The World Health Organization estimates one in six of the world’s population experiences significant disability. Yet, so daunting is the prospect of taking a business trip, “in many cases employees with disabilities just avoid travel and all the associated benefits and opportunities it gives,” a travel manager for a global tech company told the UK & Ireland’s Institute of Travel Management (ITM) annual conference in Brighton last month.
The shocking experiences underpinning this observation are not hard to find. Only last week the BBC reported on Irish wheelchair user Adrian Keogh crawling down the steps of a Ryanair aircraft at Göteborg Landvetter Airport in Sweden after being told no one could could assist his disembarkation for an hour. Keogh couldn’t wait that long. He was in pain after the flight and needed the toilet.
Keogh’s experience was not an isolated incident. The BBC’s own security correspondent, Frank Gardner, also a wheelchair user since being shot on duty in Saudi Arabia in 2004, has reported repeatedly about being stranded on an aircraft while lost mobility aids are retrieved for him.
Disabled business travellers have many other horror stories to tell. These include wheelchairs left in the rain or damaged, and passengers with pacemakers subjected to humiliating strip searches at airport security.
Nor does the situation necessarily improve on arrival at their accommodation. Maiden Voyage, a consultancy which advises on wellbeing and safety for diverse business travellers, has collected examples of problems including hotels saying they have accessible bedrooms but whose doorways prove 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 respects because the guest would not have opted to stay there in the first place,” says CEO Carolyn Pearson.
All the above are examples of arrangements going wrong. But even trips where everything goes right are very hard work for disabled employees such is the level of organisation required, a wheelchair-using business traveller explains in a video produced by Maiden Voyage. “It’s about planning,” the traveller says, “almost planning to be exhausted.” The biggest stress of all, he adds, is the fear that an unforeseen problem may arise.
Taking action to solve these huge challenges is a critical – but often critically neglected – responsibility for any company genuinely committed to diversity, equity and inclusion. The obstacles are so formidable that they deter disabled people not merely from becoming business-travelling employees; they can be deterred from becoming employees at all.
“They might not even consider a job where travel is involved because they think it is not possible for them. But in fact it’s because the workplace doesn’t provide the right environment for them,” says Dr Marion Karl, a senior lecturer at the University of Surrey who has researched the challenges faced by disabled business travellers.
“There are different kinds of barriers and one of the biggest barriers for disabled people is the attitudes of society which thinks they either don’t want to travel or don’t need to travel. Changing our opinion about it is the first big step. Employers needs to accept that higher cost and more effort is a fact, and be more open to that kind of flexible arrangement.”
For companies wanting to develop a disabled business traveller strategy, “Start by creating a focus group of disabled travellers,” say Pearson. The guiding principle, she argues, should be “Never about us without us.”
The travel manager speaker at ITM delivered a similar message. Asked where to begin, he said: “Listen to the community. Ask them what their pain points are. Be open with them about your bandwidth and resources and then see how you can overlay the two to create the perfect fit for your company.”
His company resolved to “make business travel universally accessible to all”. That philosophy begins with the induction process for new employees where “we ask employees to choose from a list of options that would make travel more comfortable for them”.
The travel manager explained how they created a dedicated accessible travel desk at his company’s appointed travel management company American Express Global Business Travel. Through this concierge service “the traveller just has to provide their city pairing,” he said. “Everything else is taken care of. This is revolutionary for this community. They can book it and they can forget it.”
In contrast, the accessible travel desk does not forget about the booking. Disabled travellers have repeated experience of arranged assistance not being confirmed or being cancelled at short notice. The specialist desk reconfirms assistance arrangements several times before departure.
Meanwhile, in her most recent academic study, Karl makes four recommended actions to improve service for disabled employees. These are:
Pay for the difference
From favouring direct over indirect flights to using taxis instead of public transport and needing specialised hotel rooms, travel is often more expensive for disabled travellers, thereby potentially making it non-compliant with company travel policy. It may seem common sense that exceptions can be assumed for disabled employees but in reality, says Karl, they may find seeking exceptions stressful and also not wish to advertise their disability to their line manager.
Consequently, says Karl, “We found in our study that the traveller would cover themselves the additional costs they incurred for business travel to accommodate their special needs.” The solution, she wrote in the study, is that “Each employer needs to establish central funds to cover the additional costs often borne by disabled workers when travelling for work-based purposes.”
Use specialised trip booking assistance
This could be a specialist travel agent, or either an internal assistance desk or dedicated desk at the TMC. At the ITM conference, Amex GBT consulting manager Kayleigh Rogers said her company is now making its accessibility desk created originally for the tech company client available to the rest of its customer base.
CWT is also enlarging its specialist care team because of more clients showing “a strong focus on the wellbeing of all employees”, says traveller experience vice president Ann Marie Stone. “Our intent is not to label the disability. We ask to understand the needs that are required, not necessarily the disability.”
Respect disabled travellers’ privacy
“A process by which an individual can disclose their disability to their employer without informing the direct supervisors and those in their immediate workplace needs to be created,” Karl wrote. An assistance desk answers this particular need.
Make information available
Build a repository of information about, for example, which suppliers provide good assistance and which do not. Returning to the mantra of “Never about us without us”, Pearson says the primary source for such insights should be the travellers themselves.
Speakers at the ITM conference stressed there is still much to do, not least that most online booking tools are poor at managing assistance services. Stone agrees about the booking tools and adds that, more generally, corporate clients should be “advocating 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 speaking with this community,” he said.
Next time: Managing travel for hidden needs/neurodiverse travellers