DMC’s Lead IL Advocate Paul Brennan and Systems Change Advocate Beck Levin Create Accessibility Milestone at John Wayne Airport
(Santa Ana, CA) — The busiest travel season of the year is upon us, making travel especially challenging for all, but particularly for older individuals and people with disabilities. The Dayle McIntosh Center for the Disabled of Orange County (DMC) celebrates the important community advocacy work of two team members who together were instrumental in bringing about long-needed changes for additional ACCESS paratransit stops to serve the disability community, at John Wayne Airport. DMC’s Lead Advocate, Paul Brennan (he/him/his) and DMC’s Systems Change Advocate, Beck Levin (they/them/theirs) wasted no time after hearing about the issues at John Wayne Airport (SNA) to swiftly turn a problem into a solution. November 1, 2023 – two additional stops were approved adding Arrivals/Lower-level, Terminal A, between columns 2 and 3 and Terminal C, at column 13. The airport previously only had one stop at Arrivals/Lower-level, Terminal B, next to column 9, giving ACCESS riders the opportunity to request a pick up from their arrival terminal just in time for the airport’s busiest season. According to JWA, in 2022 a month’s traffic through the airport averaged 11,360,959 travelers going through the terminal. The new stops will improve efficiency and everyday travel access as well as during peak holiday times.
As DMC celebrates its 46th birthday, the non-profit organization has stayed true to believing people with disabilities and older adults should have equal opportunities to lead their lives and participate in the community as they choose. Part of that choice is being able to travel without transportation barriers, just like everyone else.
“We are consumer driven, which means we pay attention to issues that consumers bring to our attention and try do something to make things better. It doesn’t take a lot for me to voice a concern which not only comes directly from the consumers we serve but also from the community we’re part of,” states Brennan who is also Vice-President for the Guide Dogs for the Blind OC Alumni Association. Brennan, shares that this change has been long overdue. Previously, the single ACCESS stop wasn’t convenient for travelers with disabilities. “Traveling is difficult enough as it is. If you are a person with disabilities, additional challenges can add layers of issues, creating greater challenges at John Wayne Airport from the curb to the door, and the terminal to the ticket desk, even technology. There is no reason why we can’t have a better system here in OC for ACCESS. I initially voiced my concern at a DMC staff meeting to get things rolling forward toward a solution. Joining forces with Beck we decided to divide, conquer and do something to make things better,” explains Brennan who is a daily ACCESS rider.
“On my end, this was pretty straightforward (lucky for me). Paul approached me about John Wayne Airport not having enough ACCESS stops about a month into my time on the OCTA Accessible Transit Advisory Committee (ATAC), so the timing was perfect. The pushback we received was from John Wayne Airport and the concerns were mostly just logistical. They had an existing program that helped individuals who use ACCESS navigate from their arrival gate to the ACCESS drop off, so the folks that work in that department needed retraining. There was also concerns about the amount of time the ACCESS bus would be idle on the arrivals level because traffic needs to keep moving to ensure smooth airport operation. It helped majorly that Paul called ACCESS directly with his recommendation to add more stops! The dual flagging at both the committee level and customer service level allowed this to move at a faster pace,” explains Levin, who was recently appointed to the Senior Citizens Advisory Council (SCAC) which is the advisory council for the Orange County Office on Aging (OA), The Senior Advisory Committee for the Board of Supervisors and the designated AAA for Planning & Service Area 22, in Orange County.
Brennan and Levin both admit that this is just the beginning of the changes which need to be made in the name of equal accessibility for people with disabilities and older adults when it comes to travel. For adults who are blind or have low-vision, technology advancements themselves are not always instantly the solution when it comes to accessibility and travel, or everyday daily life.
“Technology can be our friend or worst enemy, engineered as a barrier versus opportunity in all industries. For example, soda machines used to have a coin slot and Braille. Now there is a digital keypad and one has to find a place where to insert a card. While we make progress on one hand, we still face challenges in the future, and travel itself has more situations where basic access must be addressed. My hope is to imagine travel where people with all kinds of disabilities can fully participate. To do that, accessibility is essential. The people who are in charge of the decision-making and who don’t have disabilities, can’t provide the solutions unless awareness exists. Accessibility, education, training and exposure are essential to making more progress. To me, efficiency equals access, which then leads to assistance. I had an airport experience where I was held up at TSA going through the metal detector with my guide dog. I let 4-5 people go ahead of me, even though I was there first as the airport employee was insisting I let go of my guide dog’s leash to walk through.” Brennan faced resistance from the TSA employee, and has had to deal with other travel challenges even from Uber drivers and many people who have never experienced being in the presence of a working guide dog before. He has had other experiences which were the opposite, where others were open and helpful, but the challenges still exist and accessibility is still a worldwide travel issue.
Levin agrees. “To me, this is just the first stepping stone to bringing full travel access to people with disabilities. In the disability advocacy space, talks of mobility aids—like wheelchairs—being broken due to rough handling is a hot button issue. Often wheelchairs will be broken in transit to the traveler’s destination, and airlines will take months to repair them. There is no regulation of this, so airlines can take their time in getting a repair technician out to the consumer. Mobility devices are life saving devices, so the wait time can cause undue stress and burden on a person who simply wanted to travel. Nationally, there was a bill introduced called the Mobility Aids On Board Improve Lives and Empower All (MOBILE) Act but it is my understanding that this bill is dead in the water for this year. This is disheartening for a multitude of reasons, chief among them the fact that the bill didn’t actually have any “teeth.” It was simply a bill that would allow for greater research into the feasibility of people beginning their mobility devices on planes with them. For more information on this advocacy effort, the organization All Wheels Up is a wonderful resource and serves as the informational hub in this realm,” states Levin. Levin is no stranger to facing their own travel challenges, once traveling by plane with a Continuous Passive Motion (CPM) machine to recover from a second knee surgery after a torn ACL. They experienced first-hand the challenges which come with travel and accessibility.
Finding progressive solutions to accessibility when it comes to travel is a fire which burns inside both Brennan and Levin, as close to 500,000 residents in Orange County alone are people living with disabilities, with 45% living with multiple disabilities. More accommodations, problem-solving and proactive change-agent partnerships will be necessary as 24% of the older adult population people with disabilities continues to grow. According to Orange County Department of Public Health, as of November 21, 2023, Orange County has had 741,728 individuals affected with COVID since the start of the pandemic. Many with Long-COVID disabilities are now expanding a growing population of new members to the disability community along with an aging population who will need accessibility.
While Brennan and Levin are both glad for the changes made with OCTA and John Wayne airport moving things forward, Brennan wraps up this milestone sharing “More situations will be addressed. We were able to expose it, identify it, challenge to fix it and make it better.”
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