By: Jake Koch, GDB graduate and alumni representative
My guide dog and I stood at the front entrance of a commercial jetliner bound for Spokane Washington. It was the Thanksgiving holiday and I was taking a trip to visit my family for the long weekend; well, almost. As I stepped through the door, a flight attendant stopped in front of me, halting my progress. The attendant informed me that there was a seat for me located just behind the bulkhead. I thanked the crewmember for the offer and asked to be seated several rows back. The attendant appeared not to hear my request and again informed me of the available seat behind the bulkhead. Wanting to be polite, but finding myself annoyed at the persistence of the flight attendant, I calmly explained that my dog enjoys laying under a seat while flying, and I would rather put my dog in a place where she can rest without being bothered by a large number of curious holiday travelers. After another couple minutes of back and forth discussion with the flight attendant, and a small line of passengers beginning to form at the front door of the aircraft, the attendant seemed to understand and offered me a seat several rows back.
Today's society is becoming increasingly more safety and lawsuit conscious; employee training programs in industries that serve the public, such as airlines, hotels and restaurants have been greatly expanded to address what seems like every safety and or lawsuit concern that might arise. With all of this extra training, service personnel sometimes forget to just ask a person about what their needs, wants and expectations of the service are. This feeling of receiving impersonal customer service is sometimes magnified for people with disabilities. This observation is not to put blame on employees working in the service industry, but rather to encourage positive dialog between a customer, regardless of abilities and the service personnel.
With the increasing expansion of training protocols that must be mastered by service employees, it is easy to forget about disability specific laws, regulations and preferences. Many people with disabilities and disability advocates are quick to point out the apparent “ignorance,” that they believe is held by service industry workers. Although there is undoubtedly some “ignorance,” held by employees in the service industry, it is important to note that nobody could possibly remember every provision, regulation, or preference pertaining to people with disabilities. A positive solution that you won't find in many blog posts that are critical of service industry employees is to Just Ask. If you are at all affiliated with the service industry, and you are working with a person who has a disability, welcome them to your establishment. Then, simply ask how you may assist them. People with disabilities are people first, and want to be able to communicate their needs, wants, and expectations as a consumer; just like everybody else.
Let me provide some real-world examples:
- Referring to the personal anecdote above, when offering the availability of a bulkhead seat on an aircraft to a guide dog handler, understand that some people enjoy sitting in different places other than the bulkhead section of the aircraft, depending on the needs of the dog and handler; some people enjoy sitting farther back, while others enjoy sitting in the very front.
- When waiting on a customer with a disability at a restaurant, address the person with the disability directly; do not ask his or her partner.
- If you are assisting a blind or visually impaired customer during check-in at a hotel, ask them if they need any assistance. Sometimes people who are blind or visually impaired may ask for an orientation to the hotel's amenities, including the room they are staying in. In other instances, they may simply ask for the room number, feeling confident in getting around the hotel without assistance.
Giving a person with a disability the opportunity to explain their own preferences will often result in a positive experience for the service employee and the person with a disability. It is not necessary for employees of the service industry to memorize every rule and regulation pertaining to people with disabilities; instead it's necessary to treat them with respect and offer your assistance in a positive way, even if their preferences may differ from employee instruction. Likewise, it is foolish to expect employees of service establishments to know and understand very specific laws, rules, and regulations pertaining to a specific disability. When working with a person who has a disability, it's helpful to remember this phrase: don't assume; Just Ask.