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A case of old-fashioned discrimination

Throughout life I’ve toggled between professional worlds, working in journalism or being employed in human services as a caregiver.

For the first time, I’m juggling those. I work part-time at the Pine Knot News, of course, and also for a Cloquet outfit which houses and cares for people with disabilities. As part of my latter work, I go with people on 1:1 outings.

I chauffeur. We connect. We do fun things. One week, we played miniature golf and shot hoops at the carnival baskets at Adventure Zone in Duluth. Another week, a gentleman and I went out to eat locally at Carmen’s Bar and Restaurant.

Last week, the person I was with wanted to eat at Perkins, a restaurant for which he’d once held a job. He’s worked a few jobs at prominent locations in the county, and proudly recalls them.

The person is getting older. He shuffles his feet and can get confused, especially when he’s tired.

But he remains a vibrant soul. He kicked me out of his bedroom chair recently after he turned the television up too loud and I turned it down. He went to sleep a little angry, but woke up smiling.

That’s when I learned, he knows what he wants. He watches sports and wears jerseys and caps of his favorite teams. I’ve seen a video from a coworker of him strumming a guitar and making up hilarious lyrics about a flatulent housemate.

When I work at his house I prepare his breakfasts. Because of an esophageal condition, he requires his food to be blended. I forgot that the first time we went out and we ate pretzel bites at the mall. Fortunately, he was fine, and my seasoned colleagues took it easy on me.

So it was that we landed at one of the Perkins in Duluth earlier this month. He’d been pining for Perkins for weeks. We were directed to a table, and I asked the host if they could accommodate my friend by blending his meal. The person said the restaurant doesn’t own a blender. Hmmm, I thought, discrimination served with an apology and a head tilt.

I’d been warned ahead of time by colleagues that such an accommodation doesn’t come easily. Sometimes they bring the house Ninja when they take him out, but even then it’s not simple. They have to find an outlet and be discreet, because apparently there are restaurant managers who frown on this practice. One colleague I spoke to said she tries to avoid any conflict by using the bathroom outlet.

While I appreciate that resourcefulness and trust they do it as smartly as possible, it’s not a good situation. It’s not the sort of ingenuity a caregiver or person with a disability ought to require.

In the end, we had to leave the restaurant after my friend had already been seated. He was disappointed and confused. We decided to visit the train museum in Duluth and climbed aboard the engines and cars in an effort to forget about it. We ate strawberry shakes from Dairy Queen afterward, and returned to Perkins to grab him supper to take home — a patty melt and hash browns.

What do blended patty melts and hash browns taste like? Like patty melts and hash browns. What do they look like? Like Ralston hot cereal.

It’s no longer out of the ordinary to make dining accommodations for people. There are gluten-free options and alternative pizza crusts. There are nut considerations, low-fat and low-sodium options, senior portions, and nondairy alternatives.

Encountering our situation was disheartening for both of us. I mistakenly thought I could advocate strongly for the person and that we’d get the meal he ordered, prepared the way he needs it. I was wrong.

In the end, my friend got to eat what he wanted, but none of the joy of eating out. He ate takeout at home, alone at the table.

A lot of the time, folks living in group homes do things in groups, with housemates and staff.

One-to-one time, in this case, is a monthly endeavor. It tends to be cherished and well-planned, and the person can spend weeks looking forward to their outing.

When restaurants don’t make accommodations for people with disabilities, it hurts us all by dishonoring how a society ought to look out for its most vulnerable members.

I challenge restaurant owners and operators to consider all people, to do better, to keep a blender in your professional kitchens, to make things happen instead of excuses, and to reject shaming a person who comes through your doors needing something prepared differently.

Despite it all, we enjoyed a fulfilling day. Because he’s resilient, and because he’s encountered this sort of thing in the past. Not that he or anyone in his situation should ever have to.

Brady Slater is a reporter for the Pine Knot News who has spent his career reporting and editing at community newspapers in Grantsburg, Wisconsin, Austin, Minnesota, Pocatello, Idaho and Duluth.

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