Sunday, July 15, 2018

JFK Airport "Zero;" Delta Airlines "Won" Regarding Disability Inclusion

I flew home on a business trip this week from Las Vegas, Nevada, to JFK airport in New York, and once again the trip was daunting and frustrating.

Airline travel is tough enough for all of us, however, when you have a disability and are traveling in a wheelchair, it becomes even more challenging. As a backdrop, I've been traveling for more than 35 years as a wheelchair rider and a C5-C6 quadriplegic. I basically travel when I must, especially when there is a business purpose involved.

I was returning from a disability inclusion conference with an organization called Disability:In, formally known as USBLN.  My team and I had just been recognized on behalf of our firm, JPMorgan Chase, as one of the best companies to work for if you have a disability and are qualified to compete for employment opportunities.

A perfect landing, but no wheelchair

I had already done four transfers to and from from my wheelchair by the time I arrived at JFK airport in New York on Delta flight 371. When members of the ground crew arrived to lift me from my airline seat into the narrow airline-provided aisle chair, I was already tired and anxious to get home.

As the last person off the plane, I waited in the jetway for my power wheelchair to arrive from the cargo area. We were soon informed, however, that I had to transfer yet again into another airport-provided chair and pushed to the location where my power wheelchair was being held hostage. That would mean another two transfers for me on my already strained arms and shoulders -- and a total of six lifts and transfers for this leg of my trip home.
When traveling, I sit on an uncomfortable aisle chair ,
such as this one, also at jFK. . 

When I asked why they couldn't bring my power chair to the jetway as usual, which is done at other airports as well as in New York and New Jersey, we were told that the "grounds crew was understaffed" and I had to transfer to another chair and go to their location. 

My response was: "#@%*!"-- I'm not moving!"

We had this conversation while one of the pilots and several  stewards were standing along side us and waiting to "deplane" so the aircraft could be fueled and boarded for the next flight -- with a hundred or more passengers.

When the Delta Airline captain heard what was happening, as told to him by the grounds crew, he said to us that "he'd be right back."

As we all waited with crew and airline wheelchair helpers, a few minutes later the captain arrived with my wheelchair. The captain apologized and said, "I'm sorry you had to go through this." 

I was then transferred into my wheelchair and scooted out of the jetway a few minutes later. As I entered the departure area, there were more than 150 people waiting to board the plane.

Understaffed: Customer focus needed

It's sad, all this turmoil because the NY Port Authority grounds crew was understaffed and could not deliver my wheelchair as they usually do. My gratitude goes to the Delta pilot who took it upon himself to do the right thing. He was incredulous that this incident occurred. Little does he know, this happens more often than not to wheelchair riders and others as we navigate the "friendly skies" of airline travel.

This should not happen in this day and age of the 21st century. People with disabilities should not be subjected to the indignity of the airline transportation industry.

Almost 30 years ago I was able to fly while sitting in my wheelchair. I traveled from New York to Minnesota for a spinal cord injury conference. The airline at the time locked me down in the first class section while in my wheelchair, facing the aisle. I was using an ancient Everest & Jennings model wheelchair, and when we landed, I rolled off the plane to my destination -- without being lifted or transfered.  

A 21st Century Disability Inclusion Opportunity

In this day and age, I can't believe that the airline industry can't figure this out. Every other mode of transportation, such as boating, automobiles, buses, trains, taxicabs all allow for people with disabilities to be transported while in their wheelchairs. Why not the passenger airline industry?

There is just no reason for this except for lack of vision, costs, or ignorance. Airlines, for example, perhaps don't want to give up first-class seats. Well, let's redesign the plane! 

Aircraft manufacturers, who are capable of  redesigning airline cabins, seem to hedge on a universally designed accessible plane for their customers in the airline industry. Universal design works for everyone, especially for folks who may have a temporary disability.

I don't see any reason why this change cannot be made right now -- as we have 1 billion people who have disabilities worldwide, according to the World Health Organization -- who face transportation discrimination and potentially higher travel costs because they may need a companion to accompany them as planes are not accessible. 

According to the Open Doors Organization, there’s an economic case for more accessible airplanes, based on the group's 2015 survey, which found 11 million travelers with disabilities took 23 million trips over the past two years, spending $9 billion on their flights in the process. But 72 percent of those who traveled by air said “they encountered major obstacles with airlines,” indicating there’s a lot of room for improvement. (web article by Aarian Marshall, "The airplane of the future could be much more accessible for passengers with disabilities" )

Because I can't travel in my wheelchair while flying, I have to travel with two people and pay for their seats as well. So, for me traveling costs more, and, I'm afraid to travel alone because I'm completely paralyzed. 

