Dobson Cup Winner is Transforming Air Travel for People with Disabilities

2021 McGill Dobson Cup Winner of the Social Impact Enterprise Track promotes the well-being of people with disabilities in air travel.

Sometimes good ideas arise from a lousy event. When Sandra Gualtieri (BA ’12) flew back from a trip to San Diego, her wheelchair had been broken by the airline. “While everyone else gets to go home, I have to deal with this,” recalls Gualtieri, who has cerebral palsy and requires a wheelchair to get around. She’d endured 12 hours of flight, been awake for the better part of two days, and was utterly exhausted and disheartened.

Gualtieri contacted a passenger’s advocacy group, which directed her to the Canadian Council for People with Disabilities leading to an invitation to join their Transportation Committee. Fast forward two years and she’s the first-place winner of McGill Dobson Cup’s Social Impact Enterprise track for her Universal Seating Apparatus, a portable device that allows for people with disabilities to sit comfortably – and safely – on airplanes.

The McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship was founded in 1988 to help those in the McGill community build innovative and progressive companies. To date, the Centre has helped establish 450 startups (over 40 percent of which are cofounded by women) and has recently reached the milestone of raising $1 billion in seed money. This development and support is particularly important during these economically disruptive times due to the pandemic.

The McGill Dobson Cup competition, in its 13th year, has four different categories: Health Sciences Enterprise, Innovation or Technology Driven Enterprise, Environmental Enterprise, and Social Impact Enterprise. Gualtieri will use her award money to fund the making of the seat prototype by the Faculty of Engineering, overseen by the NSERC-funded Design co-chairs for Interdisciplinary Innovation of Medical Technologies, professors Rosaire Mongrain and Mark Driscoll.

While working with the Transportation Committee, Gualtieri learned “a tremendous amount about the rules and regulations which apply to passengers with disabilities, as well as the challenges this particular population faces when it comes to air travel,” she says. Apart from her own frustrating experience, she learned of others. One letter in particular touched her, that from a mother who had to hold up her 18-year-old daughter for an entire plane ride because the seats were unable to accommodate her daughter in an upright position.

Gualtieri had become an advocate for disability rights during her double major degree in Women’s Studies and Sociology at McGill, so she mulled over these stories in search of a practical solution to make air travel more widely accessible. Finally, inspiration came. “One night I woke up at two a.m. and I just randomly thought of memory foam,” she says. “That was the ‘aha’ moment, thinking ‘this is what people with disabilities need.’” Encouraged by a friend, she wrote the idea down, and says, “Before I knew it, I was emailing McGill!”

The Faculty of Engineering was interested and chose it to become a Capstone project, in which students work on a practical design in medical technology. From there, Gualtieri applied for the Dobson Cup. “The staff at Dobson have been fabulous, providing feedback and support throughout the entire process.” The program is internationally known for its mentorship opportunities and wide network of resources.

Gualtieri and the engineering students worked well together. “They were really receptive to feedback,” she says. They trusted her viewpoint on what works for someone with disabilities, while she recognized their expertise in engineering.

Each person with a disability has unique needs, postures and sensitive pressure points. An adaptive seat would have to be comfortable for many hours, as well as comply with airline safety regulations. It should conform to the aircraft seat for optimal shock absorption and withstand an emergency landing. Also, the device needs to be a reasonable cost, fairly hardy and easy to clean. The seat should work well for approximately 80 percent of passengers with disabilities, and Gualtieri already has ideas on how to accommodate the other 20 percent.

Together, she and the student team came up with a design so good it seems obvious: a malleable cushion device with adjustable head rest and side supports that can fit in a variety of aircraft seats. Though designed to be used with the aircraft seat belt, extra belts are attached. Patented under Gualtieri Inventions, she’s keen to avoid copycats.

Winning the McGill Dobson Cup is “a dream come true,” says Gualtieri, who finds people take her more seriously now. “They seem to look past the disability and realize that I am knowledgeable in what I am doing.”

Because she takes longer to do tasks, Gualtieri is wary of tiring herself out. "I don’t want to get overwhelmed with work, I’ve got to remember to take care of myself." She still has lots to learn about starting and running a business, working with airlines, and doesn’t have time to waste on errors.

Nonetheless, she expects the project to become profitable within four years. Gualtieri is open to bringing in committed investors, who are keen on the project for the good it will do. “I might not be an expert in business, however I do know what the population of people with disabilities need and want, and the challenges we face on a daily basis.”

Many donors have contributed to the Dobson Centre, because they believe that running a business is about so much more than the bottom line. The Centre takes great pride in being responsible for job creation, funding those who want to improve society and communities, and fostering strong, sustainable growth.

Steven Pal (BSc ’79, MBA ’81) feels honoured to have been associated with the Dobson Centre since 2018, when he was first invited to judge the Health Sciences track. “I have been impressed by the growth in participation and quality of the teams,” he says. Pal’s successful career in the pharmaceutical and medical device industry puts him in a position to give back, so he established the Steven Pal Family Award last year, hoping to benefit and inspire the students. Pal notes, “It’s particularly exciting to see so many young people doing great things with passion, vision and drive.”

Although Gualtieri wasn’t thinking of herself when she designed the chair, she loves to travel. “After the pandemic is over, I definitely want to be the first one to try the seating apparatus on an airplane,” she says. Her sights are set on a trip to Hawaii, which she hears is accessible.

For more information about the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship, contact dobson.mgmt [at]

Article by: Maeve Haldane
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