It’s hard to eat out if you’re in a wheelchair. This restaurant is changing that

It’s hard to eat out if you’re in a wheelchair. This restaurant is changing that

6/10/2021 9:02:00 PM

It’s hard to eat out if you’re in a wheelchair. This restaurant is changing that

Contento, a new restaurant in New York City, was designed both by and for people with disabilities.

But after his accident, he quickly realized how difficult it would be to work in a restaurant in a wheelchair. He went on job interviews he was overqualified for and yet couldn't find a restaurant to take a chance on him."I actually saw an email that I was cc'd on by accident, where someone said to the director of HR, 'He's a nice guy, very talented, but he's in a wheelchair — it's not going to work,'" Benjamin said.

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Each space in the restaurant is level so that people with wheelchairs can pass through smoothly. Benjamin enters the restaurant to prepare for a soft opening with head chef Oscar Lorenzzi.Elias Williams for TODAYHe eventually took a job working for free at a wine store, mostly to keep his mind busy. He did sommelier competitions, and through one met someone who finally helped him find a job as a sommelier at an accessible restaurant in New York City. But throughout the years, Benjamin harbored a dream of having his own restaurant: a place where he and other people in wheelchairs and with disabilities could move around freely and without worry.

For people with disabilities, just the idea ofgoing out to a restaurantcan be anxiety-producing."If I call up a restaurant and ask if it's accessible and they say yes, then I get there and they've got to install a ramp and make a big deal out of it, or you need to be carried up, or they tell you the bathroom is accessible but then you get there and the bathroom has grab bars but maybe the actual doorway isn't wide enough (for a wheelchair)," he said."That can be really deflating and incredibly embarrassing."

The East Harlem restaurant opens to the public this week.Elias Williams for TODAYOr, in the case of people who are blind or have visual impairments, there might not be a code for the menu."Imagine being blind and you're on a date, meeting someone for the first time," Benjamin explained."You want to come across as independent as possible. You want to show that person how good you are at navigating around, but they don't have (a menu code). Or you're trying to build a business relationship or close an account with someone, and you've got to ask them to read the menu to you."

Details such as QR codes that people can scan into an app that reads the text aloud are"small modifications that can go a long way that are simply not done," Benjamin said.Arie Hochberg and George Gallego, proprietor of Contento, share a toast in the outdoor dining area.

Elias Williams for TODAYContento, which Benjamin described as a casual place with food that has a Peruvian flair, hopes to change that. It's been more than three years since Gallego, one of Benjamin's mentors, found the perfect space for what would eventually become their restaurant. Now, the friends-turned-business-partners are finally ready to open to the public.

Benjamin knows the details they paid to accessibility are key, but he also hopes that their restaurant encourages people to reconsider the way they, too.A scallop ceviche dish at the Peruvian-inspired restaurant, Contento."Sometimes there's a lack of empathy," he said."I always tell people that are in restaurants to please not rush people with disabilities, because they're constantly being rushed. And sometimes they work a little slower. It takes a little time for them to get ready. Give them a chance. You don't know what it took them to get to your restaurant, so show a little appreciation and show some patience."

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