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Innovation Award Winners Take Flight

Innovation Award Winners Take Flight

February 2024

From long security lines to unexpected delays, many people don’t like traveling by air. But a harsh reality for people in the disability community is that simply getting on and off an airplane is no easy undertaking.

Many passengers who use wheelchairs must be lifted from a small aisle chair and into their seats, and unfortunately, it’s not unheard of for people to be dropped in the process and injured. Once the flight ends and they are carried out of the cabin, they frequently discover that their wheelchair, stored with cargo, has been broken.

“What the general public — and even elected officials — do not fully realize is that air travel is the only form of transportation not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA],” says Mark Fisher, director of advocacy engagement for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). “Subways, Amtrak, Greyhound buses are all covered by the ADA, and the needs of people in the disability community, while they still face challenges in those areas, are acknowledged and addressed. That is not the case with air travel, though, and we are trying to change that.”

That’s ambitious, considering the complexity of the laws and regulations governing air travel. “While the ADA applies to actual airport facilities, the boarding and flying on a plane is governed by the Air Carrier Access Act [ACAA], which predates the better-known ADA,” Fisher explains. “At the time of its passage, the ACAA was perceived to be stronger than the ADA, but the ADA has evolved over the years, while the ACAA has not. One of our many goals is to help strengthen protections for people living with disabilities, including updating parts of the ACAA. Many provisions in the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Act would accomplish this goal. (There’s been talk of Congress passing a law to make airlines comply with the ADA, but for many reasons, that effort has not gained much traction).”

Communications Innovation Award Winner: Muscular Dystrophy Association

To raise awareness of the challenges the disability community faces in air travel — and build support for accessibility improvements to air travel during FAA reauthorization — the Muscular Dystrophy Association, winner of the Council’s 2024 Innovation Award in the Communications category, decided to show what air travel is like for people living with disabilities and not just talk about it. “You can always throw out a lot of numbers when you are trying to persuade people about some situation,” Fisher says, “but it is much more powerful for people to actually see it for themselves.”

So Fisher and his team, as part of MDA’s #AccessibleAir Travel campaign, produced documentary-style videos of two of its members, who were eager to participate, as they took flights to Washington, D.C. “They were flying to Washington for our annual Hill Day in May anyway, so we filmed their entire journey, from arriving at the airport, going through security, boarding the plane, exiting the plane and arriving at their destination,” Fisher says. “The videos were neither staged nor reshot. It was the real thing — the kind of presentation you can’t unsee.”

The two stars of the videos — MDA employee Mindy Henderson, who is editor-in-chief of MDA’s Quest Media, and Madison Lawson, a journalist, model and advocate for MDA and the disability community — already enjoy large social media followings, so they took the lead in debuting the videos, which were promoted on YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and LinkedIn, and also shown to members of Congress and their staffs. MDA advocates sent more than 10,000 letters to Congress on MDA’s campaign page. More than 30% of the 5,600 messages from advocates involved in its #AccessibleAir Travel campaign were initiated by new action-takers.

“The campaign was timed to coincide with debate over reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Act, which must be done every five years, and is our best shot at improving air travel, including updating the ACAA,” Fisher explains.

‘Vast Improvement’

And the results? In July, the House passed its FAA reauthorization bill, “and while it did not include everything we wanted, it is still stronger and a vast improvement — the most transformative in many years,” Fisher says. “The Senate bill is still stalled, but for reasons having nothing to do with our concerns.” The latest deadline for passage has been pushed to March 8. “Even in its present form, the bill is pretty good, so we are encouraged,” Fisher says. “The new FAA bill will make travel less onerous for people in the disability community.”

In addition, in November, leveraging Henderson’s and Lawson’s videos, MDA announced a partnership with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to establish training for TSA officers focused on interactions with travelers living with neuromuscular disease and other disabilities affecting their mobility.

“Our campaign, so far, has succeeded,” says Fisher.

The other Innovation Award winners are Grupo Estrategia Politica (GEP) in the Lobbying category, for its efforts to persuade the Federal Aviation Administration to return Mexico’s aviation safety rating to the highest level, and the International Paper Company (IP) in the Grassroots Category, for its “Period Poverty initiative.”

