In May 2019, the IATA 75th Annual General Meeting unanimously approved a resolution to improve the air travel experience for people with disabilities around the world.

“Airlines were ahead of their time when, 50 years ago, we set out standards to ensure passengers with disabilities had access to air travel,” said Alexandre de Juniac, Director General and CEO of the International Air Transport Association. “But now we need to go further. The numbers of persons with disabilities travelling by air are set to increase significantly as populations expand and grow older. The (airline) industry is committed to ensure that passengers living with disability can travel safely and with dignity.”

“Disability and accessibility are on the world stage. These are very hot topics right now,” added Eric Lipp, Founder and Executive Director of Open Doors Organization, a non-profit making goods and services accessible in transportation, tourism, and hospitality. According to Lipp, “Disability training is now more important than ever.”

Why focus on disability training? Comprehensive training programs are essential to make sure not only that travelers (as well as employees) are safe, but also that disabled passengers have a great customer experience.

While competition between airlines is a good thing and internal training methods and materials are very protected, airlines should be working together in unifying the disability training across the industry.

Factors beyond the aging of the population are leading to the rapid growth of travel worldwide by people with disabilities. These include better accessibility and assistive technology, a rise in disposable income, and the spread of families not just across countries but the globe. Little wonder that a survey by IATA of member airlines found that requests for disability assistance had jumped 30% from 2016 to 2017.

In the US, according to a 2015 nationwide study by Open Doors Organization, 26 million travelers with disabilities took a total of 73 million trips and spent $34.6 billion over a two-year period. Of those travelers, 11 million traveled by air, taking 23 million trips and generating almost $9 billion in revenue on just their own flights. While they flew on average only once per year, they typically traveled with one or more companions, doubling the actual spend on flights to at least $18 billion.

Now imagine that improvements in customer service encouraged these individuals and their companions to travel just once more per year. Rather than focusing on the cost of assistance, the aviation industry should instead be considering how to unleash the potential of this untapped travel market – one billion strong worldwide! This is a compelling reason to make sure your airline disability training program is up to par.

Secret One

So, what are the secrets to having a great disability training program? The first is understanding that people are people and that we should be treating everyone the same, with dignity and respect. Not everyone with a disability will ask for or need help. All travelers have unique needs of some sort, whether they have a disability or not, so it is important to focus first and foremost on customer service.

When we pre-judge someone because of their disability, we are unconsciously building a wall between us. The best way to break down this wall is to be observant and offer help when it appears to be needed. What’s the best way to start a conversation? Look the person in the eye and say hello, just like you would for anyone else. Even if the person has a more severe disability and is unable to answer, make sure to address the person with the disability, not the parent, spouse, caregiver, or sign language interpreter.

After asking if someone needs assistance, if the person says “No”, then we have done our job. If they say “Yes”, the next thing we need to ask is, “How can I help you?” Remember that the traveler with the disability is the expert on what they need and that no two disabilities are alike. The hardest part may actually be listening to what is said and carefully following directions. If you’re in a rush – the norm at airports – it’s hard to take the time needed to really communicate and understand.

It may take a person a bit longer to do something, but most people with disabilities are very self-reliant. By allowing them to do things on their own and having the patience to wait, we are respecting their independence.

"The number one reason why more people with reduced mobility don't fly is fear of damage to their equipment." Image credit: Open Doors 

It is also important to remember that the majority of people with disabilities are infrequent travelers. The stress of being in the complex, noisy airport environment is disabling in itself, so whatever we can do to give our travelers more peace of mind will go a long way toward providing that great customer journey.

Secret Two

The second secret has to do with language. The terms used to refer to people with disabilities have changed drastically over the years from calling people “crippled,” “lame,” or “invalid,” to what we now refer to as ‘people-first’ language, ie, referring to the person first and their disability second. After all, the disability is just one aspect of a person and should not be defining. Thus, we now say “people who use wheelchairs” or “people who are blind,” not “wheelchair users” or “the blind.” Any terms that refer to people as different, special, or impaired have negative connotations and may offend. One should also avoid cute euphemisms such as “handicapable” or “differently abled”. The main term to stay away from is the word handicapped. Let’s call it the “H” word so that it sounds like a swear word. While this word has been on the unacceptable list for a while, it is still deeply ingrained in our language, primarily to refer to restrooms and parking spaces. In this case, a much more appropriate word is “accessible.”

Secret Three

The third secret has to do with the broad variety of disabilities and functional limitations that our customers may experience. All too often we focus just on physical disabilities and offer a “one size fits all” solution: wheelchair assistance. Thankfully the aviation industry is now paying greater attention to hidden or invisible disabilities including autism and dementia, on the rise at opposite ends of the age spectrum. Hearing and vision loss may also be invisible. Are we training our employees to properly communicate with and support these groups who make up a large and growing part of our customer base? Is everyone receiving sighted guide training? Are we teaching and making proper of use of the DPNA code for travelers with cognitive disabilities (disabled passenger with intellectual or developmental disability needing assistance)? Are we making our staff aware of airport resources such as sensory and quiet rooms, lanyards for self-identification or volunteers who can also provide support to these passengers?

Secret Four

The final and maybe most important secret has to do with people who travel with mobility equipment. Whether a power or manual wheelchair, crutches, a cane, or a walker, these devices enable people to get out and travel and be more independent. People are not confined to wheelchairs; they are confined without them! Training ground crews on the importance of mobility aids and how to properly handle them should be a standard in the industry. After all, it's costing millions of dollars annually in replacement and repairs as well as lost revenue. The number one reason why more people with reduced mobility don’t fly (or don’t fly anymore) is fear of damage to their equipment.

Luckily steps can be taken to avoid unnecessary damage. When a mobility device is checked at the door of the plane, the first thing that should be considered is whether it can be accommodated in the cabin. Items that will fit in the overhead or a closet should take priority over other passengers’ carry-on luggage and crew luggage. The peace of mind in knowing that one’s mobility aid is safely onboard can make all the difference toward a positive experience. If a wheelchair must be stowed as cargo, it is important to take off any parts that are easily removable or breakable, such as headrests, joysticks, and seat cushions. Cabin crews and ground crew staff will, of course, need to communicate to get this done, but we all need to work together to give the best possible customer service. Even reservations staff can play a part by urging customers to provide detailed information on their wheelchairs and scooters.

Even though everyone teaches customer service techniques differently, disability training programs should be standardized so that people with disabilities are treated equally no matter where they are in the world.

It is time to mobilize and take action. Find a disability expert, talk to your local disability organizations, and make sure to include people with disabilities in the creation and delivery of your new training program. If they can't actually be in the classroom, include their perspectives on video. Now is the time to get onboard and join the worldwide accessibility movement.

About the Author

Craig P. Kennedy works as a consultant and course trainer with Open Doors Organization.

Craig began focusing on accessibility after personally experiencing the limitations that individuals with disabilities face in everyday life. In 1994, a skiing accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. Craig has spent the past 25 years motivating people with disabilities to look beyond their perceived abilities and to advocate for their rights as both people and travelers.

Published in CAT issue 6/2019