Action Centre LaSalle Welcomes
Inventor Sandra Gualtieri

by Dan Mullins

On a cool grey Tuesday morning in mid-October, the warm and lively Action Centre in LaSalle welcomed inventor and activist Sandra Gualtieri. She came to present on the topic of her successful parallel careers in invention and activism.

The Action Centre caters to adults with physical disabilities. Ms. Gualtieri, who has cerebral palsy, uses an electric wheelchair to get around. She arrived in an adapted transport bus, along with her long-time partner, Adam Tryhorn, and aide Shelby Johnson.

The centre’s members assembled. Its large room filled with people, most of whom used some type of mobility device. There were also many staff, volunteers, and interns. After some words of welcome, Ms. Gualtieri navigated to the speaker’s position. She began to speak, with the help of Ms. Johnson, who would repeat what Ms. Gualtieri had said for clarity and volume.

Members of the LaSalle Action Centre assemble to hear Sandra Gualtieri speak.

Ms. Gualtieri described having suffered during a plane ride because of the unsuitability of the seating and nonexistent accommodations. A conversation with a passenger rights group led to her joining the Council for Canadians with Disabilities Transportation Committee. There, she heard about the obstacles people with mobility impairments face when travelling.

Ms. Gualtieri gave another example of something that happened to her. “Every time I travel,” she said, “I make a point of asking for the aisle wheelchair.” As people cannot bring their own specialized wheelchairs into the cabin, airlines are legally mandated to have aisle wheelchairs available. “They never have them on board.”

Sandra Gualtieri (centre) with partner Adam Tryhorn (left) and aide Shelby Johnson (right)

 

“One night,” Ms. Gualtieri explained, “I had a eureka moment.” She’d thought of a supportive memory foam insert for airplane seats.

While some people might not do anything about a bright idea they had in the middle of the night, Ms. Gualtieri is not one of those people. She had received a bachelor’s in women’s studies and sociology from McGill in 2012 and came into her own as a disability rights activist while studying at the school. So, she thought of the school and decided to contact the Faculty of Engineering about developing a prototype.

Faculty members selected what was to become Ms. Gualtieri’s patented Universal Airplane Seating Apparatus, to be a Capstone project, in which engineering students design prototype solutions to real-world problems.

A group of students took on the project as part of a mechanical engineering course, and Ms. Gualtieri eventually applied to enter her product in the Dobson Cup, a start-up competition hosted by McGill. “I didn’t think I would be accepted,” she said. But she was accepted into the Social Impact Enterprise Track, one of four categories in the competition. And she won!

An illustration of the Universal Airplane Seating Apparatus

Ms. Gualtieri put the prize money right back into her business and participated in the business mentorship program. Transport Canada has also shown interest. Still, there are obstacles to overcome like onerous regulations and a sometimes-indifferent airline industry.

Members and staff received the presentation enthusiastically, asking questions, sharing anecdotes, or taking part in an impromptu poll about how comfortable commercial flights are (result: uncomfortable). They gathered for a group photo with Ms. Gualtieri and Mr. Tryhorn.

Ms. Gualtieri was invited to present by Denise Landry, a poet and member of the Centre who was in attendance. She thought that Ms. Landry’s message would inspire and resonate with the rest of the membership.  “I have known Denise since elementary school,” said Ms. Gualtieri, “we went to the same high school and Cegep.” Also in attendance was The Pearson Adult and Career Centre’s Denise Curry, who teaches at the Centre. She explained that the Action Centre hosts a satellite class of the Pearson Adult and Career Centre’s Social Integration program in the LaSalle community.

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