As we reflect on advancing inclusion for people with disabilities during National Disability Employment Awareness Month, I’d like to share this testimonial, written by a Southwest Employee.
I knew deep down he was different: squirming out of hugs, preferring to play solo rather than with other kids, eating only a few types of food, and the way loud noises like bathroom hand dryers sent his hands flying over his ears with a look of sheer terror in his eyes. Other times, he was a typical little boy: playing cars, building epic Lego structures, and laughing at cartoons. I did not know about the high-functioning side of the autism spectrum, and wrote his differences off to “every child is unique.”
When the therapist told me my son was high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome, I was relieved. The clues staring me in the face for years finally had a name. My 13-year-old son who seemed obstinate, refused to share what happened to upset him, tell me who did what, or express how he felt … it wasn’t that he didn’t want to. His brain is wired differently, and he didn’t know how.
Then came the guilt–how many times had I punished him for behavior outside his control? I needed information, and I dove into every resource I could find. I discovered things I could do easily and quickly, like quit using figurative language, stop asking multiple questions at once, use written lists, and “doing” instead of “telling.” It worked, and I am always trying new ways to reach him and help him understand the nuances of life.
Now that he’s in high school, I still worry about him every day. Peers call him intense, anti-social, and depressed. Dances, pep rallies, football games–those are a hard pass from him. Only technology and video games pique his interest. It is his escape, his safe place where he can let go and be social and even display leadership skills, all behind the veil of the screen and headphones.
Each new day is a bit of a coin toss—will it be a good day or will there be a meltdown? If parenting a teenager is difficult, life with a teenager on the autism spectrum can turn parenting into an extreme sport full of creative problem solving, continuous assessing and recalibrating, and loads of patience.
At times, his differences and the struggles to help him collided with my work. I recall a season where he was severely struggling with depression and had been contemplating suicide. I knew I needed some help, but wasn’t sure what was available to me. What has helped me the most on this journey has been the chance to share and learn from my Fellow Employees—we refer to them as “Cohearts” at Southwest. Not only has it opened connections to others at Southwest who have children on the spectrum, but I’ve also learned the many ways Southwest supports Employees in my situation.
My biggest worry used to be my son’s life beyond high school. What type of job would be best for him? How will the job interview experience be for him when he struggles to look someone in the eye and communicate effectively? Then I heard about a program Southwest Airlines is launching in 2022—the Campus Reach Neurodiversity Internship Program—internships for those on the spectrum, with job coaches to help the Interns navigate our Company. Amazing! Stay tuned for more information on this program in the New Year.
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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.
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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Southwest Airlines kicked off National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) by hosting the 2nd annual Career Day for students in the Bridges from School to Work Program (“Bridges”). Bridges helps young adults with disabilities prepare for the workplace and find jobs with companies looking for qualified, entry-level applicants. The Southwest Accommodations & Career Transitions (ACT) Team and Dallas Love Field Station Leaders created an interactive and unique experience for participants, with a behind-the-scenes look at the role of Ramp, Customer Service, and Provisioning Agents at Love Field Airport. By walking the tarmac, observing the ticket counters, and having a panel discussion, the students were exposed to a new world of job opportunities in the airline industry.
Fernando, a senior at Adamson High School in Dallas, had no idea how big an aircraft was until he stood next to one—he has only flown once, as a young child. Fernando struggled to find competitive employment until recently when he was hired at a local hospital as a part-time janitor. Good customer service is stressed at his current job, and Fernando said he was “very impressed with the level of Customer Service at Southwest. I did not realize how busy a major airport tarmac can be, and the level of Teamwork and coordination required to get everything done in a timely manner.” He also says that he “learned a few tips about good Customer Service from Southwest Leaders, and saw it first hand during the tour of the operations at Love Field. I plan to use these at my job now.”
It was a great day for all who participated. Maybe someday we’ll see Fernando, or other Bridges students, delivering that same great Customer Service on the Southwest Ramp!
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