A Place at the Bar: People with Disabilities and Veterans

As we move forward in this industry and embrace diversity, it’s important to remember the past.

The bar world wasn’t always eager to accept all people as employees. And to be frank, we have a tendency toward sanitizing the uglier or more shameful parts of history.

As Fred Minnick said recently, the bar world is a leader in driving diversity, but we still have a long way to go.

The award-winning author, editor-in-chief of Bourbon­+, and whiskey expert explained some of the progress this industry has made toward diversity and inclusiveness. There was a time in America when Irishmen were banned from working in or visiting bars, so they opened their own. There was a time in America during which African-Americans were banned from holding jobs or visiting bars, so they opened their own.

There was also a time when women were banned from bars. Vilifying women in bars as being prostitutes, lawmakers actually believed they were being chivalrous by prohibiting women to be in bars.

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The Supreme Court upheld that ban at one point, thereby supporting the misguided belief that motivated it. In 1948, Valentine Goesaert challenged a Michigan law that prohibited women from working as licensed bartenders in any city that had a population of 50,000 or more—unless a woman’s father or husband owned the business. Legally, such sex-based statutes and decisions weren’t subject to scrutiny or overruling until 1976.

Now, of course, people of all ethnicities and genders can own, operate, work in, and visit bars, restaurants and nightclubs. We as an industry and Americans have made decades of progress there.

But there are other groups that aren’t being treated with respect or included in the diversity conversation.

Diversity is, as Minnick put it, “more than skin color.” It’s more than gender. People with disabilities and veterans are often left out of the drive for diversity and inclusiveness.

Minnick wondered what would happen to owners, operators and other hospitality professionals if they applied the prejudices the disabled or veterans face to different ethnicities or genders. Likely, there would be a massive outcry, lawsuits, and the shuttering of businesses.

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Accommodating people with disabilities isn’t that difficult. Small changes in thought processes and design make it rather simple. Minnick offered the following:

  • Be ADA compliant.
  • Design bars to be more maneuverable.
  • Consider job candidates with disabilities to be equals and treat them as such.
  • Develop techniques to help team members with disabilities.
  • Don’t judge people with disabilities, and don’t tolerate offensive comments of behavior aimed toward them from other team members or colleagues.

To be honest, that list should apply to bars, nightclubs, and restaurants already: be ADA compliant; treat everyone equally and with respect; help all team members accomplish their tasks and achieve; and don’t encourage a culture of disrespect and discrimination.

Veterans are another group facing challenges when it comes to working in this industry. Often times, veterans feel judged for the wars in which they served. That feeling isn’t paranoia—many people do judge veterans and lay the blame for wars and conflicts at their feet.

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Unfortunately, many potential employers fear that veterans will snap due to PTSD. Some also feel that it’s more expensive to insure veterans. These misguided notions are keeping veterans from getting hired in all industries, hospitality included.

Minnick is an Army veteran and he’s open about his struggles with PTSD. He hasn’t snapped and he’s one of the most respected figures in the bar and spirits worlds. And again, his advice for hiring and working with veterans isn’t difficult:

  • Don’t inquire about a veteran’s war experience in an offensive way.
  • Be aware that some veterans are sensitive to loud noises. However, it’s best to avoid such assumptions. Ask about accommodations they may prefer.
  • Don’t schedule veterans on Veterans Day.
  • Celebrate veterans’ service.

I would also add the following about hiring veterans: they’re dependable, mission- and goal-oriented, and used to working in teams. Minnick has pointed out that, on the business-side of things, there are state and federal tax incentives that come with hiring veterans.

The hospitality industry is a leader in diversity and inclusiveness. We can be the leaders, and the example for the rest of the world.