Places like airports that are busy, loud and difficult to get around are overwhelming enough for most of us. Now imagine trying to get through the airport as someone with autism.
Airports are one of the most challenging places for people with hidden disabilities to navigate because they weren’t built for accessible travel. But how airports accommodate people who have hidden disabilities is about to change.
Brisbane Airport launches Hidden Disabilities program
The “Hidden Disabilities” program serves to help people with anxiety, depression, autism, hearing loss or other disability.
Those travelling with a hidden disability can request a lanyard and information card at least a week prior to travel. You can obtain the form here. Wearing the lanyard or showing the card to staff will indicate that a person may need some extra help, guidance or time with the airport process.
The program has trained 1200 staff and allows visitors to order a lanyard to discreetly alert staff that they may need some form of support.
I recently interviewed Jennene Greenall, the creator of a new program called Hidden Disabilities at Brisbane Airport. The program is a first in Australia. It’s designed to help those who are managing anxiety, depression, autism or hearing loss navigate the airport successfully with a minimum of stress.
How do you think airports can improve the experience for people with hidden disabilities?
Jennene: As a traveller passionate about inclusion and participation, I feel two aspects could be improved to support the wellbeing, inclusion and participation of travellers and staff. Both involve the quality of the space and nurturing the quality of relationships within airports.
I would like to see a greater commitment to deepening understanding of what universal inclusion and participation truly means, and how airports, airlines and community groups can work together to bring that depth.
On a practical level, this involves how all staff perceive and engage with travellers. For instance, we have had passengers share their experiences of travelling through airports in the USA that require them being yelled at, often increasing anxiety levels and making it more difficult for them to process and understand the instructions they are given.
It is vital to understand that it is not just the clarity of the information that is being communicated that is important. The quality in which it is delivered also has a significant impact on outcome and experience.
From an environmental aspect, improving the quality and feel of airport environments would have a positive effect on passenger experience and wellbeing. Our knowledge of travelling through many airports in Australia and overseas has been that from a disability compliance perspective, many tenants in airports fall short.
For example, retail spaces often have compliant distances between aisles but may have stock displayed on the floor that makes access almost impossible if you are in a wheelchair or using a walking frame.
In some airports, retailers will have loud music playing and competing with the store next to them. This creates sensory overload for many people with a non-visible disability. In this respect having quality quiet spaces in airports, where people can just be, reflect, detox from the sensory stimulus are paramount to a great travel experience.
2. Your program removes the label of “special,” stating that everyone should be entitled to assistance when it comes to accessible travel. Why do you think this is a better approach?
Jennene: From lived experience and understanding the current research available on this, I prefer to challenge the idea of ‘special assistance’ because often the assistance requested or offered is, in fact, about removing a barrier to participation in an activity based on equity or the service is fully accessible to all.
Viewed from this angle, such assistance isn’t ‘special’ it is decent and inclusive. I love the video made by notspecialneeds.
When we participate in travel and book a service such as a flight, cruise, tour etc. very often people are actually asking for assistance which facilitates their full participation in the experience and very often they are charged extra under the guise that this is ‘special’ rather than it is about equity.
For those with ‘hidden’ or non-visible disabilities/conditions, there is also a great deal of anxiety that takes place in deciding whether to disclose their condition or to what extent they disclose. This can be extremely stressful and energy-draining, especially in a busy environment like an airport.
We have had instances shared with us where disclosing a non-visible/hidden disability is met by judgment (you don’t look disabled or like you need assistance), sympathy – which can feel imposing, dismissive and dishonouring of the person’s ability and experience, and at times, impatience – the frustration passed on by stressed staff and fellow passengers that don’t understand it when they see someone who appears to fit societal norms of able-bodied taking extra time or requiring adjustments to a process.
We can do better than this. In developing our CUE method for staff training, we bring focus to Connection, Understanding and Empowerment in customer relationships. A practical and straightforward process.
When we commit to meeting the inner quality of people rather than bringing focus to the identity of ‘disability’ or ‘normal’ it’s so much more natural to embrace making access and participation equitable.
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3. What would a better airport design look like for people with hidden disabilities?
Jennene: The design which ensures that a broader range of passengers is welcomed to enjoy the space. Considering the need for quiet spaces, and spaces to connect with nature. Singapore’s butterfly garden is a great example of this. Options for bypassing duty-free retail areas would also be fantastic.
I have been inspired by discussing the quality of light in public spaces like airports with Light Artist Bruce Ramus. I love that his installations and approach ‘seeks to bring people, cities and cultures together through the communication and connection in light.’
Airports are just those spaces. Potentially connecting people, cultures, and cities together. Through thoughtful design and service, airports have an opportunity to serve a leadership role in inclusion and participation in the wider community.
4. Do you think sensory rooms help foster accessible travel, and why?
Jennene: Most definitely. Sensory stimulation in airport environments can overwhelm many people, children and adults alike. By creating sensory rooms or spaces, passengers are supported to regulate their emotional and physical responses to the overwhelm. This may facilitate a more positive transition through the different processes involved in travel. It would be wonderful to see these spaces cater to both adults and children.
5. What about in-flight? What is your experience, and how do you think airlines can improve?
Jennene: For people with a non-visible disability, the flight experience can vary greatly and depends on many factors. In the past, I have had much better experiences flying when I haven’t declared a need for assistance and managed the situation myself. When I have declared, I have experienced indifference, judgment and dismissiveness.
Airlines that are willing to introduce consistency, care and communication that is founded on developing and nurturing the strengths and qualities of their staff and understanding another’s perspective would go a long way to making the inflight experience more enjoyable. More work needs to be done in aircraft design that takes into consideration people living with a disability.
Making accessible travel a reality for everyone
Reforming airports for accessible travel isn’t about singling out people with hidden or non-visible disabilities. It’s about making the airport experience inclusive for everyone, no matter who they are.
We’re excited to see airports like Brisbane Airport launch programs to address the gap. After all, who wouldn’t want a quieter, friendlier, more peaceful, and more pleasant experience going through the airport?