Montreal woman with cerebral palsy designs custom airplane seat for people with disabilities

Sandra Gualtieri completed the first prototype for the seat with the help of mechanical mngineering students at McGill.

Sandra Gualtieri completed prototype with help from McGill students

Sandra Gualtieri is disability rights activist with cerebral palsy. She created an airplane seat for people with disabilities in hopes of alleviating some of their travel discomfort. (Submitted by Sandra Gualtieri)

Most people don't find airplane seats particularly comfortable over the course of a long flight, but for people with disabilities, Sandra Gualtieri says it can be downright painful.

"What most people don't know is people with disabilities have special seats on their mobility devices which are catered to them," she told CBC Montreal's Daybreak. "So a chair somewhere else is extremely painful, especially for a long period of time."

Gualtieri, who has cerebral palsy, wanted to find out just how common this problem was. So she conducted a small survey of people with disabilities and found that 72 per cent of respondents indicated that they experience pain or discomfort sitting in airplane seats.

This led her to try and find a solution. 

"Even though we are a minority population, we still have rights like everyone else in society," she said. "That's important for people to remember. We have the right to travel in dignity."

With help from four mechanical engineering students at McGill University, Gualtieri has been working on designing a custom airplane seat to alleviate discomfort on an airplane.

"It's so unique, yet it's so simple," said Gualtieri. "But I believe it hasn't been done before because people with disabilities are still a minority population."

Sandra Gualtieri designed the seat with memory foam for comfort and neck support. (Submitted by Sandra Gualtieri)

The seat she designed goes on top of a regular airplane seat. The bottom is made of memory foam to conform to the user's body. It also offers support to hold the person using the seat upright.

"I wanted to cater to as many people with disabilities as possible," she said.

Help from McGill students

The four students who partnered with Gualtieri to build a prototype of the seat did so as part of a final year project.

"It was really inspiring to be able to help a community that has been disregarded by everybody else," said Soufiane Boukhabrine, one of the engineering students. "We know that the product that we're designing is going to have a huge impact."

He told CBC that working on this project has been eye-opening, and some of the team members have decided to alter their career paths because of it.

"We really didn't expect to love it as much as we did," he added.

The prototype was developed with four McGill students: Soufiane Boukhabrine, Oiphis Chan, Laurence Peinturier and Lynn Fadel. (Submitted)

Gualtieri says her idea is already gaining traction within her community.

"You wouldn't believe the positive feedback that I am receiving right now," she said. "People are saying this is a wonderful idea. They want to be the first ones to try it."

She also won first place for her airplane seat in the Social Innovation Enterprise category at McGill's Dobson 2021 Cup, a start-up competition hosted by the university.

But there's still several steps to go before her seat can become widely available.

Most importantly, the seat needs to be approved by Transport Canada. Then it will be up to airlines to either provide the seats to passengers or allow them to be brought on by individuals.

Listen to Sandra Gualtieri on CBC Daybreak:

With files from CBC Daybreak