Julie Pfeiffer staff photo. She has long, brown hair and is wearing a black shirt.

Dr. Julie Pfeiffer receives prestigious Burberry Award

This year’s winner of the Kevin Burberry award is Julie Pfeiffer in honor of her work with airline accessibility. 

The yearly Kevin Burberry Award honors students who work with HDI and demonstrate commitment to the cause of accessibility, leadership qualities, and academic excellence. Pfeiffer’s work focused heavily on accessibility aboard airplanes, the experiences of travelers with disabilities, and how the many problems they face can be solved. 

“It’s often overlooked. I think it’s well acknowledged within the disability community that it is a major impediment to transportation, but often we’re met with not a lot of help,” said Dr. Tony Lobianco, who was on the award’s selection committee. “It’s clear that she’s really listened to people with disabilities.”

Pfeiffer found her way to this research through her work in physical therapy, when she noticed that her clients faced massive obstacles when attempting to travel. 

“I worked specifically with people who had spinal cord injuries, and I had several clients who had issues flying as wheelchair users,” she said. “Some of them even had their wheelchair either damaged or lost…Because they didn’t have their wheelchair, they had to stay in bed for several weeks at a time until their wheelchair was returned to them.”

Though Pfeiffer’s work began with a focus on the treatment of travelers who use wheelchairs, she discovered that it’s just one of the ways people with disabilities can face disproportionate challenges while trying to travel by air. For example, she mentioned that it can be difficult to travel with a service animal. 

“People who use service animals file a lot of complaints against the airlines related to how they’ve been treated,” she said. 

Though the researchers have yet to dig deep into the specific reasons for these complaints, Pfeiffer said there are a lot of common themes in the stories people with service animals tell, and that she expects to see similar stories here. 

Even though there’s more work to be done, Pfeiffer is proud of what has been accomplished so far through her research, with substantial efforts going towards education, which Pfeiffer indicated was one of the biggest areas of continued need. Through this project, HDI produced publications, held seminars, and educated relevant people about what air travel problems exist and how they can be solved. In addition, they’ve started a project that involves combing through multiple complaints filed by passengers with disabilities about the treatment they have received in the past. 

During the process, Pfeiffer said that she also learned a lot about the subject of disability – particularly, she learned for the first time about the Social Model of Disability, which positions disability as a natural part of the world and argues that many of the obstacles people with disabilities face are not inherently a product of disability, but a result of a world that refuses to accommodate it. 

For Lobianco’s part, he feels that Pfeiffer’s research touches on one of the last frontiers for accessible transportation. 

“We, as a disability community, fought so hard for other forms of accessible transportation – most notably public ground transportation,” he said. “The airlines seem to be the one that is often left out of that equation.”

Pfeiffer said she was humbled to receive the award, especially after seeing what some other students were doing in their research. 

“It kind of puts the significance of this research into perspective,” she said. “A lot of students at HDI are doing a lot of great things.”