Latest news and insights from Australia’s airports

Hidden disabilities program tip of the iceberg for Brisbane

Brisbane Airport is already winning accolades for programs aimed at accommodating people with disabilities but it isn’t sitting on its laurels.

It is currently in initial discussions with the Australian Airport Association about how the program could be rolled out nationally in the future. The program started at London’s Gatwick airport to help staff support travellers with a hidden disability.

Part of the Brisbane Airport’s wider customer service strategy, the program aims to help staff identify and assist people with a hidden disability.

Hidden disabilities can affect anyone and include a wide range of conditions ranging from anxiety disorders to autism, dyslexia or dementia. It can also mean physical issues such as brain injury, multiple sclerosis and vision impairment.

The impact may be that people have trouble communicating, comprehending instructions or regulating emotions. They also may not process information in the same way others do.

All this can mean an anxious time in the hustle and bustle of a busy airport.

Brisbane has partnered with diversity and inclusion specialists A Spectrum Connected to train staff to help them connect with people with hidden disabilities, understand the differences and then empower them by providing appropriate assistance.

It also allows people with a disability to send a request to the airport ahead of their travel.

“We send them an information pack and in that pack is a lanyard they can wear and be identified when they’re travelling through the airport as someone with a disability,’’ Brisbane Airport terminal facilitation and customer experience manager Luke Harvey says.

“They can also carry a card in their pocket so if they can’t verbalise what their issue is, they can pull out the card with details and give it to the security guard, the cleaner or the airline agent. Whoever it may be.”

The symbol for the program is an iceberg, most of which lies unseen below the water, and Harvey says it is not about giving people preferential treatment.

Instead, he says, it’s about social awareness, giving people respect, communicating with them appropriately and helping to facilitate their journey.

It’s also about giving staff the skills and training to engage with people with disabilities.

But he says it needs to be national to really make it work.

“The person getting off a plane elsewhere with a lanyard needs to have it mean the same thing there as it does here,’’ he says.

The hidden disabilities program is the latest facet of the “Access for All’’ push by Brisbane to make itself Australia’s most accessible and inclusive airport.

It has recently achieved international celebrity for a facility post customs and security screening that comes complete with artificial grass so service dogs can go to the toilet.

It was the first airport in Australia to introduce a “Changing Place” facility that recently picked up the 2018 International Toilet Tourism Award for the best accessible toilet. It has one in the domestic terminal and expects to have a second up and running in the international terminal within two months.

The judges praised the exceptional facilities, which include an adult change bed, hoist and toilet with removable hand rails.

“Brisbane Airport’s accessible loos have set a new standard in enabling accessible travel,” the judges said.

“Their whole approach has empowered travellers with disabilities and made it much easier for them and their carers to meet their needs with dignity and comfort.”

“The loos for guide dogs also show that Brisbane Airport cares and takes a holistic approach to accessible travel.”

The airport was also the first in the nation to be endorsed by Alzheimer’s Australia as Dementia Traveller Friendly and offers a reference guide to its facilities through the association’s website.

Harvey says that program stemmed from an Alzheimer’s Australia grant for a Queensland University of Technology study of people with dementia travelling through public facilities.

“Basically we did an audit of all the existing facilities here,’’ he says “We created guidelines specifically for people with dementia travelling through the airport. We then did some training with key service providers like security and our ambassadors.

“In terms of infrastructure improvements, we looked at the way we do our wayfinding and tried to integrate some of the outcomes of the audit into our existing principles.”

The airport has joined with disability groups to form an Airport Accessibility Reference Group which meets quarterly and allows the airport to get input on key infrastructure and service changes.

“Basically, we have a program to upgrade the airport over a long period of time, and our budget supports that, and we just talk through the things we’re trying to achieve and whether we’re focusing on the right areas,’’ says Harvey

“We share them with that reference group so they can give us a bit of guidance on whether what we’re doing is actually right and catering to the needs of the people.”

Another innovation is airport tours to give people with disabilities an idea of what to expect when they travel.

The tour is run by the airport’s volunteer ambassadors and aims to reduce anxiety.

Harvey says Brisbane has worked hard to improve the accessibility of its infrastructure.

While improvements in this area are continuing, he says there is now more focus on what services the airport can offer people with disabilities.

“I suppose it’s driven by the customer service strategy,’’ he says. “BAC has a long-term vision to be a major gateway into Australia for travellers.  Creating a unique customer experience is one of the goals of that work and under that is the disability strategy.

“That’s really been the driver to promoting it and seeing if we can become Australia’s most accessible airport by introducing all these different programs.”

By Steve Creedy

About Steve Creedy

An award-winning journalist, Steve began covering aviation in the United States in the early nineties before returning to Australia later that decade and editing The Australian’s aviation section for 17 years. He is editor of Airline Ratings and has co-authored books on industry initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions.

Steve has joined the AAA to write interesting and informative editorial on the aviation industry.

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