The Red Robin Effect

Red Robin: a comforting, bustly sort of place where the food and music compete to see who can be the cheesiest. The birthday rituals are silly, the menu puns are cringe-worthy, and the food requires hours of hard work to digest. It’s one of my favourite places, and now that all locations in my area are closing, I think it’s time I wrote about everything it has meant to me.

I moved to the City of Edmonton to attend university at seventeen—a wide-eyed small-town girl with woefully little knowledge of what was about to hit me. Being visibly disabled in a rural setting came with its own challenges, but given enough time and community involvement, virtually everyone felt comfortable with Meagan and her long white stick. I wasn’t always included, but I was, at the very least, known.

Without warning, after seventeen years of solid familiarity, I was in chaos. I didn’t know anyone, and nobody knew me. My blindness fascinated and frightened people. I could no longer walk into a new environment and assume my welcome. Strangers had questions. Acquaintances had more of them. I had never felt so visible and at the same time, invisible. Reduced to a curiosity, I felt unmoored, lonely, and unsure of where I belonged. Everywhere I went, I was an inconvenience, or a safety concern, or another burden busy people didn’t have time for.

Not so with Red Robin.

Given that my residence building was steps from the nearest Red Robin location, I found myself visiting regularly. At first, it simply seemed the most logical place to take just about everyone; the food was reasonably tasty and even more reasonably priced. I soon realized I was enjoying far more than the gooey cheese sticks and nostalgic mid-2000’s playlist, however. I was experiencing, for the very first time, unconditional inclusion I didn’t have to earn.

The staff knew about their own braille menu, (by no means a given), handing it over without batting an eye. Servers nearly always described the location of dishes and drinks when setting them down, as casually as if every single diner needed the same detailed information. Plenty of extra help was offered, but never foisted upon me. When I showed up with visually impaired friends, no one seemed flustered or out of their depth. When paratransit took ages to pick me up, they let me hang out in their comfy seating area without a whisper of annoyance. Not once in seven years of frequent visits did I feel like anything less than a valued customer—a customer worthy of the same professionalism everyone else received as a matter of course.

It doesn’t sound like much, does it? But several of my friends agree that, whether through diligent training or a generally positive culture, Red Robin has cultivated broad, environmental inclusion of their blind customers on a grand scale few other businesses have managed. For me and for many, they have danced delicately along that razor-thin line between help and hindrance; attentiveness and intrusiveness; kindness and condescension. And they have done so in a way that will always set them apart.

My husband and I enjoyed one final dinner at Red Robin, waxing nostalgic and eating far too much. We reminisced not only about our first date there, or the many happy evenings I’d whiled away as a student, but also of the effortless way I’d fit in. Red Robin had taken on an almost mythical greatness in my mind. It had become a safe haven where I could just about guarantee I wouldn’t be spoken to like a child. They’d never have a menu I couldn’t read independently. The servers wouldn’t talk to my tablemates to find out what I’d like to order. No one was about to grab me without asking, tell me a menu item I’d chosen was “too hands-on” for a blind person to manage, or refuse to help me operate the debit machine (the idea that blind people can and do pay for their own meals is too much for some, sadly). In short, I could walk into any Red Robin, any time, and expect to be treated with dignity.

I no longer have a starving student’s appetite, nor am I able to gobble fish and chips the way I once did—at least, not without plenty of protests from a stomach that has been spoiled by a healthy diet. I won’t miss the bottomless fries or the syrupy cocktails. But I will miss the incredible luxury of knowing that I can come through that door with my long white stick, and sit down to a peaceful dinner like everyone else. I’ll forever be grateful to all the folks at Red Robin for giving me the gift of forgetting, if only for half an hour, that life isn’t always this simple.

