Best Practices - HP & Boeing

Boeing If you’re blind, you shouldn’t have to touch everything in an airplane bathroom to locate the flush handle on the toilet. If you have mobility issues, it shouldn’t take you half the flight to buckle your seat-belt. Boeing, which builds and sells planes to all the major commercial airlines, has implemented a variety of design measures to ensure that passengers with disabilities or special needs have a pleasant flight.

ABILITY Magazine recently spoke with Boeing staff members, Vicki Curtis, Millie Brown and Geoff Potter about these design and accommodation initiatives for airline passengers with disabilities. Vicki Curtis is a senior engineer who works on accessibility design. Millie Brown focuses on reasonable accommodations and Geoff Potter works on employee communications for the company.

AM: Who would like to start?

Curtis: I guess we could start with me. I work in The Concept Center. We primarily do research and product development. We’ve been focusing on a number of projects, trying to make the airplane have as few boundaries as possible, which is quite a challenge. It is a real confined space, and you can only do so much. But there are simple changes that you can make. To gain more insight we hired an ethnography company to do flyalongs with passengers who have disabilities.

Ethnographers study people in a situation. For us, they videotaped people getting on and off airplanes, and also during flight. It was eye-opening. We watched a gentleman with mild cerebral palsy, a blind person, a person who was partially deaf, and a couple of people who had polio. So it gave us a variety of insights. If you ask any of these people if they have issues flying, they’d say, “no, no, no.” Other people might, but not us. Yet on the video, we saw them encounter a number of difficulties.

We watched the gentleman who had cerebral palsy spend, I don’t know, maybe 30 seconds with his seat belt, which should have been a five-second thing. We watched him struggle, and when he got through, he was like, “Whew!” That showed us an area we need to work on, because it’s not just the person with cerebral palsy; it could be an elderly person with arthritis, or anybody with a dexterity problem, or someone who’s busy with their other hand. The reality is that any one of us could become disabled at any time. Everything becomes more of a challenge as we get older and our bodies run down.

If you’ve ever watched a single mom with a toddler get on an airplane, it’s like she essentially has no hands. She’s got the toddler, and a stroller she has to stow. Maybe she’s carrying a diaper bag and her carry-on and a car seat and trying to herd the kid down the aisle. My hat’s off to that lady.


AM: And the toddler’s no help.

Curtis: Yeah. If you have to buckle in a squirming child, it gets worse. So everything that we implement to address disabilities makes it better for everyone else as well.

AM: When people think about accessibility on a plane, the obvious thing is a wheelchair.

Curtis: We did a workshop this spring where we invited four airlines, some seat manufacturers, and the Open Doors organization to the Disney Institute. Our focus was to get on and off an airplane with a wheelchair. People say, “Disney? Why Disney?” Well, getting on and off airplanes can be real similar to getting on and off a ride. And when we went out to Disney World— this was one of my better business trips—we studied how they accommodate a person in a wheelchair without stopping the whole ride. For instance, they give the person in the wheelchair the option to stop the ride if needed, or they can transfer the person into a car and then add that car to the ride, so there are a variety of options to accommodate people without unduly delaying the ride for everyone else.

They do a variety of things, and we thought, “Wow, maybe we could incorporate some of those on an airplane.” We came up with several ideas that we could work on. Some of the seat suppliers went back to their home companies, and I’m hoping they’re working on something that’s going to make a difference.

AM: Sounds like follow up will be important.

Curtis: Yes. Regarding motorized wheelchairs, another thing we did is invite Bombardier out. As you know, wheelchairs weigh up to 400 pounds, and are difficult to get into the cargo area of a plane. So we had four airlines and probably six wheelchair manufacturers, and we built a mock-up of the cargo door for a 737 and for a CRJ plane. We invited everybody out and brought in a 400-pound wheelchair, and said, “OK, get it in that little hole there.” The airlines discussed their issues with it. It’s not likely we can change thousands of 737s. We understand that it wasn’t a good accessible design in the first place. However, the wheelchair manufacturers were all over the challenge: “Wow! OK, if a person in a motorized chair is going to travel,” they said, “this is a real challenge.” There are a number of things that manufacturers can do to make the chair fold up or get a little smaller, so it can be stowed without being damaged. Some of the airlines worked together to brainstorm the safest way to get it in there. We asked questions like: Can you tilt it over? Are there different tools that we could use to help get a chair in there, and then upright it so that people arrive with their chair intact and not damaged? It was real eye-opening for everybody involved.

