The Ontario Human Rights Commission says businesses must make every reasonable effort to serve people with disabilities — but what that means varies on a case-by-case basis.

A Thunder Bay couple whose nine-year-old daughter uses a wheelchair has complained that a local restaurant didn't accommodate her.

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Ontario Human Rights Chief Commissioner Barbara Hall says businesses must ensure access for people with disabilities unless accommodations are impossible due to financial, health or safety reasons. (Supplied)

The head of the commission, Barbara Hall, said the human rights code states people with disabilities are entitled to access and use of all services, unless accommodations are impossible due to financial, health or safety reasons.

"We say context, context, context," Hall said. "If you're talking about Wal-Mart, it's very different than if you're talking about a small operation."

The restaurant involved in the Thunder Bay complaint is a small establishment called McKellar Confectionary, where Patrick Rybar took his daughter to lunch. As he was carrying her in her wheelchair up three stairs to an elevated dining area, staff stopped him and said they would serve the family on the lower level.

Rybar said his daughter was starting to get upset and they left. Afterwards he notified CBC News of the incident.

The restaurant manager later told CBC News his staff were concerned about safety, which is why they offered to serve the family on the lower level. But Rybar said his daughter couldn't sit there because the seating consisted of a counter with high bar-style chairs.

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Nine-year-old Amy Rybar's parents say a Thunder Bay eatery should have accommodated her wheelchair in a raised section of the dining area. (Supplied)

Hall said small businesses have an obligation to be as accommodating as possible, but the parties on both sides need to communicate.

"In all of these situations, our hope is that people will, with goodwill on both sides, try and resolve the issue when it arises."

Most complaints are sorted out this way, or through mediation, rather than through a formal hearing, Hall said.

Rybar said his family has notified the commision but hasn't launched any formal process.