“These winners set the bar incredibly high for the industry this year,” says Alexander Donovan, the Council’s manager, public affairs & policy communications. “It’s a testament to their ongoing work ethic and imagination. I was inspired by the scope of these campaigns’ impact as well as the messages they conveyed about issues that affect countless people.”

Mark Fisher, director of advocacy engagement for the Muscular Dystrophy Association 

Lobbying Innovation Award Winner: Grupo Estrategia Politica (GEP)

In May 2021, the FAA downgraded the Mexican aviation industry safety category from a Category 1 — the highest level — to a Category 2, preventing the Mexican airlines from expanding their flights to the U.S., while the U.S. airlines could now meet that demand.

“To regain that classification, the Mexican government had to meet a number of conditions, almost all of which had been done when the ones missing were addressed in a bill submitted by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to the Mexican Congress to amend the country’s Civil Aviation Law,” explains Mariana Castaneda Graham, a senior consultant to GEP. “The industry faced an important challenge when the bill also included the authorization of air cabotage that would allow foreign airlines to serve domestic flights, deeply affecting the national aviation industry.

“The sector was able to present a united front — airlines, pilots, trade associations and others — and successfully got the approval of the reform needed for recovering the category while removing the authorization of air cabotage in the country.” As of June 2023, Reuters reports, the Mexican aviation industry had lost over $1 billion by losing Category 1 status.

As a result of GEP’s efforts, in September, Mexico’s aviation industry regained its Category 1 classification, after “more than two years of close work between the civil aviation authorities in both countries,” according to the FAA. “With a return to Category 1 status, Mexico can add new service and routes to the U.S., and U.S. airlines can resume marketing and selling tickets with their names and designator codes on Mexican-operated flights.”

‘United Front’

The political landscape in Mexico “is very complex, and the issues on which we were lobbying are highly technical,” Graham says. “That we were able to pull together a united front of organizations to make our case so effectively and successfully was an achievement that all of us take a great deal of satisfaction in.”

Mariana Castaneda Graham, senior consultant for Grupo Estrategia Politica 

Grassroots Innovation Award Winner: International Paper Company

Far too many American girls cannot get menstrual care products when they need them, and they end up skipping school once a month. “Menstrual products are an essential part of life, and one in five girls in the U.S. miss school because they cannot access these products,” says Meaghan Joyce, International Paper’s director of political & advocacy strategy. “The fact that too many girls routinely miss school has serious long-term effects on education and the workforce — effects traceable to what is referred to as ‘period poverty.’”

And it is a challenge to raise awareness about period poverty because the subject is one that most people aren’t comfortable talking about. In situations like that, actions often do speak louder than words.

“International Paper makes the fluff pulp which is the absorbent material that goes in menstrual products,” Joyce explains. “In 2018, Procter & Gamble’s Always brand, which is one of our customers, launched its #EndPeriodPoverty program to raise awareness and donate period products to those in need. This being a perfect fit for both of us, we joined forces to both combat period poverty in our communities and to raise awareness of the problem in the process.”

Global Reach

International Paper began hosting events at which participants, including its own employees, assembled packets containing menstrual products that were then distributed to people in need. By 2022, IP had hosted 45 packing events, distributing 25,000 kits globally. “Last year, we hosted packing events at 62 locations in nine countries, donating 31,000 kits,” Joyce says. “We now have annual packing events in Washington, D.C., celebrating Menstrual Hygiene Day, which is in late May, with Republican and Democratic members of Congress and their staffs as well as employees and business leaders participating. We held a similar event at the California Capitol in Sacramento.”

A hallmark of the program is to advocate for passage of the Menstrual Equity for All Act, introduced in 2021 and 2023, to expand access to menstrual products in schools and government buildings. “Similar legislation has passed in some state legislatures, and we will continue to advocate to expand access to menstrual products at the federal level,” says Joyce.

“The ingenuity, creativity and political savvy of our members once again amaze me,” says Council President Doug Pinkham. “This year’s Innovation Award winners take our understanding of innovation to a new and increasingly sophisticated level, offering a model for other organizations to aspire to. What they have done and continue to do is inspiring.”

About the Innovation Awards

The Innovation Awards are presented annually at The Advocacy Conference. Winners are invited to present their campaigns during the awards ceremony.

Could your organization be a future winner? Learn more.

Meaghan Joyce, director of political & advocacy strategy for International Paper

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