Politics and Government

Woodbury disability advocate boosts airport accessibility nationwide

A photo of a woman in a wheelchair in Washington dc
Linda Hood visited Washington, D.C. last summer to meet with legislators and talk about the need for better bathroom accessibility nationwide.
Courtesy photo

The first time Linda Hood was changed on a public bathroom floor, the ground was wet.

She had soiled her clothes at a hospital, she said, but with no adult changing table to use, she resorted to lying on a sheet. Her husband helped her out of her wheelchair, swapping her clothes in the cramped space.

“And I thought, ‘this floor is filthy.’ It was wet. It was dirty. It was demoralizing,” she said. “How in the world can this many people get overlooked?” 

That question, asked in 2019, is what drove her into advocacy. Since then, she’s been raising awareness on the need for adult changing tables, also known as universal changing stations. Those are tables that generally support at least 350 pounds and are about six feet long, boosting accessibility for people of all ages who may have different bathroom needs.

Hood worked to get the first one installed at U.S. Bank Stadium. She helped pass a 2023 state law that mandates the tables in new public restrooms.

Last month, President Joe Biden signed a federal aviation act that includes an amendment requiring medium and large airports install the tables by 2030, in order to keep a substantial federal grant. 

And, yes, Hood was behind that one, too. 

“There’s nothing wrong with my brain or my heart and I have a real heart for this problem,” Hood said. “And I’m not going to stop, now that we have a task … this is a global problem.”

Hood has Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare disorder that 3,000 to 6,000 people in the United States develop each year. She was diagnosed in 2018, after bacteria in bad chicken triggered her immune system to attack the nerves in her body — first in her feet, then up to her face, altering her speech. GBS left much of her body paralyzed and stiff. 

But Hood said that wasn’t going to stop her, even if that meant slowly writing to legislators “finger by finger.” About a year ago, she visited Washington, D.C., where she met with Minnesota U.S. representatives Dean Phillips and Betty McCollum. Her advice: “sometimes you have to catch them after lunch.”

Phillips, who authored the travel amendment, said he was compelled by Hood’s story. He said it was an easy addition to an act still in progress. 

“In this case, we took it on ourselves and that’s exactly how the system is supposed to work,” Phillips said. “I think too few Americans, including Minnesotans, are aware that they can affect meaningful change.”

For Hood, pushing for equity and change has long been part of who she is. She said the earliest memory of that drive was in middle school when she looked at the girls’ gym, then looked at the bigger boys’ gym and asked herself: “What is this?”

When it came time for gymnastics try-outs — a sport only offered to boys at her school —  she went to the better gym. Two other girls followed her. 

“I think [the coach] thought he was gonna get rid of me after the first workout, but he was wrong,” she said. “We were on the boys gymnastics team and they were not gonna tell me I couldn’t.”

It paved the way for other girls to join, she said, and when again, she was discouraged from choosing a “boys” major in college, she walked into the lecture hall anyway. She majored in chemistry in the 1970s, showing up in a space that had few other Black women at that time she said, then went on to be a clinical oncology researcher. 

A woman at a watch party for the royal wedding
Linda Hood pictured in 2018 at a watch party for the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, soon before being diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Courtesy photo

She volunteered at multiple summer Olympics, taking her around the globe. She ran marathons and triathlons and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. And seven years ago, when she met the man who would become her husband while on a business trip to Dallas, she was persistent, too. 

After finding out they had the same birthday, up to the year, Richard Smith suggested they take a picture together and celebrate when the day came, “not really thinking it would happen,” he said.  He was living in Texas, she was in Minnesota.

But she followed up. They spent five days in Boston. 

That’s the woman he first grew to know, then continued to find out, again and again, was at her core. When she was in different hospitals for 15 months, she kept at it, too, pushing past excruciating pain when she could only move her eyes up and down to communicate.

“She's a different animal,” Smith said. “She’s stronger than most. I couldn’t have done it. I couldn’t have went through what she went through. I saw everything with my own eyes. I would have gave up. But she’s persistent.”

Hood says she’s still pushing. She’s taking classes at the University of Minnesota, eager to start a legislative law writing class in fall. 

“I’m really going to be a force to be reckoned with once I take that,” she said. “I’m going to be cranking out some deals.”

There’s a lot more work to do, Hood said. She’s not slowing down.

“I’m 65 and I’m gonna spend the rest of my life trying to make it better for others,” she said. “I had a chance to live my life and enjoy it, before this happened. I’m thankful for that.”

Life is short, Hood said, and she wants each year to be filled with impact, distinct with positive change. There are many more legislators she plans to introduce herself to.