In the early 1980s, during the planning phase of Vancouver’s ambitious metropolitan rail network called Skytrain, the British Columbia provincial government enlisted Katharine Hunter-Zaworski to ensure that people with disabilities would have barrier-free access to the entire system. The project launched Hunter-Zaworski’s research career.

“Initially, the assignment was supposed to take six weeks, but it has turned into a lifetime of working to make transit accessible,” said Hunter-Zaworski, an associate professor of civil engineering at Oregon State. “I realized that if I could make transportation accessible, it would open up the world to people with disabilities — to education, to employment, to living independently.”

Skytrain opened in 1986 and now serves the greater Vancouver area. It ranks among the most accessible rapid transit systems in the world, thanks in large part to Hunter-Zaworski, who supervised all aspects of accessibility. Since then, she has applied her expertise in transportation engineering to reduce or eliminate barriers to mobility that people with disabilities encounter every day and everywhere.

Hunter-Zaworski currently serves on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Advisory Committee on Accessible Air Transportation, which develops recommendations for accommodating air travelers with disabilities. As the only academic on the committee, she co-chairs the Accessible Lavatories Working Group and has sought common ground between the industry representatives and disability rights advocates who form the rest of the committee. It isn’t her first foray into the political arena; in the early 1990s, she sat on a federal advisory committee that examined lavatory accessibility, but its findings were shelved. This time around, Hunter-Zaworski is more hopeful that her efforts will lead to real progress.

Air travel is a daunting, discouraging proposition for travelers with disabilities. For example, passengers who rely on a wheelchair must move or be moved to an onboard wheelchair that is small enough to navigate a plane’s narrow aisles. These chairs are not only uncomfortable (one traveler compared it to a moving dolly with a cushion), they are potentially dangerous.

“There are no standards or requirements, and many airline wheelchairs are flimsy,” said Hunter-Zaworski. In addition, every transfer to or from a wheelchair creates a chance of falling.

But perhaps the most conspicuous and persistent obstacle confronted by travelers with disabilities are airplane lavatories, which are rarely large enough for the needs of a wheelchair-bound traveler or anyone who needs extra space.

“Imagine needing to use a toilet at 30,000 feet, hours before landing, and not being able to,” said Hunter-Zaworski.

Some travelers with disabilities adopt extreme coping strategies, such as scheduling multiple short flights instead of one long one, or fasting before and during travel — complications that able-bodied travelers never face. Even when using the lavatory is possible, the cumbersome steps needed to maneuver a wheelchair and its occupant in a lavatory can cause humiliation, embarrassment, and even injury. One man accidentally broke his wife’s arm during the process. For some, the anxiety and discomfort are too much, and they’ve given up on air travel.

Progress in adapting aircraft to eliminate these hardships has been tentative at best. The 1986 Air Carrier Access Act requires accessible lavatories in multi-aisle aircraft delivered after 1992. Nowadays, however, many long-haul flights use single-aisle planes. Hunter-Zaworski points out that many lavatories on wide-body jets that are deemed to be accessible are woefully inadequate, in part because Air Carrier Access Act stipulations for accessibility consist of a list of subjective requirements.

“There is no meaningful definition of an accessible lavatory, and that’s a big problem,” she said. “Lavatories may be labeled as accessible, but often, in reality, they’re not.” By contrast, the Americans with Disabilities Act specifies the dimensions necessary for various components of bathrooms in buildings, but it does not cover airplanes.

Early in the advisory committee’s process, members agreed on very little. “The most popular word was no,” said Hunter-Zaworski. “No, it’s going to cost too much; no we can’t give up any seats or galley space; no, that’s not enough room. As we progressed, a lot of those noes became maybes, and the transition was really gratifying, but it became clear that what we really need won’t be fully realized until new aircraft are designed and delivered.”

A glimpse of that more heartening future can be seen on some newer single-aisle airplanes. One innovative design consists of two adjacent lavatories that merge to form a single large compartment. Hunter-Zaworski, who advises manufacturers on the design and installation of these flexible spaces, emphasizes that their benefits extend to not just travelers with disabilities, but anyone who needs extra room, such as people traveling with children or obese individuals.

“I tell the manufacturers that it’s not an accessible lavatory, it’s an inclusive lavatory, and all passengers love it,” she said.

With guarded optimism, Hunter-Zaworski looks forward to the committee’s forthcoming recommendations. “I think we’ll get a lot of significant changes down the road, along with some smaller improvements much sooner. I’ve been pushing for this for a very long time, which is why I’m delighted to see things moving. People with disabilities have waited more than 30 years to use a bathroom on a plane like everyone else. They shouldn’t have to wait anymore.”

—Steve Frandzel