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A drawing of a commercial kitchen with an adjustable benchtop, which has been lowered to wheelchair height, with an open space underneath the counter.

At first glance, Australia’s All Things Equal looks like a typical Melbourne café. It is a light-filled space, with a cheery, spacious interior accented by plant life and the inviting aroma of fresh-ground coffee. The only difference is that the cooks and wait staff all have intellectual disabilities.

Bianca Stern, the general manager of All Things Equal, explains that their mission is to employ people with disability and provide them with paid employment and work readiness. “We have about 25 employees with intellectual disability. There are 50 more on the waitlist, which shows that they want to work in this space,” she says. There is no data on the number of people with visible or non-visible disabilities working in commercial kitchens in Australia, although — anecdotally at least — it is the exception rather than the rule. In this regard, design can incur an added barrier — or an opportunity to create a more inclusive industry.

Individuals who may have the interest or inclination are often thwarted by both the design and the established work protocols in commercial kitchens — which typically prioritize speed and spatial efficiency over accessibility. To wit: How can multiple people work in an orderly fashion, manoeuvre around a hot stove and serve customers bespoke orders? The answer is standardization. Commercial kitchens must make the best use of their space, and owners typically buy ready-made equipment like benchtops and range hoods on the assumption that the kitchen staff are “average” or able-bodied people. This inevitably makes it challenging for people with disabilities to work safely in commercial kitchens without significant modifications to the space, equipment, and work culture.

Michael Jones, a Queensland-based commercial kitchen design consultant and former chef, believes that industrial or institutional kitchens are prime candidates for improving accessibility. “People assume only restaurants, hotels and cafes have commercial kitchens, but the food service industry is much larger than this,” he explains. “Mining accommodation villages, hospitals, school cafeterias produce a large number of meals daily. These operations have a much larger footprint and space and their style of production and operation makes it possible to have dedicated areas that can be inclusive for people with disabilities. This is where I see the real potential for improving accessibility.”

In this sense, All Things Equal is an outlier — they got exceptionally lucky when it comes to space. Rob McVicker, the café’s Ops Manager explains that before it became a café, it was a fast-food restaurant with an oversized kitchen. “The extra space is handy. Some of our staff come with their own support worker so there’s space for them to stand, observe and maybe explain instructions in a different way,” he says. It also means there is a wide berth for people with wheelchairs or walking aids to manoeuvre around.

Other than space, the other challenge is the equipment. Standard sized benchtops are typically inaccessible to people with mobility aids — and a cause of repetitive stress injuries for people who are shorter or taller than average. 

Kim Johnstone, Director of Inclusive Living Australia represents Granberg of Sweden, who design and manufacture an extensive range of height-adjustable systems for residential spaces such as kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms. These systems allow for worktops, island benches, wall cabinets, appliance lifts, and electric wardrobe lift systems to move up and down at a touch of a button. And while commercial options remain more limited, such systems help to create an accessible, functional, usable, and safe environment, which looks aesthetically refined rather than clinical.

Inclusive Living also works with TAFE (Technical and Further Education) schools and universities to improve accessibility in areas like kitchens and accommodation space. “Our products can be installed in new facilities, retrofitted, or relocated if needed,” Johnstone says. “When designing inclusive and adaptable spaces, it is best to design and cater for accessibility from the beginning to ensure end-to-end principles are not just an afterthought.”   

In Australia, the National Disability Insurance Scheme can offer funding to educational or government institutions to improve accessibility, but this is often patchy, hence experienced people find different ways to make incremental changes in kitchens. High on that list is the choice of cooking equipment and benching. “The use of induction cookers on a height adjustable bench as opposed to a standard commercial gas range, is a far safer alternative,” Jones stresses.

Designers can also incorporate learnings from modified residential homes, such as installing an over-stove mirror so that people can see what the food looks like without having to stand-up or having a perching stool for people who struggle to stand unsupported for long periods of time.

It is important to note that there are a range of disabilities, so accessibility designs are best when they consider individual needs and capabilities. For example, Brett Duncan is a deaf pastry chef at GingerSnap who also works in another commercial kitchen. He uses a cochlear implant, but even then, he can only hear up to 10 per cent of sounds. “The greatest challenge for deaf people in a commercial kitchen is the noise, which is created by appliances and the echo from stainless steel surfaces. The noise makes it difficult to communicate with my team. I become mentally exhausted from the concentration required,” he explained in an email.   

Ideally, Duncan would appreciate sound absorbers under the benchtop but this is not a specification for kitchen equipment yet. Instead, Duncan increases his concentration level while on the job and his workmates are also trained on how to work with deaf people. For example, they always tap him on the shoulder before they start talking to him or acknowledge that they may have to repeat details in case he did not hear it the first time.

These changes in designing a commercial kitchen are still niche and gradual. But as the curb cut effect showed us, when we design for people with disabilities, we also improve things for everyone.

Open for Business: Design for Accessibility in Commercial Kitchens

From restaurants to hospitals and cafeterias, universal design principles are key to creating inclusive workplaces.

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