Accessibility matters for travelers of all ages

Airport restrooms.

People consistently rank them as the very worst part of air travel.

This is particularly true for older adults who may have difficulty standing in line, maneuvering their luggage in and out of narrow stalls, getting on and off toilets, reaching for toilet paper and faucets, and walking safely across slippery floors.

But thanks to two Twin Cities architects, travelers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) are now singing the praises of its restrooms.

Just ask 64-year-old CBS News anchor Gayle King, who recently had this to say on social media about MSP’s restrooms: “Wow! Wow, wow, wow!”

Alan Howell, a senior airport architect with the Metropolitan Airports Commission, and Jens Vange, an architect with Minneapolis-based Alliiance, have been working together on MSP projects for years.

Along the way, the two men have embraced the principles of universal design, which include low physical effort, simple and intuitive use and appropriate size and space regardless of a traveler’s age, size or ability.

“We use these principles to ensure MSP is accessible to everyone, including older adults,” says Jens.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the newly renovated restrooms in Terminal 1.

“Like the entire terminal, the restrooms were more than half-a-century old and needed a substantial makeover,” says Jens.

Plus, the world of travel has changed since the terminal was built—and post 9/11. There are more travelers flying further distances, often with more luggage, including carry-on luggage that must be hauled into the restrooms. And more travelers are in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s than ever before. Many aren’t as mobile as they once were.

So, in 2010, MSP began an ambitious program to become “the world’s most accessible airport.”

First up? The restrooms. “They often provide travelers their first and last impressions of the Twin Cities,” says Jens.

To kick off the project, the two men held nine months of meetings with representatives of every group that touches the restrooms—travelers, care companions, janitors, plumbers and more, as well as advocacy organizations, including the airport’s Travelers with Disabilities Advisory Committee.

Then, with the help of several product manufacturers, they began rethinking every aspect of the airport’s restrooms; from the size of the stalls to the way stall doors open, from the brightness of the lighting to the placement of hand dryers, from the number of sinks to the color contrast between the walls and the flooring, no detail was overlooked. Even door locks and toilet-paper holders got a makeover.

Stalls are now roomier so travelers—even with luggage in tow—can attend to their most personal matters in comfort and privacy. Grab bars on both sides of each toilet make it easier for people to sit down and stand up. Toilet paper is within easy reach, and sinks are lower, making them accessible to people of all sizes. Sinks are safer as well: Each is a trough with hand-drying and waste disposal on both ends which eliminates slip-inducing puddles on the floor and annoying drips on counters.

Also, soap dispensers and water faucets are touchless, and the faucets are powered by a small internal turbine so there are no batteries to replace. And thanks to new materials that are easier to clean and larger drains that give plumbers easier access, there’s less restroom downtime as well.

There are speakers in each restroom to ensure passengers can hear important announcements. There are also relief areas for service animals.

And state-of-the-art companion care restrooms that include changing tables that can be adjusted to accommodate people of any size and ability are under construction. Plus, there’s more to come, including restrooms complete with motion sensors that detect falls and summon help automatically.

No wonder Alan and Jens were named to this year’s Minnesota 50 Over 50. Sponsored by AARP Minnesota and Pollen Midwest, the list features 50 inspired and accomplished Minnesotans age 50+ who are making a difference in the lives of others and our communities.

Alan and Jens certainly are. Their pioneering restroom ideas have been highlighted in the Star Tribune, USA Today, The Atlantic Monthly and Airport World, and MSP’s restrooms were voted Best Restroom in America through public voting in an annual nationwide contest.

What’s more, design guidebooks that Alan and Jens developed to share their design principles and best practices have been downloaded over 1,600 times by other airports around the world looking to earn traveler approval of their own restrooms.

And that’s good news for all of us.

Bev Bachel is a freelance writer who advocates for teens and people 50+. She’s the author of What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go for It! A Guide for Teens and a member of AARP Minnesota’s Executive Council. One of her current goals? Taking a trip with her 92-year-old aunt.

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