A Taiwanese saying goes, “food is the first necessity of the people”. Dining at a well-chosen restaurant is a good way to emotionally and physically relax oneself and to connect with others. Faced with restaurants on almost every corner of the city, all most people care about is whether or not the food is any good. However, for the physically challenged, the pregnant, the elderly and parents with prams, whether they can enter the restaurant at all is the first concern when choosing where to dine out.
Details like spatial design, service quality and staff communication skills are all factors that can potentially decide whether the dining experience is good or bad. Therefore, OurCityLove Social Enterprise has visited a great number of restaurants, paying scrupulous attention to every detail before creating the “Friendly Restaurant Taipei” app and online feature guide in order to help people who experience any physical inconvenience easily find the perfect dining spot.
Don’t let a small door threshold distance you from customers
Demand for barrier-free restaurants might seem high, but a professor from the Department of Communication and Technology at National Chiao Tung University, Chong-Wey Lin, pointed out that “although there were even restaurant guide app platforms dedicated to pet-friendly dining places, there was not one specifically designed for the physically challenged.”
Imagine for a moment that you pregnant, have sprained your ankle, have gone out with your grandparents or are dragging a heavy suitcase. It is quite possible for anyone to find themselves in a situation where they are prevented from easily walking upstairs or downstairs. In such a situation, you might even find a small door threshold can bar you from entering a restaurant, not to mention the narrowness of an aisle, the instability of tables and chairs or the limited space available for your feet under the table. These small details that you normally do not pay attention to can greatly affect your dining experience when you are physically challenged.
Therefore, in 2012, Chong-Wey Lin, along with a team of students, started to cooperate with Taiwan’s League for Persons with Disabilities and the Foundation for Rare Disorders in conducting a field survey on the facilities and services provided by restaurants.
Beginning with entering the restaurant, every process from walking in to sitting down, ordering food, dining, going to the toilet and paying the bill, was carefully scrutinised to find out whether the restaurant meets accessibility needs. Examples of considerations include the width of the entrance door, the ability of wheelchairs to fit down the aisles, the sharpness of the tables’ corners, the accessibility of the toilet, the height of the checkout counter and the friendliness of service staff.
Within two years, OurCityLove Social Enterprise had visited 555 restaurants in the greater Taipei area, photographing and writing reviews before it finally released its “Friendly Restaurant Taipei” app and “Guide to Friendly Restaurants” website, which provide free information to users. The team also gives feedback from the survey results to restaurant owners, hoping they will make improvements as a result.
This database is not simply a list of barrier-free restaurants. Users can also specifically search for a suitable restaurant that caters to their needs, such as if they are wheelchair users, need to bring a pram, are pregnant, use crutches, have poor eyesight or hearing, etc. The app also has a function to filter the type of restaurant, including choices of Chinese and Western food, exotic cuisine, dessert and light food, and healthy vegetarian. In this way, it offers a wide variety of choices to the physically challenged.
Training surveyors and realising the potential of the physically challenged
This app and online guide are not only beneficial to users, but also create completely new employment opportunities for physically-challenged people. OurCityLove Social Enterprise does not limit itself to the traditional model of charity, instead creating a special career pathway by actively training the physically challenged to become “accessibility surveyors” who are given the title of “Commissioners of Love”. So far, it has recruited more than 50 “Commissioners of Love” of different backgrounds, all of whom have brought various expertise to the organisation, allowing it to brainstorm many good ideas.
For example, in the first year, although the team made efforts to survey a wide range of restaurants, it only managed to register 50 restaurants. Inspired by its physically-challenged partners, the team later started to use smartphones and tablets, which sped up the survey process. In the second year, ten times more restaurants were registered into the database and a list of 555 barrier-free restaurants was completed.
One of the team members, Momo Huang, pointed out that because the physically-challenged partners had developed a mobile survey tool and set up a standard procedure for their research visits, they began to be known as “Friendliness Experts” and some were even later invited to conduct workshops on accessibility. “We hope that the physically challenged can create new value for themselves during the process. The brighter they shine, the prouder we feel,” said another member Hannah Chou.
Currently, a majority of OurCityLove’s income comes from its cooperation with food websites and the royalties it collects from authorising businesses in Malaysia, Thailand and Japan to use its app platform. Its “commissioners” are also working with real estate and insurance companies to design more considerate services catering to the needs of the aged and the physically challenged.
“A healthy city is not one that only provides services to 80% of its residents,” said Momo Huang. Anyone may find him or herself in a physically challenging situation when carrying something heavy, pregnant or during the inevitable process of ageing. Therefore, a barrier-free environment is not only one of the basic requirements for our daily lives, but also a winning point for the service industry. She believes that more innovative momentum behind creating a barrier-free environment will be inspired if OurCityLove can continue to use technology to complete the design of a city-wide back-end management platform.
This is an initiative that, originating from services science, combines smart technology and social innovation. Apart from barrier-free restaurants, OurCityLove Social Enterprise is planning to develop more useful apps to facilitate every aspect of life with the aim of building a city that is friendly to everyone.