What we’re learning about neurodiversity in business travel 

By some accounts, as much as 25% of the world’s population is neurodivergent. Neurodiversity Celebration Week, observed March 18-24, seeks to transform how neurodivergent individuals are perceived and received in work and personal spaces. Our friends at United Airlines visited the Connections podcast to talk about what United is doing to drive awareness and inclusion. We also asked some of the panelists from the recent Neurodiversity in Travel Online Mini Summit 2024 what they’ve learned.

What do travel programs need to know about their neurodivergent traveler population?  

Traveling for work can be tough for anyone. But the added sights, sounds, and routine changes from trips could create added stress for a neurodivergent person. Understanding and finding ways to support neurodiversity helps build and strengthen inclusive environments in our industry.  

On Connections with BCD Travel, United Airlines’ Robert Shen, global account manager, and Sandra Kaspar, leisure agency sales director, explored the topic with podcast cohosts Chad Lemon, Miriam Moscovici and BCD’s Senior Vice President of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Yvette Bryant. Robert and Sandra serve on United Airlines’ Bridge Business Resource Group (BRG), which is committed to being an ally for all employees and customers with disabilities. The episode focused on what the airline and the travel industry are doing to ensure that travel is manageable and inclusive for all. 

“When we come to the topic of neurodivergence, it covers a variety of atypical development norms, but most commonly I would say neurodivergent travelers experience some physical or mental barriers when traveling or when they’re in unfamiliar circumstances,” Robert said. “So what United is trying to do is improve communication and offer as many resources as possible [during] the airport and airplane experience, which we all know can cause a lot of anxiety and stress even for the most seasoned travelers.” 

Implementing policies and services, such as sensory-friendly travel options and clear communication protocols, not only enhances the travel experience for neurodivergent employees but also demonstrates a commitment to diversity and equity. One such neurodiversity-friendly service is the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program, created to help people with invisible disabilities discreetly signal in public places that the individual may need additional support.  

United Airlines goes “social” for neurodiversity 

United Airlines has made significant efforts to support neurodivergent passengers. They launched a Social story to prepare and comfort neurodivergent individuals (or anyone anxious about flying). The story visually guides passengers on getting to the airport, checking in, finding their gate, boarding the plane, flying, landing and leaving the plane. “It’s kind of a ‘know before you go’ document,” said Sandra. “It was created by United and tested by our partnership with Special Olympics. So someone going to the airport can know what to expect of that experience. 

“We also have an app for our flight attendants [to] identify if someone has a non-apparent disability. So the same way that a flight attendant can identify if someone is a premier [passenger], they can also identify if someone has an invisible disability that they disclosed at the moment of booking or even before their travel. And, I think most important is training. We can have all the tools in the world, [but] if we don’t have training… then we’re not doing good.” 

If you’re not neurodivergent, you probably know someone who is 

“If you are not a neurodivergent person, the chances are pretty high that you likely know someone who is,” Yvette said. “And so on a human level, I think the more we educate ourselves about this and about each other, I believe the more we know, the more we want to do, the more it prompts us to want to take those actions to really ensure an inclusion and an inclusive world for everyone. 

“I love the mantra, ‘Nothing about us without us,’ and that’s really talking about the fact that you need to seek out and understand from those with the lived experience, what their needs may be,” Yvette said. 

Things we learned at the Summit 

In February, Women in Travel CiC partnered with BCD for a virtual mini summit that addressed integrating the needs of the neurodivergent community into travel. The summit explored practical strategies for inclusion, including accommodations, communication techniques, and workplace policies that support neurodivergent employees and customers. The event gave voice to neurodivergent individuals and their allies and served as a call to action for consistent advocacy and education surrounding neurodiversity in the travel industry. BCD’s panelists for the online event included Yvette Bryant; Olivia Ruggles-Brise, vice president, Sustainability; and Merrily Grant, patient engagement manager for BCD’s Life Sciences Center of Excellence (LSCOE). Alessandra Alonso, award-winning founder of Women in Travel CIC, also joined. Here are their takeaways. 

Yvette Bryant: The online summit was incredible. We covered quite a lot; but the takeaway for me is how we need to create safe spaces for people to share their experiences and lessons learned – whether they’re neurodivergent or working to support someone who is. It’s the only way to build the inclusivity we need and it will ultimately enhance wellbeing, understanding and even productivity for travelers and stakeholders.  

Merrily Grant: Oh, the places we’ll go! Summits like this are a sign we’re moving in the right direction. Progress will come from making people feel safe. We’re going to start tapping into some thought processes and energy we never had before as awareness and education become more mainstream. Building trust and empathy will always be important here. We all need to listen with our hearts as we work to build safe spaces and inclusion. 

Olivia Ruggles-Brise: It’s all about understanding. We have to listen first, understand and then take steps to be more inclusive. Creating psychological safety is key. We have to build a work environment where people feel they can be who they are. That might mean re-evaluating some of our cultural conditioning – like the expectation of shaking hands or making eye contact in business settings – because these norms can be challenging or uncomfortable for certain individuals.  

Alessandra Alonso: The Neurodiversity in Travel Online Mini Summit 2024* was a truly groundbreaking event when it comes to including and learning about our customers and our colleagues’ needs. We are grateful to BCD Travel for their partnership and hope that the content will be helpful to many businesses in this space.

For details on how to purchase the replay of the Neurodiversity in Travel Online Mini Summit 2024, click here.

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