Learning to fly: how Miami is giving people with special needs the airport feel

| Updated on: Feb 05, 2016
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The city’s international airport is making a difference with its travel rehearsals

The figures speak for themselves. One in every 68 Americans lives with autism-related disabilities; 200 million people worldwide have intellectual disabilities and 360 million people worldwide suffer from hearing loss, says a spokesperson with the Miami International Airport.

It is not surprising then, that airports in the US have been coming up with special programmes for those with autism. Take the Wings for Autism programme, designed by the Massport-Transportation Security Administration (TSA), JetBlue and the Charles River Centre (an autism support centre) specifically for families with autistic children: it helps them “rehearse” the airport experience and ease the stress of flying. Since 2011, Boston’s Logan airport has held 10 such events, attended by more than a thousand people. And Blue Horizons events hosted by JetBlue and Autism Speaks take the airport rehearsals to several airports in California, New York and the Dominican Republic.

The Miami way

Taking the initiative to the next level is Miami International Airport, America’s second-busiest airport for international passengers, which has designed a programme for all special needs travellers. Having started with autism-related disabilities and hearing loss last November, the airport expects to expand to other medical conditions as well.

Miami airport’s MIAair (Airport Instruction and Readiness) programme, is a culmination of airport tours it has been providing for decades to individuals with special needs and their families. “Because of increasing demand, MIA decided to expand on those tours by developing a focused programme in partnership with the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Centre for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) and the Ear Institute at UHealth,” an airport spokesperson said in an email interaction.

UM-NSU CARD is a state-funded free resource and support programme dedicated to improve the lives of individuals with autism and related disabilities. The Ear Institute at UHealth helps diagnose and treat all ear conditions, including hearing loss, tinnitus and concussion. It has helped over 40,000 patients from around the world.

MIAair is the first US airport programme to partner with a major university and medical institution to offer guided travel rehearsals and materials to those with special needs.

The full experience

The free programme provides guided travel rehearsals and materials to those with special needs. MIAair’s materials include travel checklists and tips in both English and Spanish which storyboard the entire travel experience for participants. The resources provide families with step-by-step photos and instructions about airport procedures — from getting a boarding pass to passing through security and boarding a plane.

Participants in the programme check in at an airline ticket counter, receive a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening and board an aircraft for a mock flight experience. The programme is open to any traveller over six years and adults with special needs are also welcomed.

The US airport’s inclusive experience for those with special needs is ahead of most international airports. The Airports Authority of India (managing airports here), for instance, provides facilities including wheel-chair friendly security check enclosures and wide elevators, special toilets with signage and ramps for physically challenged persons both on the city and air side.

But given the range of special needs, airports can step up and do a lot more for people with different needs.

Published on January 19, 2018

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