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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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1 Comment
Explorer C

As a physician who works to enforce strict mask and visitation rules in the hospital, we make necessary exceptions to accommodate infants and individuals with intellectual disabilities who are incapable of keeping a mask on, in order to do our best to provide the same standard of care to all, regardless of disabilities. The CDC federal mask order “exempts the following categories of persons. ... A person with a disability who cannot wear a mask, or cannot wear a mask because of the disability, as defined by the Americans with Disability Act (42 U.S.C. 12101 et. Seq.)
As the father of a son with Angelman Syndrome and severe neuro developmental delay who is unable to keep a mask on (but who has tolerated a full head cover hood with plastic face shield), I was disappointed to be detained with my vaccinated and face-shielded son on the walkway into SWA 3117 on February 27, on our way to see his grandfather, (whose new diagnosis of widely metastatic small cell lung cancer put him suddenly in home hospice, with family flying to San Antonio from all points to see him, possibly for the last time), as we saw several children and adults board with masks below their noses, and were told there are no exceptions at Southwest for individuals with disabilities, and that we could not board the plane.
The situation caused uncomfortable drama as our detention on the walkway caused my sons agitation to escalate, caused disruption to other passengers, and prompted a tearful, compassionate effort by one SWA customer service agent to look for ways to accommodate my son by keeping adjacent rows clear on a plane that was under filled. Rachel Di Fiore, identifying herself as the highest authority on the matter at SWA, arrived to stop the effort and to tell us we had to leave, and that Southwest does not make exceptions for individuals with disabilities, that there is no higher authority than her to appeal to.
I am writing to make you aware of a preventable loud scene that cast Southwest in a bad light to the public, but also to question Southwest’s rigidity around individuals with intellectual disabilities. The unfortunate scene could have been prevented if Southwest had been transparent in stating that they do not honor exemptions for individuals with disabilities, which would have helped us choose a different airline at the outset. At least 2 other airlines specifically state that they do honor exemptions to the mask mandate for individuals with disabilities, and their websites include a link to help understand who qualifies.
I ask as a physician and as a father of a son with disabilities that you reconsider your company’s unwillingness to accommodate individuals with disabilities, or, if that is unchangeable policy, to at least state that lack of accommodation clearly at the time of ticketing, so customers can be spared the kind of preventable, disruptive and emotional public scene that your unexpected rigidity produced. 
-disappointed Southwest customer