“Wings for All” Opens up the World to Arc Families

A woman and young boy sit in seats on a United aircraft, with the boy wearing a Wings for All t-shirt.

More than 150 people registered for The Arc of Essex County and The Arc of New Jersey’s “Wings for All” event at Newark Liberty Airport on Saturday, December 2, where families had an opportunity to go through a low-stakes visit to the airport. The event was supported by United Airlines, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Transportation Security Administration, and Munich.

From arriving at the airport through sitting on an actual aircraft and all of the steps in between, Wings for All serves as a rehearsal for families that include children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Parents and guardians had the chance to take their loved ones through the airport check-in and receive boarding passes (in this case, to the “North Pole”), visit Terminal A’s new Sensory Room, go through the security checkpoint, navigate the airport terminal, wait at the gate, board an aircraft, and find their seats. While on the plane, airline staff—each of whom has loved ones on the autism spectrum—went through many of the same actions as they would during an actual flight, including the safety presentation and food and beverage service. Port Authority NJ Airports General Manager Sarah McKeon, The Arc of Essex County CEO Linda Lucas, and The Arc of New Jersey Executive Director Tom Baffuto all gave brief remarks to those aboard, reminding the group that full community inclusion for IDD families includes the ability to go on a flight and explore the wider world.

The aircraft did not leave the gate, but the experience allowed families to introduce their loved ones with IDD to the process, learning about how they react to different stimuli at the airport and getting a sense for where the challenges might be during a trip. Participants were given green sunflower lanyards, which are a silent indicator to airport staff that the person wearing it might need more time because of a hidden disability. (Learn more about the sunflower program here.)

When the families disembarked the plane, a full lunch buffet catered by Terminal A restaurants was awaiting them. Over food and drinks, parents shared stories, exchanged contact information with each other, and asked additional questions to the pilots, flight attendants, and United staff about the flying experience. Over and over again, they also shared with organizers how valuable the experience was for them and their loved ones.

The Arc of Essex County is honored to have had the opportunity to help organize a Wings for All event for families at Newark Liberty Airport, and we look ahead with hopes of being able to offer it again in the near future. To learn more about The Arc of Essex County and events like Wings for All, sign up for our newsletter by clicking here.

Wings for Autism® was created by Charles River Center, an affiliated chapter of The Arc, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Port Authority. For additional information about bringing Wings to an airport near you, please email wingsforautism@thearc.org.