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Creating a better travel experience for passengers with intellectual disabilities

March 4, 2019
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Next week, over 7,000 athletes from 170 different countries will be taking to the skies to fly to the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi. With an event of this scale, naturally the conversation within the travel industry turns toward the assistance that airlines provide to not only the athletes making their way to the Games, but the wider community of passengers with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Emma Hawkins, Director of Education at Jigsaw Trust, a registered charity that provides facilities, services and resources to educate and support people with autism, has a stepson with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). As such, she’s had first-hand experience of the assistance that airlines typically provide for passengers with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

While she recognizes that an effort is being made on the part of both airports and airlines to assist passengers with intellectual disabilities, she feels more could be done to improve the travel experience for these passengers.

The heart of the issue is that, with an estimated 200 million people worldwide having intellectual disabilities, there is no quick-fix, “one-size-fits-all” solution that airports and airlines can apply that is going to improve the travel experience for these passengers.

“Not all intellectually disabled people need to get on a flight first with the noisy or crying children, and not all need to get on last,” says Emma. “In my stepson’s case, once he’s with an established group, he wants the group to stay together. We are a big family and can often arrive at the airport in a group of six or eight. If that's the case he wants us all to stay together. So, when the airline says my stepson plus one can get on the plane, can go through security and passport control without queueing, that is no good to us.”

Add the stresses of intolerant passengers, airports that don’t have disabled toilets and a particularly difficult trip Emma went on with her stepson which ended with well-meaning staff meeting the family with a wheelchair (her stepson is perfectly physically able) because he was listed as ‘disabled’, and you can understand why there is a very real need for airports, airlines and fellow passengers to adopt a different approach.

Unknown to many passengers and travel agents alike, there is a Special Services Request (SSR) code that travel agents can enter when booking flights for passengers with intellectual or developmental disabilities*.

The code allows for the specific details of both the passenger’s intellectual disability and the assistance needed to be entered manually. Though airlines aren’t mandated to provide the support requested when receiving the code, IATA member airlines are at least required to recognise and respond to the request, and many offer more support than you might imagine.

The ability to travel freely and safely, to broaden our experience and understanding of the world, and in turn, ourselves, is one many of us take for granted. The possible benefits this could have for passengers with intellectual disabilities is vast, which is why Travelport is actively campaigning for greater awareness of the “DPNA” SSR code.

*We remind our customers that the processing of sensitive personal data may require the explicit consent of the traveler under applicable data protection legislation

Supporting airline passengers with intellectual disabilities

Learn more about this initiative.