a restaurant following a refurbishment, only to discover the disabled facilities are as poor (or non-existent) as ever.

Why should restaurants invest in making these changes?
In an age where restaurants are increasingly democratic (relaxed dress codes, a wider range of price points), it seems incongruous that so many great restaurants remain inaccessible for disabled diners. Furthermore, disabled people represent a significant emerging market. Young disabled people nowadays  are more confident about the legalities around accessibility, and have the disposable income to spend on dining out. It’s also worth remembering that by excluding less-able clientele, restaurants risk losing the extended custom of their accompanying friends and family.

What makes a restaurant stylish?
I subscribe to Sir Terence Conran’s philosophy, that good design improves the quality of people’s lives. Whether a restaurant’s style is shabby-chic or modern-luxe, there’s no reason why it can’t be accessible too.

What are your favourite restaurants?
I love Jason Atherton’s restaurants (Pollen Street Social, Little Social, Social Eating House, Berners Tavern) — they always have a really relaxed, welcoming atmosphere. And I always recommend Tom Aiken's restaurants (Tom's Kitchen in Chelsea, Canary Wharf and Somerset House). For meetings, I like the lobby bar at One Aldwych — it’s got good access and I always get decorating inspiration from the beautiful seasonal flower arrangements.

Have you had any particularly funny moments, when dining out?
Arriving at Pollen Street Social via the kitchens was fun, mainly because Jason Atherton and his kitchen brigade were put on their best behaviour to make way for the ‘nice lady’! And I always have to laugh when I’m presented with a gravity-defying steep wheelchair ramp...

Thanks Fiona! Keep an eye on thegoodfoodguide.co.uk, as up next we'll be featuring our top picks of GFG restaurants with great disabled access.

Website: www.bluebadgestyle.co.uk. You can also download the Blue Badge Style app for iPhone and iPad.