The 737 was developed before the Air Carrier Access Act. I don’t even think that legislation outlines requirements, but obviously everybody likes to get to their journey in one piece. If you’ve got a wheelchair that’s damaged when you arrive at your destination and now you don’t have your wheelchair, it ruins your whole trip.

Most airlines understand that it’s not the money involved, it’s the experience the person has with your airline. You know, we also did a study on aging. We worked with the Ford Motor Company to obtain copies of their Third Age Suit. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with that. It’s a coverall that you put on and it restricts all major joints, like your neck, your elbows, your knees, your back. Some of our younger engineers put them on and then flew in them—via Alaska Airlines—from Seattle to Spokane, which is about a 55-minute flight. They had a little list of things to do. The list was in six-point font. The dark gray letters were printed on a medium gray background, so it had no contrast. We gave them heavy-weighted carry-ons to simulate the lack of strength or reduced strength. They wore weight-lifting gloves, so they had little dexterity. All the younger engineers said, “Getting old really sucks!” (laughs)

They had to turn on the overhead light, adjust the air. Engineers thought the tiny switches were discreet and a really good idea, until they couldn’t see them or reach them. They thought, “That design really stinks, maybe we should be doing something different.” When they got to their destination, those engineers shed those suits as quick as they could. You know they were thinking, “I want to go back to my young body!”

AM: Putting them in the other person’s shoes is great.

Curtis: We’ve even had workshops on airplane lavatories, which are a big problem as well. Everybody on the team had to undertake the role of a person with a different disability. We had one guy wear leather work gloves. We had a person with an arm in a sling, which is a minor thing, but it’s not just about using that arm, it’s also about balance. You face balance challenges when you can’t use both of your arms. We had a person who normally wears contacts go two days without them to experience the vision difficulties some people experience. After the first day, some people thought, “This is really good, we can do this.” By the second day, however, the entire team was crabby and tired. We even went out to lunch at an Italian restaurant, and the guy who wore the big heavy leather gloves said, “What I ordered depended on my capabilities. Now I’m limiting my choices.” Pasta was not going to work for him.

Potter: Beyond the team that Vicki works with, Boeing’s got a number of events to help spread that kind of awareness to people who don’t have disabilities. We held a sign language class in Philadelphia. We had a number of able-bodied managers play wheelchair basketball in California. We included those events in a cultural diversity video that we show employees. And we had this other event during the summer in Portland that was like the “Amazing Race” TV show.

The Portland event had 14 challenges, and each one of those had a diversity component. One of them was, “OK, you have to complete this task, but the person giving the instructions only spoke Spanish.” And none of the managers got it done, if I recall correctly. (laughs) We put headphones on some people and had them try to order a coffee from Starbucks without the ability to hear. In another challenge, a person was blindfolded and had to actually find a guide dog and navigate a course. The managers had a lot of ‘ah-hah!’ moments.

AM: We were invited to a conference on accessibility issues that American Airlines held several years ago. They also invited then-Miss America, Heather White-stone, who is deaf. They asked her if her flight was good. It was a benign question. Her response was anything but. She was really frustrated. Apparently some emergency happened on the flight, and the captain announced to the passengers what was going on, but since she’s deaf, she had no clue what was happening. She saw the reaction on all the passengers’ faces, but nobody could tell her what was going on. She asked American Airlines: “What are you going to do for passengers who are deaf when something happens? Have you thought about your passengers who are deaf, and can’t hear the commands or understand what’s going on? Did you all think about that when you were putting together modifications for building your planes?”

Curtis: Being deaf is all about communication. It’s the same as if I went on a trip to Japan and couldn’t understand anybody. It’s a real hindrance. It’s the same thing for a deaf person. You don’t hear any of the announcements. Yet nobody can see that you’re deaf, so that adds to the challenge. So we’ve worked on systems that would provide conversation as well as translate. I don’t think the technology is there yet, but we’re working on a means of communicating. It’s something that everybody’s going to have to address as Baby Boomers age.

Brown: Vicki, as you know, they have those drop-down screens now on some airplanes that use captioning. Maybe the airlines need to utilize those a little bit more with all the messages that they communicate, even at the beginning and end of the flight. I think that’s one of the ways we could probably move forward. Captioning is really important for us with all our communications, all our videos, all our training. We make sure that we have it available, and even with our WebEx meetings, we can contract with someone like Colorado Captioning to make sure information during the WebEx meetings is available to everyone. I think we’re headed in that direction; we just haven’t completely gotten there yet.

AM: There’s voice recognition software. Announcements could show up on a screen.

