Samantha Saunders, Head of Innovation & Regulatory Compliance at airline and airport assistance services provider OmniServ, Part of ABM, discusses the company’s journey to become a ‘Disability Confident’ employer under the UK Government scheme which was set up to help companies employ disabled people. 

Here at OmniServ, we’ve started on a journey to become ‘Disability Confident’. If you don’t know what that means, let me explain: the UK Government has a scheme which aims to help employers successfully employ and retain disabled people or those with long-term health issues.

Thousands of companies have signed up to the scheme and are benefiting from it. I say benefiting because this is about accessing the skills and determination of a group of people who have a lot to contribute, and can be incredibly valuable, if companies allow them.

While not the first in the airline and airport business, we have seen the importance and recognise the success others—including British Airways, Heathrow, Edinburgh Airport, Glasgow Prestwick Airport and Cornwall Airport—have had in becoming a disability confident employer. But to us this isn’t enough — we believe as many employers from across the aviation industry should sign up as possible.

It’s already the law that employers can’t discriminate against people on the grounds of disability, health issues or age, either in recruitment or in the workplace and that they must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to support qualifying job applicants and employees. Under the Equality Act 2010, employers must ensure disabled people and older workers can overcome any substantial disadvantages they may have doing their jobs.

The Government points out that there are seven million people of working age in the UK who are disabled or have a health condition – and that doesn’t take into account older workers. Encouraging job applications from these groups is good for business, because it increases the pool of high quality applicants; creates a workforce that reflects the diversity of society; and brings additional skills to the business such as the ability to use British Sign Language (BSL).

There are three levels under the scheme. We’re starting with the first, which means we’re Disability Confident Committed. After a year, if we meet the necessary requirements, then we graduate to Disability Confident Employer status; and then after another year, and additional hard work, we plan to achieve Disability Confident Leader status.

I want to make something very plain. We’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do.

The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) commissioned research, which suggests that 7% of UK citizens avoid travelling by air because of a hidden disability such as dementia, autism or live with a colostomy bag. According to the CAA, UK air travel grew 19% between 2010 – 2017. During the same period, the numbers of passengers requiring assistance has grown an incredible 47%.

We provide a range of passenger support services, including help for those with reduced mobility at Heathrow, one of the world’s busiest international passenger airports, as well as Liverpool, Edinburgh, Stansted and now Manchester Airport. If we increase the number of employees who understand what it’s like to be disabled, because they are, we can deliver a better service built around real experience.

We’re also investing money, time and people into improving the services we provide to passengers with reduced mobility (PRM). But we still have plenty to learn. And it’s only right that we should turn for help to the people who understand what it’s like to be disabled and try to negotiate busy airports and get on board their flights with as little stress and discomfort as possible.

That’s why we are reaching out to national and local charities related to disability support and leading disability campaigners to ask them to help us get the message out to their members and users that we want their help, so we can better help them.

We don’t just assist people with a physical disability. We also help those with vision and hearing impairments and ‘hidden’ issues such as autism, and our training now includes best-practice in how to assist all passengers in a dignified and caring manner.

We are actively looking to hire disabled people and those with life-impacting long-term illnesses. Almost all vacancies we have can be filled by a disabled person, with appropriate reasonable adjustments. From a social perspective, this will increase our diversity, support our clients’ demands for enhanced inclusivity – and having disabled people in our front line teams will help create immediate rapport with disabled passengers who use our assistance services. And at the risk of repeating myself, it’s the right thing to do!

We are committed to providing the best possible service for disabled passengers at all the airports across the UK where we operate. All passengers deserve to be treated with respect as they journey through the airport, no matter their personal situation. Hiring people who are themselves disabled in some way can only help us achieve that aim better.