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How can we improve accessibility in aviation? Abra’s Michael Swiatek has some ideas

The Abra Group’s Chief Strategy Officer is one of few vision-impaired people in aviation with a C-suite position. During his recent visit to London, Michael stopped by the Venari Partners office for a chat with our Director, James Parker, to discuss accessibility issues both in aviation and the wider world.

‘Let’s take progress over perfection,’ Michael Swiatek says. ‘You can’t stand still and make no attempt to make the world better.’ This is a message Venari Partners is only too happy to endorse – not least from someone as inspiring as Michael. He’s had a long and illustrious career working all over the world at some of the biggest names in aviation, which is even more impressive when you consider the obstacles Michael has had to overcome.

 

While we have seen accessibility in aviation improve in recent years, there is still a long way to go, and Michael knows this better than anyone. It is still rare to see legally blind or visually-impaired people in positions of influence in business, but Michael – who was born with a degenerative eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa – has made it his mission to uplift the lives of people with disabilities as they navigate the world of aviation both on the ground and in the air.





Career moves

Michael’s career in aviation took off in 1992, when he joined United. He has worked in strategy and planning for a host of other major carriers, including Air New Zealand, Qatar Airways, LATAM, IndiGo, and Avianca, where ‘we went through a major transformation – change of strategy, change of culture.’ Michael is now Chief Strategy Officer at Abra, the holding company for Avianca and GOL.

 

‘My responsibilities are in the strategy planning functions,’ Michael explains. Along with overseeing cultural change within Avianca, he is also in charge of accessibility at the airline. For Michael, this concerns how to ‘make travel safer, better, for persons in wheelchairs, persons who are blind, deaf, [and who have] different neurodiversities, cognitive differences, et cetera.’ He is passionate about this topic, not least because it affects him directly as a ‘blind low-vision’ person.


Different kinds of disabilities

He is quick to make the distinction concerning his condition and level of sight, since relatively few vision-impaired people are, as Michael puts it, ‘completely dark blind’. He can still distinguish some colours and shapes, but cannot, for instance, read a newspaper. ‘I was told I’d be total blind at 30. I outlasted that a little bit,’ he notes wryly. Michael uses a mobility cane rather than a guide dog, mostly living ‘through voice, rather than through reading or looking.’

 

Around 16% of the world’s population experience a significant disability. This encompasses issues around mobility, blindness, deafness, and neurodiversity, among others. Michael himself acknowledges that he is ‘a bit of a rarity in that I think it’s a golden age’ for those affected, ‘because I think things are improving.’ With airlines, for instance, he notes that carriers still see people with disabilities as customers, and as such must consider the ‘pain points’ that can make travel difficult.


Greater visibility is key

He quotes Elie Wiesel, the poet and Holocaust survivor, in saying that ‘the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.’ Michael cites incidents such as flight attendants asking his wife if he wanted a drink, instead of addressing him directly, as an example. For Michael, raising awareness around disabilities is the key tool for change, as well as training workers across sectors not to see people with disabilities as inferior or helpless.

 

Revamping existing processes – such as, in aviation, extra consideration around taxiing operations for better accessibility, as well as greater care around the assignment of escorts to help those in need – also go a long way. Michael mentions the potential of technology to help guide travellers with disabilities through an airport, in addition to revamping structural features such as ramps and lifts to make airport access as broad as possible, as being crucial. ‘Accessibility issues are everywhere,’ he notes. ‘No matter your industry, if you start thinking about how your customers move around, there’s accessibility issues there.’


Thinking globally

Accessibility issues transcend borders, though provisions in place differ from one location to another. Michael notes that despite the comparatively older infrastructure in cities like London and New York, these are still two of the best places for a blind low-vision person to be. ‘People have seen everything in these cities, right? They’re used to seeing someone with a mobile cane.’