I also believe that if the airline industry changed its passenger aircraft footprint, more people with disabilities would travel alone, as well as with family members or friends -- and with more dignity than we have now.

People with disabilities would also travel more frequently and establish a new airline demographic as people with disabilities usually travel in "packs" -- meaning family members travel with their loved ones who are disabled. 

Here are some quick points to consider: 

1. It's time to come out of the dark ages with wheelchair travel and our airlines. Every other major mode of transportation  has a adapted to a more inclusive model --- trains, cars, buses, vans, and boats. Why not airlines?

2. Major airline manufacturers must redesign passenger aircraft to be more inclusive. What is practiced now is called making an "accommodation," in the world of disability. And, it's not a very good accommodation or "reasonable adjustment," which is a term used in the United Kingdom.

3.  The airline industry, business and government should collaborate to make this happen. This will be good for jobs --  by employing more qualified people with disabilities -- with little or no travel restrictions, and allowing people with disabilities to participate in society more fully, 

This paradigm shift will help break the glass ceiling as people with disabilities will be able to travel more equitably along side their ablebodied colleagues. 

4. I do believe we need a wheelchair standard for flight, which can be designed into "everyday use wheelchairs," as we do with automobiles and other equipment. Let's not create a scenario where we have to buy more than one wheelchair to board a plane.

5. I have been disabled for more than 35 years and still I continue to advocate for airline travel equity and equality. I urge my disability colleagues around the world to continue pushing for change as well.


Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The Henry Viscardi School Class of 2018 Commencement Address

On the evening of Thursday June 21, 2018, 19 talented high school students received their high school diplomas form the Henry Viscardi School in Albertson, New York. 

John Kemp, Viscardi CEO and Beth Daly,
board member, present diploma to 2018 Viscardi graduate.
I was honored to be invited as the commencement speaker for this talented class of graduates, who completed a rigorous education curriculum despite their disabilities.
The Viscardi Center, a network of non-profit organizations, provides a lifespan of services that educate, employ and empower people with disabilities. Its programs and services include Kindergarten through High School education, school-to-work transition services, vocational training, career counseling and placement and workforce diversification assistance to children, adolescents, and adults with disabilities and businesses. View an overview video about The Viscardi Center.

The school was founded in 1952 by Dr. Henry Viscardi, Jr. who himself wore prosthetic legs, served as disability advisor to eight U.S. Presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter, and became one of the world’s leading advocates for people with disabilities. View a brief history about Dr. Henry Viscardi, Jr.

The 2018 Viscardi School Commencement Address follows:

Good evening everyone!

John [Kemp], thank you for your kind words and introduction!

I am honored to be here with all of you this evening, especially with the class of 2018 … and share this very important graduation event at the Henry Viscardi School.

Before I go on, I want to acknowledge some of the very important people who brought us all here today.

First the parents, relatives and friends who are here to celebrate and support our graduates… without those who love and support us………..our journey would not only be more difficult, but most likely, impossible!

Next…. your teachers, clinicians, medical staff, administrators and the wonderful Viscardi center staff who made this event possible today. Given the school’s 66-year heritage, dating back to 1952, this graduation has become a great tradition.

Finally, I must acknowledge some very talented leaders of this organization, which include your CEO and my colleague and friend, Mr. John Kemp; your Head of School, Mr. Angelo Zegarelli; and members of the Viscardi Center’s Board of Directors.

Let’s give them all a round of applause and thank them for bringing us together tonight….. as well as for coaching our students over the graduation goal line!

Well, now that we have our adrenaline going …. let’s see if we can pump it up some more!

Let me tell you a little bit more about myself.

I was injured while body surfing in 1981 while vacationing in Puerto Rico. I sustained a spinal cord injury, at the C5-C6 level. I was 25 years old.

I basically broke my neck and realized that I was paralyzed from the middle of my chest to my toes. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t use my hands. And, I had no idea what I would do after the injury, or whether I’d live or die.

What I did have, however, was a college degree from Colgate University and a Master’s degree from New York University. My education was pivotal in my quest to get back to work as a person with a disability.

Why? Because my education told potential employers I had developed skills that they could use in their business or organization.

Remember, it’s not just the skills that you bring to a business; it’s the skills you possess that can help a business accomplish their goals.

