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Disability Etiquette: How Southwest Airlines Supports an Inclusive Environment


As we enter October, which is National Disability Employment Awareness Month and the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we reflect on how far we have come at Southwest Airlines and as a community in advancing inclusion for people with disabilities. Though we have come far in our awareness and education, we still have more to learn. 


For me, this is both a personal and professional passion. Disability advocacy has played a considerable part in my life—in my career, my family, and my social circles. I have family members living with autism, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), Down syndrome, and a dear family friend who uses a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury. With this background, I am comfortable fostering conversations and having meaningful interactions with people with disabilities.


Building Connections

Fear and uncertainty are powerful words whose impact cannot be overstated. Lifting the fear of the unknown and the uncertainty that so often comes with personal interactions is a critical step in advancing inclusion. You may even wonder, “What if I say or do the wrong thing?” My response to this is simply to relax and take it step-by-step. 


Education and awareness on disability etiquette is a great place to start the conversation—the fact that you care is the first step. Over the years, I have witnessed many comments and actions that made me cringe. As a Specialist on the Southwest Accommodations Team, I have been fortunate to create awareness opportunities on disability etiquette. The Accommodations Team works with Employee who may be in need of a possible workplace accommodation based on a medical condition (including any pregnancy-related restrictions), to determine accommodation options.


Diversity Etiquette in Action

Earlier this year, I had an open dialogue with Southwest Diversity Council Members where I shared etiquette tips when interacting with our family, friends, Leaders, Coheart, Customers, and more. The Southwest Airlines’ Diversity Council—comprised of a diverse group of Employees with various job roles, in locations across the country, and with varying levels of experience—was founded more than 10 years ago. It serves as an asset, dedicated to a mission that promotes a work environment that appreciates different backgrounds, experiences, and traditions, while also fostering inclusion, and leveraging diversity to enhance performance and shape Company strategy.

Bruce Richardson-Tilley, Customer Relations/Rapid Rewards Specialist, and Diversity Council Member, recently shared how one of his takeaways made an impact on the life of a Fellow Employee with limited mobility. After the session, Bruce reached out and asked her how he could best support her. She was grateful for the support of her Team and the Company as her mobility was gradually declining. After Bruce learned that her mobility was limited he huddled with his Cohearts and found a family who no longer needed their electric scooter. As a result the family happily donated it to her. They were all so thankful and in Bruce’s words, “needless to say, we all cried.” 


Each day, her Team made sure she got to and from her car and scooter, and when she recently left the Company, arrangements were made for her to keep the scooter. Bruce credits his awareness to “just ask” and believes that the lessons learned while on the Council helped make this connection possible. This is just one example of how education and awareness can remove the fear of the unknown, ultimately paving the way for inclusion. 


I hope that everyone finds at least one “ah-ha moment” from this list, and uses it on their journey to greater awareness.


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