 

Awareness is still the number one factor no matter the place, however; Michael has had strangers guide him 20 streets out of the way ‘out of human kindness’ to ensure he reaches his destination. ‘We’re not looking for pity,’ he says. ‘But human beings can be a great asset to make life easier for persons with disability.’ That’s not to say people are always understanding, nevertheless.

 

Uncovering hidden disabilities

Misunderstandings around less obvious ‘hidden disabilities’, such as that experienced by Michael, are all too common. Michael mentions the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower, the lanyard first launched at Gatwick Airport that users can wear ‘to signify you may need a little bit of help in certain situations [...] So if they have the lanyard on at many airports around the world, employees have been trained [to know] that’s a signal that there could be a hidden disability.’

 

As the sunflower lanyard proves, visibility is a key issue for greater understanding of accessibility – and Michael is exposed to new ideas regularly. He is part of a group with other blind low-vision people from some 50 different industries and gets to hear at first-hand the ideas they come up with. Innovations include ‘putting different tactile sensors’ to distinguish items such as bath products. ‘If I’m in a hotel, I can tell one stripe is shampoo; two is body wash,’ he explains. ‘So, we can get inspired and learn from everywhere’ for improving accessibility in aviation.


Incremental steps

Education, awareness, and common sense are core facets for Michael, who believes that accessibility is both ‘a complex issue and it’s a simple issue.’ This is where the principle of ‘progress over perfection’, as well as ‘low cost, high impact’, come into play. For him, it’s better ‘to help 1,000 people for $100, not help one person for $100,000. I know that may sound inequitable, but we have to use our cash.’ A final mantra whose importance Michael underlines is ‘cooperation, not competition.’

 

For example, he mentions asking Avianca’s maintenance team to put Braille stickers above the seats, which they would in turn share at cost with other airlines instead of seeking to compete. Still, it can be difficult to know where to go to look for resources about accessibility in aviation and beyond. Michael frequently posts about accessibility on his own LinkedIn profile, though he mentions bodies such as The Valuable 500, a London-based group working with 500 large organisations to highlight accessibility for people with disabilities, as doing good work. ‘There’s one in the US called Disability:IN doing something similar,’ he notes. ‘I think every airline CEO in the US has signed up to their pledge to make the world more accessible.’


Inclusion for all

Still, there could never be one platform for the range and complexity of disabilities and the accessibility issues they provoke – and this highlights the unique individuality of each person with a disability. ‘We’ve moved on from “handicap”, which automatically said: “There’s something wrong with that person,”’ Michael notes. ‘Today, we don’t think about it that way. We just think it’s a different identity.’

 

Making people feel welcome and included should be a key part of any company’s DEI strategy – not least because ‘once people feel like they belong, some of the best employees are persons with [a] disability,’ Michael notes. The advent of working from home, for instance, opened up jobs that would previously have been off-limits for many those with accessibility problems. ‘Giving people the tools and environment they need really moves us forward.’


Reasons for optimism

Looking ahead, Michael is most excited about innovators making changes that are less 'incremental' than ‘transformational and disruptive’. He’s particularly looking forward to the widespread advent of automated cars, though even highlights the different ways of getting our bearings digitally (whether by reading the map, listening to directions, or receiving vibrations on your wrist to tell you when to turn) as interesting twists that use all the senses. Most people will have got lost inside a large building or hotel before – which is, as Michael puts it, ‘a little of what it’s like being blind. But now, your hotel key could walk you to your door, in essence, by vibrating until you get to the right place.’

 

But do we need to rely on technology to deliver the changes we need? Not necessarily. While the role of Chief Accessibility Officer is still in its infancy, Michael nonetheless believes it is ‘finding its place. It’s being talked about, but it needs to be elevated to the boardroom.’ Progress is slow, but with people like Michael doing all they can to connect with others and raise awareness about accessibility in all walks of life, we can hope for a more equitable future sooner rather than later.


At Venari Partners, we are passionate about helping aviation companies with their DEI strategies. Please reach out to us if you would like to find out more.


 



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