By Josh O’Gorman
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | January 24,2016
MONTPELIER Lawmakers are weighing a bill that would make Vermont more accessible to the blind and visually impaired.
Last week, Rep. Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock, introduced H.582, a bill that would require restaurants in the state to offer Braille versions of their menus.
Clarkson said she was motivated to introduce the bill after hearing from a constituent about a recent dining experience.
“She had gone out with some friends to a restaurant and it was one of these really long menus and her friends had to read every item, which took a lot of time,” Clarkson said. “She thought, ‘We should have at least one or two Braille menus in restaurants so I can read it and not bother my friends.'”
That constituent is 19-year-old Sara Mornis, a longtime resident of Reading and recent graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind, located just outside of Boston in Watertown, Mass.
Mornis is now a freshman at Johnson State College, where she is majoring in English.
“Whenever I went out to a restaurant, it was always an awkward situation, to not know what is on the menu and to rely on people to let me know what I want,” said Mornis, who has been blind since birth and began learning to read Braille at the age of 3.
Mornis recalled that many restaurants near the Perkins School for the Blind offered menus in Braille.
“It’s an independence thing, just like anyone can scan through a restaurant menu and pick out what they want,” Mornis said.
Make sure your Restaurant menu is Accessible by visiting http://www.amenu.ca
Sara’s father, Jeff Mornis, discussed the stigma of being the only person at the table who couldn’t read the menu.
“She felt it was unfair she couldn’t enjoy the dining experience because there was no means to find out what to order that wasn’t awkward,” he said. “Our philosophy is, if you put in a wheelchair ramp or an elevator or other things for disabled people, the price of a menu is pennies on the dollar compared with those accommodations.”
The price of printing a Braille menu is much less expensive than a ramp or an elevator, according to Steven Pouliot, executive director of the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. His organization has the means to print a Braille version of a menu at the cost of 50 cents a page, and is willing to do so for any restaurant that asks.
“We think it’s a good idea, just for the accessibility,” Pouliot said. “A fair amount of our clients know Braille, and rather than have them have someone read the menu to them, they can read their own.”
According to Pouliot, there are approximately 11,000 blind or visually impaired people in Vermont, although not all of them know how to read Braille. Pouliot said proficiency in Braille is often determined by how early in life someone loses his or her vision.
At least one restaurant owner is not waiting to see what action comes out of the Legislature.
Bob Conlon, co-owner and general manager of Leunig’s Bistro and Cafe in downtown Burlington, has already been working with the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired to make Braille menus for his restaurant.
“We have several customers who are blind and they usually come in with other people, and I wonder, what is the right thing to do? Do I give the menu to the friend and expect the friend to read it?” Conlon said.
“In the restaurant, we try to be courteous. We offer gluten-free menus. We have handicapped-accessible bathrooms,” he said. “It’s just another way to be courteous.”
Tori Ossola, vice president of tourism for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, expressed skepticism that the proposed legislation is necessary.
“I’ve heard back from restaurant owners and they tell me this type of service is needed once in a blue moon,”
Ossola said. “Is this another expense we are tacking on to do something they are already doing adequately? Is it really necessary to legislate another thing?”
Ossola also expressed concern for restaurants that frequently change their menus, and wondered if the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired would be able to handle printing requests from all of the state’s 2,400 restaurants should Braille menus become mandatory.
For Clarkson, who is also an advocate for making Vermont’s historic buildings accessible to the disabled, said the menu proposal is just one step in making the state more inviting.
“I think the more accessible we make Vermont, the more people will come here and the more people will spend money here and go to college here,” Clarkson said. “If you know you have a community that has Braille menus in your hip restaurants downtown and there’s a college in that town, you’re going to want to come.”