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Community Spotlight: MSP Airport Travelers with Disabilities Advisory Committee (Part 1)

An interview with Andrew Palmberg and Phil Burke

12/1/2020 10:35:14 AM

The exterior of an airport with a plane taking off towards the sun. Besides the airport are icons for service animals, a person with a cane, and text communication.

Please share a little about what the MSP Travelers with Disabilities Advisory Committee does, and how it got started? Which kinds of individuals are represented by the Committee?

Andrew: The Travelers with Disabilities Advisory Committee (TDAC) is an all-volunteer member committee that meets four times a year with representatives from the disabilities community in Minnesota as well as representatives from the airport and Metropolitan Airport Commission (MAC) who are responsible for operating the airport. Some examples of representatives from our disability communities that are on the TDAC committee are, Minnesota Commission for the Deaf, DeafBlind & Hard of Hearing (MNCDHH), Hearing Loss Association of America – Minnesota chapter (HLAA), Minnesota Council on Disability (MCD), Parkinson’s Foundation – Minnesota Chapter, United Blind of Minnesota, and others. Examples of some of the representatives from the Airport and MAC that regularly attend our meetings include, MAC Customer Service representatives, MAC architectural services, MAC community liaison, MAC concessions representatives, Delta Airlines Customer Service, Prospect representative, TSA, and others. 

Phil: The committee grew from a pre-existing relationship with the MNCDHH. MAC staff reached out to MNCDHH who assisted in recruiting advocates of the various disabilities’ communities.

What is the goal of the Advisory Committee?

Andrew: Our committee objective is to improve equitable access for all airport users. We chose the word “equitable” instead of “equality” because in our disability community, every disability has a different need to be on equal footing as others. Equitable means we are giving more help to people who need the help and less help to others who may not benefit from the extra help, and in this way, we are creating equal footing for everyone to benefit from. A great way to explain this concept would be through the image below and it is the image we show to our committee members at the beginning of each meeting. 


[Image description: The image is split in two, the left image has the text “Equality” on the bottom and shows three people of varying heights, short, average, and tall, standing individually on a single box overlooking a fence watching a baseball game. The tall and average height individuals can see the baseball game while the short person is not able to see the game. The right image has the text “Equity” on the bottom and shows the same three people but now the tall person is not standing on a box, the average height person is standing on one box, and the short person is now standing on two boxes stacked on each other and everyone is now able to see the game.]  Image attribution: Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire.

The image shows the difference between equality and equity. Equality means we are giving opportunity to everyone equally including to people who may not benefit from it. The three people in the “Equality” image standing on a single box are given the same opportunity to stand on one box to be able to see the baseball game in the background over the fence. It is clear the tall person would still be able to see the game without the aid of the box. While the short person is given a box as everyone else, but still cannot see the baseball game over the fence. Meanwhile the same three people in the “Equity” image now are given different amounts of “opportunities” or boxes to see the game. The tall person who are able to see the game without a box is not given a box to see the game, the average height person still has one box to see the game, and the short person is given two boxes to stand on and is now able to see the game and all three people are on equal footing to be able to watch and enjoy the game. This is the objective of our committee on how we are improving accessibility at the airport here at Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Phil: The MAC desires for each and every customer to have an equitable experience! As a matter of fact, we have an aspirational goal to be the “most accessible airport in the world.” We state that goal during the design phase of most projects we undertake to ensure accessibility has a primary seat at the table during design discussions.

What role do you play on the Advisory Committee? How did you become involved? 

Andrew: I am the current chairperson of the TDAC committee which is a great honor. I enjoy bringing together communities with a goal to improve accessibility at the airport and the MAC couldn’t be a better partner for us to work with. I became involved with the TDAC when I was working as an intern at the Minnesota Commission for the Deaf, DeafBlind & Hard of Hearing (MNCDHH) and the former executive director, Mary Hartnett, asked me to be involved in the committee since I’ve always been interested in the topics of transportation and so it was a perfect fit for me and I continue to serve as MNCDHH community representative on the TDAC committee since then.

Phil: I have been involved since the committee inception. I worked on the business plan to give the committee structure and I worked with [MNCDHH] to recruit members. I now work closely with Andrew in setting the meeting agendas, working with airport staff who report on findings and present to the group and am always on the lookout for new members!

What has MSP Airport done to make it more accessible over the years, especially for Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing travelers? Any recent updates that we should be aware of?

Andrew: Every idea and discussion topic we’ve had in the committee, the MAC takes with an open mind and ensures they take the time to listen to all of our concerns and the MAC also takes the time to put thought and time on how to implement our ideas in the airport. The MAC also brings issues and obstacles they face at the airport on their own accord to the committee for our thoughts and feedback with the goal of improving accessibility, so the disability community members in the committee are not the only one involved in giving ideas to the MAC to improve the airport. One example of this would be that the airport has implemented VRI services at all of their information booths so a Deaf or Hard of Hearing person is able to communicate with the staff at the information booth if they have any questions or are looking for advice such as the best restaurant to eat at. VRS service is currently being worked on and hopefully to be implemented at the airport in the near future as well so a Deaf or Hard of Hearing person is able to make phone calls from the airport.

The MAC also conducts quarterly checks of all television devices in the airport to ensure the captions are turned on. The airport also has continued to update their pet relief areas to make it easier and accessible for guide dogs to relieve themselves without having to leave the secured areas of the airport. The TDAC committee also has worked hard to ensure there is a visible component for every audio element in the airport such as a text visible barrier to notify a person a restroom is closed and where the next closest restroom is in the airport. Another example of a visible component would be in the new terminal remodeling project for Terminal A, the elevator floors will light up notifying people which elevator is available and which direction the elevator will go. Finally, the airport is currently in the process of adding beacon signals that helps wayfinding for blind or low vision people that may need help navigating the airport on their own.

Phil: I would also add that we are installing hearing loops in public areas of the airport. To date, we have installed loops in our Commission chambers, federal arrivals area, and most recently the entire departures hall and arrivals level will have hearing loops when remodeling of those spaces is complete.

Watch for part 2!


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