Tired of Eating Over Your Lap (What Makes a Table Wheelchair Accessible)?

Ed Zwilling Sept. 16, 2014

The criteria that define accessibility for a table are actually quite simple, but are often missed by restaurateurs. These criteria can be found in the current ADA Accessibility Guidelines at Sections 226, 305, 306 and 902, which can be found here:


In general, to determine the amount of accessible dining spaces, one must first determine the number of seating and standing dining spaces provided for consumption of food and drink. Once that is determined, 5% of this number must be wheelchair accessible per Section 226.1. Further, these accessible seating positions must be dispersed throughout the separate dining areas provided (i.e., interior, exterior, smoking, non-smoking, bar area, etc.).

What makes a seating position accessible? The primary concerns are located in Sections 305 and 306 and consist of the following criteria:

a. Clear Floor Space

b. Knee Clearance

c. Toe Clearance

d. Height of the dining surface

Here is the diagram from 305.3 that is representative of the clear floor space necessary for wheelchair users. Generally, a space 48" deep x 30" wide.


The depth requirement is often overlooked. Depending on the configuration of the restaurant, this requirement may result in an otherwise accessible table lacking accessible seating positions due to the lack of clear floor space for restaurant staff and other patrons to pass by a dining wheelchair user at such a table. Similarly, a wheelchair user may be unable to reach the table due to the lack of an accessible route to access it, which would also render that table inaccessible, regardless of its design. Accessible route criteria can be found in Chapter 4 of the Standards (Sections 401-410).

Assuming one can gain access to a table, what makes it wheelchair accessible? This is best revealed in the following diagrams from 306.2 and 306.3, respectively:

Toe Clearance:

Knee Clearance:

The criteria described in the foregoing diagrams can be distilled down to the following four (4) simple measurements that will apply to any standard dining table with a single center post supporting it:

1. A minimum height of 27 inches of knee clearance measured from the bottom edge of the table top to the floor.

2. A maximum height of 34 inches above the floor measured from the floor to the height of the dining surface (tablet top).

3. A minimum depth of 17 inches measured from the edge of the center post out to the edge of the table top for wheelchair toe clearance. Without this criteria being met, the wheelchair's foot rest will hit the first obstruction beneath the table (typically the center post) and the wheelchair user will be eating over his or her lap, or be forced to pull sideways to the table and eat while twisted to reach the table. If you use a wheelchair and find yourself in this position, chances are the depth provided does not meet the current ADA standards for accessibility.

4. A minimum unobstructed width 30 inches for the entire depth of knee and toe clearance required. (If you use a wheelchair and have been seated at a booth at the end of the table, your knees and toes will have to fit between the booths. Thus, the booths must be a minimum of 30 inches apart assuming the table is otherwise accessible).

The point to take away from this, if nothing else, is that just because the table is low (as opposed to those high top tables where people are seated at stools), does not mean the table is wheelchair accessible. It must also be located on an accessible route, afford sufficient clear floor space for a 48" by 30" wheelchair to access the table and remain seated there without obstructing traffic, and provide the unobstructed width and depth necessary for a wheelchair user's knee and toe clearance. Without this, wheelchair users are still eating over their laps.