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Elevating Accessibility: The Path to Inclusive Airports

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Traveling has always been an exhilarating experience, but it can also be daunting and stressful, even before arriving at the airport. The hustle of getting there on time, navigating the check-in process, passing through security, and finding your way to the gate can be overwhelming for many. However, for individuals with disabilities, these challenges are magnified by the numerous barriers they encounter throughout their journey. This firsthand experience highlights the urgent need for airports worldwide to prioritize accessibility and inclusivity.

The Global Demand for Accessibility

In an era where air travel is increasingly accessible, thanks in part to the rise of low-cost airlines, the demand for accessible airports has reached an all-time high. Globally, there are approximately one billion people with disabilities, making this the largest minority group on the planet. To put this number into perspective, consider that 75 million individuals rely on wheelchairs daily, which is twice the population of Canada. Furthermore, 253 million people are either blind or have some form of vision loss, equivalent to the population of Mexico. Another 466 million individuals are D/deaf or have hearing loss, a number equivalent to the European Union’s population.

As our societies age, the prevalence of disabling conditions increases, necessitating physical and environmental accommodations for air travel. To ensure equal access to the skies, airport operators must take proactive measures to incorporate meaningful accessibility into their design and operational processes.

Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification

Canada has been a pioneer in the pursuit of accessible airports. Several leading terminal operators, including Victoria International (YYJ), Vancouver International (YVR), Ottawa International (YOW), and Halifax Stanfield International (YHZ), have embraced the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification program™ (RHFAC) as a pivotal tool for fostering inclusivity in terminal design and operation.

RHFAC offers a unique measurement system that transcends building codes and site standards. It provides a perspective grounded in disability experience, simplifying issues while guiding industry professionals to identify barriers across various disabilities. RHFAC not only imparts vital training to planning, design, and construction professionals but also facilitates projects in measuring their accessibility against a national scale. It promotes consistency and offers a tangible way to measure inclusion efforts, making accessibility genuinely meaningful.

The Rick Hansen Foundation played a pivotal role in developing ACI World’s Accessibility Enhancement Accreditation program, a first-of-its-kind initiative aimed at continuous improvement in airport accessibility for passengers with disabilities.

Accessibility Benefits Everyone

Accessibility is not limited to addressing the needs of individuals with disabilities alone; it represents better design that benefits people of all ages and abilities. YVR, Canada’s second busiest airport, achieved an RHFAC Gold rating in 2018 for its seamless and comfortable experience, earning 93 out of 100 points on its RHFAC rating survey. Since then, airports in Victoria, Ottawa, and Halifax Stanfield have followed suit, scoring over 80% on their rating surveys to attain RHFAC Gold.

Some common accessibility features

  • Universal food and service counters for wheeled mobility device users.
  • Low-resistance carpeting for easy navigation and improved acoustics for those with hearing impairments.
  • Use of texture and color for enhanced wayfinding.
  • Curbside assistance upon request.
  • Accessible parking and shuttle services.
  • Universal seating throughout terminals.
  • Universally accessible common washrooms and dedicated accessible family washrooms.
  • Pre- and post-security pet relief areas for travelers with assistance animals.
  • Public address systems friendly to assistive listening devices, including hearing aids.
  • Back-lit directional signage and consistent wayfinding techniques.
  • Staff trained in disability awareness.

Small Changes, Big Impact

While airports are generally more accessible by design than typical office buildings, there is still much room for improvement. Airports, with their vast spaces and aging infrastructure, often face challenges in prioritizing accessibility upgrades. There is also a misconception that accessibility primarily concerns a handful of wheelchair users, leading operators to believe that adherence to building codes is sufficient.

However, to navigate the practical application of Universal Design successfully, a proven accessibility tool like RHFAC is essential. It offers a comprehensive assessment of a facility’s current accessibility and a roadmap for continual improvements, all at minimal cost. Many accessibility enhancements fall within the category of “low-hanging fruit,” meaning they are relatively easy and cost-effective to implement. A feasibility study even showed that achieving RHFAC Gold level accessibility during planning stages costs an average of zero to 1% of the total budget.

Choosing Accessibility-Friendly Destinations

The aviation industry must consider not only people with disabilities but also their family and friends who accompany them. Therefore, the accessibility of airports plays a crucial role in travelers’ destination choices. Places like Playa del Carmen in Mexico, with its accessible hotels and beaches, and Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia, Canada, with its accessible trails and viewing platforms, have become popular destinations. Melbourne, Australia, is also hailed as one of the world’s most accessible cities.

As the aviation industry continues to evolve and air travel becomes more accessible to everyone, airports must step up and lead the way in providing inclusive and accessible experiences. Accessibility is not just a moral obligation but a smart business decision, as it opens doors to a broader demographic of travelers. Ensuring that all individuals, regardless of age or ability, can enjoy the freedom of air travel should be a shared commitment. The sky should never be the limit when it comes to accessibility in airports.

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