Business travel can be exhausting and tedious, as travelers cope with being away from home, navigating airport security lines and the stress of living out of a suitcase. Travelers who have disabilities face an extra set of problems, since a lack of information about accessibility at airports, hotels and car services can turn an average work trip into a gamble.
About 26% of the people in the U.S. are living with a disability, and it’s most common in those over 65 years of age. Yet the topic is often sidelined, according to Michael Swiatek, chief strategy and planning officer for the company, Avianca. Swiatek, who is legally blind, travels frequently for work. He believes the lack of attention paid to accessibility creates a major hurdle for far too many people – despite the fact that the population is aging.
Stephen Cluskey, CEO of Mobility Mojo, calls the aging population a “silver tsunami.” Cluskey believes many travel companies don’t realize accessibility affects nearly everyone: “We’ve found that hotels view accessibility as a compliance thing rather than an asset. In fact, it is one of the most underutilized assets a hotel has. They will spend so much money on these things, but then they barely mention it.”
While the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed in 1990, went a long way to ensure legal protections and minimum accessibility requirements, information about accessibility features is often still hard to find. This lack of awareness has made traveling with a disability so uncertain that some people avoid it entirely. For many employees, this could mean missing out on opportunities to network, learn new skills and advance their careers.
“Legally an airport has to help me to the gate, but that process is quite unreliable,” Swiatek said. “It’s so micro for them, I guess, the experience can be fantastic or absolutely terrible. [It’s why] many disabled people just don’t travel.”
As an executive with years of business travel experience, Swiatek acknowledges his experiences with travel can be very different than many others with disabilities, since his company is willing to pay to ensure he has the best service possible.
“I think it’s important for people to be open about their disabilities, so airlines and hotels start to realize how common it is,” said Swiatek, who believes advances in technology will allow for more widespread improvements.
“On the technology side, there are incredible things happening,” said Swiatek. “Our smart phones are so good at geolocation, and then there’s bluetooth. The phone can literally tell you how many steps to take.”
At the same time, he adds, technology can also make travel less accessible, as companies use it to replace human interaction. Self-check-in kiosks at airports can pose a particular problem for people with blindness, and the impersonal nature of app-hail services can also make it hard to request particular accommodations.
Ultimately, Swiatek says that companies need to strike a balance if they want to be truly accessible.