An aerial view showing the construction of the new KCI terminal. Photo courtesy of the Aviation Department.

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When flights get rescheduled or moved to another gate, the announcement usually comes through the airport’s audio system. Passengers who are deaf or hard of hearing don’t get the memo, forcing them to rely on others to relay the new information.

Sometimes, it turns into a game of telephone. Micki Keck, a deaf woman who works with The Whole Person, once missed a flight after another person gave her the wrong gate number. She was forced to get a hotel for the night and catch a different flight the next day.

“I had to get up at 5 or 6 in the morning, and I couldn’t sleep,” Keck said. “It was crazy, just another example of miscommunication.”

Keck’s experience isn’t uncommon for people with disabilities. Most airports aren’t designed with accessibility in mind — those with sensory processing disorders, dementia and other conditions are faced with a travel experience that doesn’t take their needs into account.

When construction of the new Kansas City International Airport terminal was approved, the Kansas City Council gave the Aviation Department a weighty challenge: make it the most accessible airport in the world. 

“A project like this is generational,” said Justin Meyer, deputy director of the Kansas City Aviation Department. “It’s once every 50 to 70 years. My hope is that the users of the building feel like we saw them as we were working on this project, and that we recognized what their needs are now and what they’ll be in the future.”

Community engagement-guided construction decisions

Keck was one of many community advocates who had input into the terminal design. To understand community needs, airport developers consulted with groups like The Whole Person and Dementia Friendly KC.

Keck emphasized the need for visual paging boards, which would allow deaf passengers to see information on flight rescheduling. The new terminal will include visual paging at all major information displays and hopefully prevent mix-ups like the one Keck experienced.

Part of the process was helping developers understand that what works for one disability may not work for all. 

Sheila Styron, who is blind and works with The Whole Person, was enlisted to give feedback on a simulation room designed to help people learn what to expect when catching a flight. The room is made from the cabin of an old airplane and includes seats, aisles and other features people will interact with on a real plane. Few other airports in the U.S. offer such a room; the Pittsburgh International Airport is one of a handful with simulation rooms already in place.

A digital rendering shows the layout of the simulation room, including pre-recorded flight attendant messages and seats with belts included. Photo courtesy of the Aviation Department.

While Styron agreed that the KC room had a lot of potential for helping people with sensory processing disorders, it didn’t have tactile properties to help blind people navigate. Instead, she recommended employees offer a full tour of the airport to blind passengers to help them get a better understanding. 

Meyer said the simulation room is intended to be part of a larger walk-through experience for people interested in learning more about how to navigate the airport and flying. People will be able to set an appointment time, meet an airport employee and get walked through the entire process — from getting a ticket, passing through security and “boarding” the simulation room’s “airplane.” 

Inclusive restrooms, private breastfeeding rooms are a priority

The new terminal will also feature gender-neutral restrooms in addition to gendered restrooms, adult changing rooms and private breastfeeding rooms. 

There will be a large gender-neutral restroom in each concourse, and gender-neutral restroom stalls will have floor-to-ceiling doors for increased privacy, Meyer said. 

A digital rendering shows how the gender-neutral restrooms will be laid out. Photo courtesy of the Aviation Department.

For people who need assistance going to the restroom and changing their clothes, traditional airport restrooms can be a source of anxiety and shame. The new terminal will have changing rooms designed with adults in mind that include an adult-sized changing table. The gender-neutral restrooms are also designed to ensure caregivers of different genders can help their clients.

Mothers who need to breastfeed will have several private rooms in the terminal. A federal law passed in 2018 mandates medium and large airports provide dedicated feeding areas, and the new terminal will have between eight and 10 rooms dedicated exclusively to infant feeding.

“We’ll have some in the secure gate areas and some in the presecure area,” Meyer said. “If your infant’s hungry and you need to feed (before going through security), we’re gonna make a space for that.”

New airport terminal expands service animal relief areas

Americans With Disabilities Act advocate Michele Ohmes, a wheelchair user, has used service dogs for decades. In one instance, a series of flight delays and cancellations meant her dog, Maddie, couldn’t go to the restroom for over 10 hours. 

“I swore I would never take an airplane again with my service dog,” Ohmes said. “And I haven’t. I have a minivan that I use to travel from one end of the country to the other, where me and my dog are in control.”

When Ohmes and Maddie landed that night in the KCI terminal, Ohmes had to rush Maddie outside immediately to a small patch of grass. The new terminal will have service animal relief areas in each concourse so service animal handlers will no longer have to rush outside of the secure area.

The relief areas are a welcome addition, Styron said, but they’re indoors, which can pose a problem. Some dogs are hesitant to go to the restroom inside, even if given the OK by their handler. 

“Unless our dog really has to go, a lot of them don’t want to,” she said. “They kind of sniff around, like, ‘Should I? Shouldn’t I?’”

There will be an outdoor animal relief area near baggage claim, but going back and forth through security means most people flying out of the airport will need to use the indoor relief area.

Meyer wants the new KCI terminal to set a standard for inclusivity and accessibility nationwide. Simulation rooms and large gender-neutral restrooms are the exception, not the rule, in most current terminals, due in large part to their age. Refurbishing existing structures to make them more accessible can be cost prohibitive compared to building a new structure.

Justin Meyer, deputy director of Aviation at the Kansas City International Airport, explains the updated amenities for the new single terminal being built. The terminal is expected to debut in 2023. Zachary Linhares/The Beacon.

“I hope that us pushing a little bit as we’re doing here, and leaning into inclusivity, really is an opportunity for designers of future buildings throughout the region, be it stadiums or hotels or any sort of facility, to really see how we were looking to be inclusive, how it worked and how the community embraced it.”

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Emily Wolf is a local government accountability reporter with a focus on telling meaningful stories through data at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.