Prioritizing Accessibility: Project Ascend

  • Prioritizing Accessibility: Project Ascend
  • Unless one has experienced a physical disability directly, it can be easy to go through life without paying attention to access. DFA students at Northwestern now put accessibility first, thanks to an intensive 6-week project working to understand the lives of people with disabilities and the experiences they face when it comes to air travel.

    Powered wheelchairs allow millions of Americans to live independently, yet the freedom of airline travel is especially difficult and costly with the added risk of mishandeling property. 40 percent of powered wheelchairs stowed on airplanes become damaged, causing their owners tens of thousands of dollars, physical discomfort in a borrowed chair, and the inability to navigate a new environment.

    A team of DFA Northwestern students made it their purpose to protect wheelchairs in-flight, and their solution is marvelously simple: an easy-to-apply set of stickers providing clear instructions aligned with standard symbols already used in the airline industry. Now, powered wheelchair users can communicate directly with baggage handlers on how to best stow their particular chair. In one survey, 80 percent of respondents expressed interest in using Ascend stickers and appreciated their simplicity. 

    Thanks to a partnership with Open Doors Organization, nationally known for their expertise and advocacy for accessible travel, the Project Ascend team interviewed dozens of wheelchair users, observed baggage handlers on the tarmac at Midway International Airport in Chicago, and distributed stickers across the Chicagoland area. Project Ascend and Open Doors are continuing to increase access for all by making the stickers an easy to acquire industry standard. 

    At the center of this sticker is the student teams’ growing understanding of what it means to design with accessibility in mind.

    Team: Alex Bloom, Jintae Park, Max Leef, Sara Gnolek
    Community Partner: Open Doors Organization
    Mentors: Karen Smetana, Erika Gonzalez
  • “The information for the handlers is obvious and doesn’t require looking for instructions.”
    — Chicago-area powered wheelchair owner

    “We were shocked by the statistics and just how common, lengthy, and costly the damage to power wheelchairs is. Hearing stakeholders talk about their experiences truly inspired us to make an impact.”
    — Alex Bloom, Manufacturing and Design Engineering ‘18, DFA Northwestern

    “A community member told us about his six-month broken chair experience and said something that really touched my heart, 'real legs would have healed faster.’ He isn’t alone in that problem, 
    and that is why we tackled this topic.”
    — Jintae Park, Economics & Clarinet Performance ‘19, DFA Northwestern

    “It’s great to see accessibility being introduced earlier to students. 
    As they move in to the real world, it stays in their brains.”
    — Eric Lipp, Executive Director, Open Doors Organization, Partner