‘Since I was 17, people have treated me as different’

A Boeing engineer details how his disability drove him to play professional wheelchair tennis and design the first accessible lavatories on the company’s jetliners.

BNN

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Anthony Anderson is a payloads core manager for Boeing Commercial Airplanes in Everett, Washington. He has worked at Boeing for 30 years. In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, Anderson shares how the law’s passage enabled unforeseen opportunities in his professional life.

I was in a car accident at the end of my junior year of high school. I had a spinal cord injury and was confined to a wheelchair at 17 years old.

It took me a good year or two to deal with the disability, but I thought, let’s see what I can do. Ironically, I ended up doing more than I would have done.

I played professional wheelchair tennis, competing at the highest level at the biggest arenas around the world. I flew tens of thousands of miles a year for tournaments. Flying on airplanes for 14 hours with no accessibility to a restroom was not a good experience. At that time, there weren’t a lot of people with disabilities flying.

Anthony Anderson, a payloads core manager for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, pictured playing professional wheelchair tennis. (Photo courtesy Anthony Anderson)

In July of 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability. That same year, the U.S. Department of Transportation passed accessibility requirements for air travel. These two forms of legislation put a lot of things in motion for people with disabilities.

I came to Boeing in October of 1990, and my first assignment was to recommend designs to help airlines meet the accessibility requirements for lavatories on twin-aisle airplanes. 

It was a unique opportunity to help expand air travel accessibility for passengers, including myself, and it challenged me to become a very creative and innovative engineer. I had to balance need and cost to the airlines. There is a cost with ADA requirements, but the value is enabling more customers to appreciate the products and open up air travel to people with disabilities.

I quickly found out that passenger seats are pretty valuable to an airline. If I’m proposing to remove three seats to make a lavatory bigger, that won’t work. I helped design folding panels and doors between the two lavatories, so that one lavatory can become two, and you have more space. These designs are now used on Boeing and Airbus planes. 

In 1993, while traveling to Japan to design accessible lavatories for Boeing, I got to use a lavatory I helped design on an American Airlines 767. The flight attendants actually didn’t know the plane was accessible, so I walked them through the process of converting the space into a fully accessible lavatory. It was amazing. On a 10-hour flight, I could actually drink and enjoy like the rest of the passengers for the first time. 

During the development of the 777, we built into the design of the plane a lavatory just big enough that somebody with reduced mobility can use. That was the first time in history that accessibility was built into the baseline of the plane. It was then conveyed on the 787 and 777-9. 

Now, I’m on a steering team to help expand accessibility for the family of commercial airplanes, including the 737. The steering team is looking at inclusive design that would accommodate people who have hearing loss, vision loss, who are neurodiverse, and people with physically reduced mobility.  

I started my career on twin-aisle airlines. Wouldn’t it be nice if I retire and our full fleet is accessible and inclusively designed?

My mission has really been to make it seamless for people with all disabilities to travel and see the world. I’m 54 years old now, but since I was 17 years old, people have treated me differently. I have a great appreciation for the power of inclusion. I just want to be an advocate and show that you may be disabled, but you can have a job, you can tour the world, and you can enjoy all that life offers. 

People with a disability just want to find their own way, live their life, and add their unique value to the world.

As told to Rosemary Lane

Disability Inclusion at Boeing

On July 26, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a monumental civil rights law that ensured people with disabilities would be given the same protections, opportunities and rights as everyone else. The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life, including in jobs, schools, transportation, and public and private spaces open to the public. 

For Anderson, the law’s passage changed the course of his life.

“Through the ADA, I was able to get a job, to thrive and help others be able to appreciate our products through designing accessible airplanes,” he said. “ADA changed my mindset to not focus on my disabilities but what I’m capable of doing. At the end of day, people with disabilities don’t want to be reminded of their disability. They just want to live life.”

Boeing is committed to increasing disability inclusion and accessibility, and the company invests in professional networks, the Boeing Employee Ability Awareness Association (BEAAA) business resource group, educational resources, a centralized accommodations unit and accessible work spaces to create a more equitable, inclusive environment for people with disabilities.

Boeing was recently recognized for its inclusion efforts by Disability:IN, a partner and leading nonprofit for disability inclusion. For the fifth year in a row, the company achieved a top score of 100% on the Disability Equality Index (DEI), a comprehensive benchmarking tool that allows America’s leading corporations to self-report their disability policies and practices. Boeing has scored 100 on the index every year since partnering with Disability:IN back in 2015.

“As Boeing continues to drive innovation and sustainability in aerospace, we need people with diverse experiences, backgrounds and abilities who can best understand and design creative solutions for our global customers,” said Greg Hyslop, Boeing’s chief engineer and the new executive champion for the Boeing Employee Ability Awareness Association (BEAAA). “We are committed to hiring and retaining people with disabilities and valuing the unique skills and experiences each person brings to our workplace.”

To learn more about BEAAA and register for upcoming events, visit their inSite page.