So, today, I join you sitting in a wheelchair after participating in society for almost 37 years as a paralyzed individual. I had no idea how I would accomplish the things I have done, but I never gave up.

I worked for a tech company called IBM for 39 years, and now I work for J.P. Morgan Chase, which is the largest bank in the United States.

I joined the bank after retiring as a Marketing-Communications executive at IBM.

For the past two years, I have been leading the Office of Disability Inclusion worldwide, and guess what? We hire qualified people with disabilities around the world. So, keep that in mind graduates, as you pursue your higher education!

And, this month represents my 2-year anniversary at the bank. So, Viscardi graduates, we both have something to celebrate!

My point in telling you this is that I have been employed for 41 years and advanced in both of my careers, now at Chase, and at IBM.

So, I’ve been able to work for two great companies, marry my soulmate Maggie, raise two children – Danielle and Jimmy – be blessed with two grand-daughters – Natalie and Julia – and this year, celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary!

Oh, and did I mention I have a disability?

Now, I want to talk directly with our graduates.


So, how many of you are fans of superheroes? Go ahead, raise your hands, clap … whatever works ... let’s hear it … That’s good.

Well, I’ve been a fan all my life … In fact, I have a pretty big comic book collection – Daredevil is one of my personal favorites and, I’ll let you in on a secret – I have Daredevil comic books from #1 through #110!

Once I became disabled, I became a bigger fan of superheroes. You want to know why? Because when people see superheroes in the movies … or read about them in comic books … they don’t realize they’re idolizing people with disabilities.

Yes, think about it … Many comic book heroes have a disability or acquired their superpowers due to a disability. I had to read many comic books to figure that out; but I didn’t read them in school!
Here are a few good examples:

•  Daredevil was blinded by a radioactive substance – but it heightened his other senses. He had the human equivalent of a bat’s sonar, making him tough to beat in a fight for sure!

•  In the Avengers comics, Hawkeye becomes deaf … but his senses are heightened as well – and he becomes a skilled bow-and-arrow marksman and martial artist.

• Let’s not forget Iron Man – wounded in the war, he designed an iron chest plate to sustain his weak heart. Tony Stark uses his intellect to make the world a better place as the invincible Iron Man.

• And Rogue, who is female, is a member of the X-Men. She is a mutant, and was born with superhuman abilities. Rogue has the ability to absorb and sometimes remove the memories, physical strength, and superpowers of anyone she touches. But Rogue considers her powers to be a curse, or a disability.

We’re surrounded in our culture by superheroes who happen to have disabilities. I think that’s fascinating – it just shows that you don’t have to be able-bodied to be a superhero …

And that is true in this very room………considering what you, our new Viscardi graduates, have already accomplished.

Remember, this is just the beginning of your journey; you can accomplish anything you strive for, once you assess what you’re good at.

Work hard, be realistic, be patient, and develop your personal values.

You know the other nice thing about superheroes? They believe in paying it forward. They may have had some tough times and faced their share of adversity, but they came out on the other side, stronger than ever – and willing to make the world a better place.

And if you remember just one thing from my remarks, I want you to remember this:

Always look for ways you can pay it forward and make the world a better place …

Think about some of your experiences here at the Viscardi School, and the teachers who made a difference in your life.

There are some special people here who’ve worked with you -- to get you where you are today – which is your high school graduation!

And just like the superheroes I talked about, you’ve overcome a lot of adversity to get here – there’s no doubt about that.

Today … as you embark on your next journey … it’s your turn to look for ways you can help people … not just tomorrow, not just next week, but throughout your life …

I know from experience that it’s not easy living with a disability … in fact … it still frustrates me.

But you know what? I’ve worked hard to be as competitive and talented as I could, throughout my life.

And, I always look for ways I can pay it forward and help others, including able bodied people and those who have disabilities – every day!

As I close, I want you to know that I certainly don’t consider myself a superhero (although I do wear a poncho over my wheelchair when it rains!)

But as I think back over many years, I could not predict that I would be where I am today – here with all of you, sharing my story, being proud of you….

… I wonder….where do we get the ability to do the things we do, given our disabilities?

I believe our collective story is like Daredevil’s journey …

Sure I’ve got a disability, but I’ve also got heightened abilities as well – and so do you.

I want you to always remember one thing………We all have a little bit of superhero in all of us………think about that.

And now, Viscardi 2018 graduates, you are now official super heroes … !

Thank you……


For news coverage about this event, click here (photo above).