Curtis: I’ve been working with that software. It is a real challenge, I’ll tell you. I guess I must mumble a lot.

Potter: That reminds me of the opening of The Right Stuff. You remember, where the book talks about all the pilots seeming to have this kind of relaxed Southern accent. Writer Tom Wolfe’s contention is that it all comes from that barnstorming test pilot Chuck Yeager. So the voice-recognition systems have to be able to deal with the accents, too, I suppose.

Curtis: These systems just need to be more advanced.

AM: The trend is heading in that direction. You mentioned the restrooms earlier. Is anything happening with those?

Curtis: The restroom in itself is a big challenge on a single-aisle airplane like a 737. Space is such a rare commodity. It’s so expensive. You cannot remove seats, so there’s the challenge of making the lavatory itself accessible. And the aisle is so narrow that even if you have an accessible lavatory, you still have to provide some means of getting the person to the lavatory. And that gets to be a challenge. We’re about to undertake another project this fall to make the lavatory more accessible. We would like to address the needs of anybody who typically uses a wheelchair, is blind or has dexterity issues. Being blind in the lavatory is particularly challenging. You literally have to touch everything to find the flush handle, the sink or the faucet. So we’re going to take a serious look at this very soon. We’d like to make it totally inclusive. We have engineers and others within the company whom we can ask to come help us and get some good feedback.

We have a great network of airlines that we work with. They try to do anything possible to be accommodating and to make sure their services are accessible. In our network, we have a few people who will say, “This is becoming a problem in the airplane. Is there something you can think of to do?” And we’ll work together.

They’re at the service end of it, we’re at the airplane end of it, so we team up to come up with solutions. I’m kind of sensitive about sharing things that a certain airline is doing, but I always strongly suggest that they send their solution to the competition. I don’t know if they do that or not. I do know that it’s a great network of people; everybody wants to make everything as accessible as possible. Oregon State University was an important part of the workshop on stowing motorized wheelchairs on airplanes. They co-hosted the workshop with Boeing and helped coordinate participation by all the non-Boeing players.

I know in wheelchair stowage, the airlines work really closely together. They say “This is what we do. What do you do?” Nobody wants to ruin the trip. We talked about training people. It seems that with the baggage handlers, however, there’s an awful lot of turnover. You can get summer students working, and they’ll be in there for three months and maybe see two wheelchairs.

They try to work really hard on coming up with the right answers. This is a passion of mine. I’m getting older, and when I retire, which is not too many years off, I’m going to be flying, and I want to be comfortable.

AM: It’s like you said earlier: At any moment, any of us could find ourselves experiencing these issues.

Curtis: If we’re lucky enough, we’ll all grow old enough to experience some of these issues. Until then, it’s just the everyday challenges, like having too many things in your hand, or trying to do too many tasks at once.

Potter: We have a month during which we deal with disability employment awareness.

AM: Is that October?

Potter: It is October. We do some communications, we do a video for our employees, we do a series of events, again, like the wheelchair basketball game. We try to educate our employees in general about the need to respect people of different backgrounds and recognize the challenges that people of different abilities face.

Curtis: We’ve had discussions about the philosophy of So-and-So is not a “typical” paraplegic, because they’re so “active.” We finally came to the conclusion that the people that we thought were not typical are very typical. We dealt with a guy at Disney who’s a double amputee, lost both his legs, and he parasails, sails, works at the Disney Institute. The guy is absolutely remarkable. There’s nothing he cannot do. We were like, “Oh, he’s different, he’s not typical.” But now we’re finding out that he’s the norm. Just because he’s missing legs doesn’t mean that he can’t do all those things. It’s really refreshing to work with him.


ABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the Robert Patrick issue include Headlines — Voting Gains; Help with Medicare; Humor — Run for Office? Run the Other Way!; Green Pages — Water by Computer, Solar Flashlight; DRLC — Make Polling Places Accessible For All; Best Practices — HP & Boeing; Anita Kaiser — Finding Innovative Ways to Mother; JR Martinez — Soldiering On; Managing Pain — Ear Aches, Tooth Aches; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe

Vol 2008 Oct/Nov

More excerpts from the Robert Patrick issue:

Robert Patrick -- Interview

Kennedy Legacy — Anthony Kennedy Shriver - Best Buddies; William Kennedy Smith, MD - iCons

Asst. Secretary of Labor — ‘Everybody Needs to Work’

Meredith Eaton — From Therapist to Actress

The Scent of Cancer

JR Martinez — Soldiering On

Best Practices — HP & Boeing

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