Meet The Human Behind The Accessibility Request

My accessibility requests, and those of most people I know, are never made frivolously and rarely involve costly or difficult action. Despite the fact that accessible design typically benefits those who implement it (most of my requests take the form of “I want to give you my money but your online store or facility or campaign or social media post or software is inaccessible,”), not everyone reacts as calmly as I’d hope. The most common response, in my own experience at least, has been silence. Companies are particularly prone to ignoring access requests, either because staff doesn’t have the resources to deal with them or because accessibility is not prioritized. Individuals are nearly always willing to respond, though they may not do so favourably.
If there’s one thing I want the world to know about the average person making an access request, it’s that we are ordinary human beings trying to make life easier for ourselves and others. I’ve read one too many comments, from disabled and nondisabled people, complaining that we’re all getting spoiled these days, accustomed as we supposedly are to wielding our access rights like a club. There appear to be those who believe that we hysterical disabled people are intoxicated with our new position of relative influence, and are using it to harass innocent people and businesses, fueled by sadistic pleasure or a misplaced sense of victimhood.
Instead of attempting to refute this, I’ll describe what my latest access requests have looked like. You can judge for yourself whether I carry them out in a manner you’d consider acceptable. They may not reflect how all or even most disabled people request accessibility, but they should, at least, provide some perspective.
A few months ago, I wrote to a stranger about her fundraising campaign. I wanted to give her my financial support, but couldn’t find a description of the shirts she was selling. I wrestled with myself for hours before contacting her at all, afraid to bother or place undue strain on her. I composed three drafts of my message before sending it, ensuring there wasn’t a single note of urgency, discourtesy, or judgment. My heart pounded and my stomach churned with anxiety. I’d been eviscerated publicly for an access request once before, and even though I’d had positive experiences since that incident, once bitten, twice shy. I fretted incessantly, Just as I had over numerous other such requests, and couldn’t rest peacefully until I’d received a reply which, thank goodness, was exceedingly kind. Even though the experience went as smoothly as possible—including assurances that she appreciated my message and was glad I’d reached out—no part of it was enjoyable or empowering for me. The whole ordeal was emotionally exhausting, which reminded me why I rarely bother to report accessibility bugs unless they threaten my job performance.
When I emailed CBC Books about an inaccessible infographic, tweeted Success Magazine about an article I couldn’t read properly, asked Buffer about their accessibility features, I endured similar feelings of uncertainty. What if I was dismissed as difficult? What if I gained a reputation for being a demanding customer? Had I worded my messages politely enough to be acceptable but firmly enough to be taken seriously? Had I upset anyone? Would anyone write back? (For the curious: CBC Books and Buffer responded with admirable grace and did everything they could to help. Success Magazine didn’t get in touch.) In the past, I’d tried taking a slightly bolder tone, and had been chased off by complete strangers who had decided I was only making the accessibility suggestions to harass people and waste time. Disabled people have nothing better to do, right?
Over and over while making these requests, I caught myself apologizing—for being blind, for encountering issues, for asking that those issues be resolved. In essence, I was apologizing instinctively for existing, and for the mortal sin of wanting to use someone’s product or service. My feelings and manner remained free of entitlement or self-importance. I was just one more customer asking for help, but, all too mindful of society’s general attitude toward accessibility, I remained apologetic to a degree that might be comical if it weren’t so depressing. As you might imagine, I rather envy those disabled friends who make requests with a quiet dignity I have yet to emulate. They might be just as nervous as I am, but unlike me, they don’t spend much time agonizing over the details.
I wonder if the companies and individuals who have responded to me with silence, canned replies, or outright insults knew how much trepidation I felt while reaching out to them. The optimist in me wonders if they’d treat me differently if they had an inkling of how much courage it takes to address a person or entity I have no power to influence, asking that my needs be met. Perhaps these interactions would play out differently if the people behind the hurried dismissals and cutting rebukes framed my requests as roundabout ways of giving them my money, or my time, or my support. Surely a customer or user reporting any other type of issue would be treated far more kindly? Anyone who is going to great lengths to improve usability obviously wants to patronize your establishment, read your content, give you their money, raise funds for your cause, or share your information. Where’s the entitlement, the victimhood, the sadism in any of that?
I can handle silence when I make access requests. Being told there’s nothing that can be done is something I can bear. There are worse things than receiving the standard brush-off: “I’ll look into it.” I can even roll with the impatience—often clumsily-concealed–that creeps into people’s voices when I ask for help locating items in a store or filling out paperwork. I, too, live and work in this complicated world, and I know what it is to be restrained by policy, or bureaucracy, or a severe shortage of time. Not every request can be met, and not everyone is going to take that news well. I understand.
What I cannot handle graciously is the implication that my access needs are trivial. If I am accused of being too demanding, of wasting precious time, of taking up space reserved for more important people, I’m no longer willing to nod meekly and shuffle away. I cannot, in good conscience, pretend to agree when accessibility is treated like a silly new fad that will, with any luck, fade away, along with all the irritating people who ask about it.
I could list several reasons why people should care about accessibility, but it’s been done, and done by people much wiser and more eloquent than me. Instead, I’ll tell you how a well-handled access request makes me behave as a customer, user, reader, and funder. People and companies making an effort to attend to my requests have my loyalty. Someone who demonstrates they are sensitive to the needs of others earns a position in my good books. If the manager of a fundraising campaign agrees to improve usability for disabled people, they’re almost guaranteed to receive whatever money I can spare. A company that handles my requests with courtesy can count on my business, and I will make a special effort to promote them more widely than ever. Buffer, CBC, L’Occitane—these are examples of companies I’m proud to support not only because they make quality products, but because they have shown me, whether personally or generally, that they prioritize accessibility when it’s brought to their attention. This is even more pronounced with solopreneurs: Daryl Lang Jewelry will always be my go-to, not only because she makes beautiful things, but because she always uses clasps and designs that accommodate my moderate difficulty with fine motor skills.
Conversely, companies and individuals that don’t make accessibility part of their mission are less likely to receive my business or promotion, not out of spite, but because I can’t use what they offer. An inaccessible online store isn’t going to encourage a disabled person to shop there. An unusable piece of software will drive traffic to its competitors. This is, at its core, about business, not ethics or morals or ideologies.
I understand that access requests will not always be presented politely. There will be those who will come to you angry, impatient, at the end of a too-short tether—and they may or may not have valid reason for those emotions. Every now and again, someone will point out an accessibility issue with an imperious, contemptuous air. Those making access requests will not always present solutions that are within reach, especially for small businesses. Some of the people making them may not even have solutions to offer. And, yes, you may be hit with an unjust lawsuit by someone seeking to capitalize on existing accessibility laws for their own gain. All these things are possible.
More often than not, however, you’ll be dealing with someone who doesn’t enjoy asking for assistance and feels at least as awkward and inconvenienced as you do. They just want to move through the world with as much ease and independence as they can, and identifying barriers takes guts, especially when asking that those barriers be removed or mitigated. Further, most disabled people lead full, active lives, such that they have limited time to give accessibility feedback. The process takes time, even when the response is cooperative, and I regularly skip opportunities to report issues because I have several other pressing matters dividing my attention. We don’t all sit around thinking up new and clever ways to make people’s lives harder. Shocking, I know!
The lesson here? Life is very short indeed, but it’s not too short to be kind. Respond when you can, fix issues where possible, and always be compassionate. Just remember: we’re all on the same side.