The World Health Organization estimates that one in six of the world’s population has a significant disability. But the prospect of a business trip is so daunting, “in many cases, employees with disabilities avoid travel and all the associated benefits and opportunities,” a travel manager from a global technology company told the UK & Ireland’s Institute of Travel Management (ITM) annual conference month in Brighton.
The shocking experiences that underlie this observation are not difficult to find. Just last week, the BBC reported on Irish wheelchair user Adrian Keogh crawling down the stairs of a Ryanair plane at Gothenburg Landvetter Airport in Sweden after being told no one could help him alight for an hour. Keogh couldn’t wait that long. He was in pain after the flight and had to go to the toilet.
Keogh’s experience was not an isolated incident. The BBC’s own security correspondent Frank Gardner, also a wheelchair user since he was shot while on duty in Saudi Arabia in 2004, has repeatedly reported being stranded on a plane while lost mobility aids were retrieved for him.
Disabled business travelers have many more horror stories to tell. These include wheelchairs left in the rain or damaged, and passengers with pacemakers subjected to humiliating body searches at airport security.
Nor does the situation necessarily improve upon arrival at their accommodation. Maiden Voyage, a consultancy that advises on the well-being and safety of a variety of business travelers, has collected examples of problems, including hotels claiming to have accessible bedrooms, but whose doorways are found to be too narrow for wheelchairs. “If a hotel has an accessibility policy and doesn’t follow it, that’s almost worse than not having a policy in some ways because the guest wouldn’t have chosen to stay there in the first place,” says CEO Carolyn Pearson.
All of the above are examples of arrangements going wrong. But even trips that go well are very hard work for disabled employees, such is the level of organization required, explains a business traveler in a wheelchair in a video produced by Maiden Voyage. “It’s about planning,” says the traveler, “almost planning to get exhausted.” The greatest stress of all, he adds, is the fear that an unforeseen problem may arise.
Taking action to solve these huge challenges is a crucial – but often critically neglected – responsibility for any company that is genuinely committed to diversity, equity and inclusion. The obstacles are so formidable that they not only prevent people with disabilities from becoming business travel workers; they may be dissuaded from becoming an employee in the first place.
“They may not even consider a job that involves travel because they don’t think it’s possible for them. But in fact it’s because the workplace doesn’t provide the right environment for them,” said Dr Marion Karl, senior lecturer at the University of Surrey, who has researched the challenges faced by disabled business travelers.
“There are different types of barriers and one of the biggest barriers for people with disabilities is the attitude of society that thinks they don’t want to travel or don’t need to travel. Changing our opinion about it is the first big step. Employers need to accept that higher costs and more effort are a fact, and be more open to those kinds of flexible arrangements.”
Speakers at the ITM conference stressed that there is still a lot to do, not least because most online booking tools are bad at managing emergency services
For companies looking to develop a strategy for business travelers with disabilities, “Start by creating a focus group of travelers with disabilities,” says Pearson. The guiding principle, she argues, should be “Never about us without us.”
The travel manager’s speaker at ITM delivered a similar message. Asked where to start, he said: “Listen to the community. Ask them what their pain points are. Be open with them about your bandwidth and resources, then see how you can overlap the two to create the perfect fit for your business.
His company decided to “make business travel universally accessible to everyone”. That philosophy begins with the onboarding process for new employees, where “we ask employees to choose from a list of options that make traveling more comfortable for them.”
The travel manager explained how they created a dedicated accessible travel counter at his company-appointed travel management company American Express Global Business Travel. Through this concierge service, “the traveler simply has to provide their city combination,” he said. “Everything else is arranged. This is revolutionary for this community. They can book it and they can forget about it.”
The accessible travel desk, on the other hand, does not forget the booking. Disabled travelers have repeatedly experienced regular assistance not confirmed or canceled at short notice. The specialist desk reconfirms assistance appointments several times before departure.
Meanwhile, in her most recent academic study, Karl takes four recommended actions to improve services for disabled workers. These are:
Pay for the difference
From choosing direct over indirect flights to using taxis instead of public transport and needing specialized hotel rooms, travel is often more expensive for travelers with disabilities, which may make it inconsistent with company travel policies . It may seem logical that exceptions could be adopted for disabled employees, but in reality, says Karl, they may find seeking exceptions stressful and may not want to disclose their disability to their line manager.
As a result, says Karl, “We found in our research that the traveler themselves would cover the extra costs they incur for business travel to meet their special needs.” The solution, she wrote in the study, is that “every employer should set up central funds to cover the extra costs often borne by disabled employees when they travel for work purposes.”
Take advantage of specialist travel booking assistance
This can be a specialized travel agent, but also an internal helpdesk or a special desk at the TMC. Speaking at the ITM conference, Amex GBT consulting manager Kayleigh Rogers said her company is now making its accessibility desk, originally created for the technology company’s customer, available to the rest of its customer base.
CWT is also expanding its specialty care team as more customers demonstrate “a strong focus on the well-being of all employees,” said Ann Marie Stone, vice president of traveler experience. “It is not our intention to label the disability. We ask to understand the needs needed, not necessarily the disability.”
Please respect the privacy of travelers with disabilities
“A process should be created whereby a person can disclose their disability to their employer without informing immediate supervisors and those in their immediate workplace,” Karl wrote. A helpdesk meets this specific need.
Make information available
Build a repository with information about, for example, which suppliers provide good help and which do not. Returning to the mantra of “Never about us without us,” Pearson says the primary source for such insights should be travelers themselves.
Speakers at the ITM conference stressed that there is still a lot to do, not least because most online booking tools are bad at managing emergency services. Stone agrees on the booking tools, adding that, more broadly, corporate customers should “advocate within the supplier base to increase accessibility.”
However, the incentive to act is great. Not only can travel managers help their companies align much better with their DEI goals, they can also directly improve the lives of colleagues. The ITM travel manager speaker told his audience that creating a disability strategy was one of the most rewarding projects he has ever undertaken. “It’s incredibly humbling to talk to this community,” he said.
Next time: managing travel for hidden needs/neurodiverse travelers