NorCal SCI's advocacy pays off at San Jose International Airport

Paraplegic Tom Chun is a world traveler, especially following his motorcycle accident in 1998 that left him with a T5 spinal cord injury. He has traveled to dozens of countries across the globe, so he knows his way around airports pretty well and recognizes when something is not quite right. His most recent experience at an airport occurred earlier this year when he was dropping off a friend at Terminal A of the San Jose International Airport.

Terminal A departures area’s original setting with the red curb and buses stopping in front of the ramp

Terminal A departures area’s original setting with the red curb and buses stopping in front of the ramp

At the departure terminal, Tom drove up to the only ramp access in front of the terminal. However, he found himself confused as a “disabled pickup/dropoff” sign was posted on a pillar even though the curb was painted in red, the street surface was striped and labeled for buses only. He found himself in a compromising position as he risked getting hit by a bus and this just did not seem right. There were conflicting signage right by the only ramp providing access to the terminal.

On Feb. 6th, he contacted the airport’s ADA coordinator and raised this issue with her. The response he received was “We realize the existing ADA drop-off area for Terminal A Departures is not in the ideal spot and we are currently examining where we can relocate it to or create a new one to better support the ADA community and provide a safer space. Our goal is to maximize the convenience of dropping off and picking up members of the ADA community and ensure the safety of the activity.” Fair enough, Tom felt.

A few months went by and nothing had changed and despite Tom’s repeated attempts, the “issue was being researched” as the ADA coordinator explained in August. Fed up with a lack of responsiveness, Tom reached out to NorCal SCI in late Sept. We conducted some research and identified the Director of SJ Airport, John Aitken, and began our efforts of tracking him down.

The new designated area in front of the ramp at Terminal A along with the blue-painted curb

The new designated area in front of the ramp at Terminal A along with the blue-painted curb

Our efforts paid off in early Oct. and we spoke to John. At first, he said he was unaware of the issue and requested an opportunity to examine the area. A week or so later, we re-connected with John, fully expecting him to agree that the situation is dangerous and needs to be remedied. Instead, we were somewhat surprised when he offered a baffling solution of wheelchair users offloading or onloading in the parking garage. Throughout our conversation with John, we repeatedly identified ourselves as an advocacy organization for the SCI community and that we were hoping to solve this issue without resorting to litigation. We also explained the inherent problem of forcing wheelchair users into the garage and having them wheel over to the terminal. He also sought to assure us that the bus drivers were aware of providing a safe space for cars picking up or dropping off wheelchair users even though Tom was honked at by a bus driver.

Finally, after many back and forths, John relented by mid-October and asked for some time to request the airport operations dept. to assess what they can do to provide a dedicated and designated area for wheelchair pickup and dropoff right in front of the ramp at the terminal. By mid November, we connected once again and he was pleased to notify us they would be moving forward with making the changes we asked for and we’re pleased to report that this past week, the work was completed and there’s now a dedicated disabled parking pickup/dropoff area directly in front of the Terminal A departures area.

“I am elated that after about a year, something that was obviously not wheelchair-friendly in my eyes is finally corrected and will now be available for all people with a disability to use,” an excited Tom texted NorCal SCI.

It would have been easy to go in there with the threat of litigation to force this issue. The more difficult and time-consuming path to take is to educate policymakers and those in charge with seeing the right way of handling accessibility issues. We will continue to advocate for all persons with a disability when it comes to access issues and will speak softly while carrying the big stick in our cars.

Happy to assist Tom and thanks for your confidence in NorCal SCI to resolve this issue. We’d also like to thank John Aitken of San Jose Airport.