Deem Leverages Mobile, Standards For Corporate Travel Accessibility – The Company Dime

As corporate travel event organizers and information providers continued to highlight Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the needs of travelers with disabilities this year came to the fore. The BTN Group this summer ran an online event diving into the challenges of accessibility in travel. The topic found its way to other trade publications and one of the final columns by retiring business travel writer Scott McCartney for The Wall Street Journal. The Global Business Travel Association also addressed the topic at its November convention.
Accessibility in travel is a complicated matter. This is partly because of the variety of challenges facing those with motor, sensory or cognitive impairments. For leisure travel, there are activities and tour planners who specialize in accessibility. Other players are coming around, perhaps buoyed by the greater focus on inclusion generally. IATA in July announced an effort to better support disability mobility. Mastercard in October announced a card for the blind and partially sighted. American Airlines enabled bookings on its website and apps for the blind and visually impaired, chief customer officer Alison Taylor said during a GBTA event last month.
Increasingly, corporations are trying to accommodate accessibility in their hiring and operations. To support equity in business travel, that potentially impacts supplier selection, booking systems and policies.
Deem made accessibility a priority in its latest platform rebuild, announced under the Etta brand in early 2021. The company released new Android and iOS apps this year. According to VP of product Harper Lieblich, software developers don’t need to reinvent the wheel to be more inclusive.
He credited the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for laying the groundwork that made the web accessible and demonstrated what constitutes good accessibility. Apple, Google and others, he said, did a “phenomenal” job of enabling accessibility. 
“When we talk to folks with vision impairments, they regularly say, ‘I could use a desktop and it’s great, but on an iPhone, it’s just amazing — it’s changed my life,’ ” said Lieblich during an October phone interview. “That’s because so much thought was put into these devices. You have much better spatial awareness when you’re navigating a touch screen than you do with a mouse and keyboard. Even if you can’t see the screen, you’ve got a rectangle you can feel in your hands. There’s been a quantum leap in the quality of solutions from a platform vendor perspective over the last 10 years.”
Deem VP of product Harper Lieblich
Those building mobile apps related to travel or expenses can take advantage of the affordances created for these platforms, Lieblich said, saving coding work. Some functions can support multiple kinds of impairments and some address those that might be considered more commonplace.
“One of the principles we use internally is that accessibility is not just for people with disabilities,” said Lieblich. “It helps everyone. On the iPhone, you can bump up text sizes. When we have done studies, a lot of people have that setting turned on who don’t have a legally designated disability. It’s just because their eyesight is getting worse. Making sure our app responded appropriately to that setting took an enormous amount of work because, surprisingly enough, it’s harder to deal with that than it is [the functions for] fully blind or motor impairments.”
For those with vision impairments, Etta’s iOS app features screen-reader navigation and “carefully chosen colors that meet or exceed WCAG guidelines for contrast.” Support “without picking up the phone” helps those with hearing impairments or deafness. Users with motor impairments “can navigate Etta for iOS using only a keyboard, specialized switch, or other input device,” according to product materials. “Keyboard focus is always clearly indicated, and the path that focus takes is always logical and predictable.”
Endeavoring to meet W3C criteria, SAP Concur has been addressing accessibility in its expense and travel software for a few years. Among other developments this year, the company made “meaningful” the screen reading of total car rental cost in Concur Travel search results; improved the speaking of information attached to hotel images in its iOS app; and satisfied minimum color contrast requirements in various environments.
Standards and platforms help, but making interfaces accessible takes work and there’s no hard ROI. On top of being the right thing to do, it can help providers avoid legal trouble or disqualification in solicitations, Lieblich said. 
Before his time at Deem, Lieblich worked on “a number of emergency remediations” where the “lawyers sit you down and say, ‘We have an inbound issue and we need you to commit to a timeline to remediate accessibility on your website and your app.’ ”
Joining Deem as it was building Etta gave Lieblich “an opportunity to start with accessibility built in as a fundamental layer of our process, rather than as an afterthought. It was really important to me that we baked it in from the beginning, because it’s so much harder to do — and especially harder to do well — when you wait until you’re done to think about it.”
W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines outline “testable success criteria” that developers can meet and buyers can use as a baseline for compliance. 
One challenge to accessible planning and booking — for both leisure and business travel — is content. According to accessibility experts speaking during a virtual event hosted last month by Phocuswright and membership club Travel Tech Leaders, data isn’t standardized, reliable, detailed or prominent in the typical booking process.
“You can add accessibility as a requirement in an air search the same as you can enter dietary requirements,” said Lieblich. “But we have heard they still have to call ahead and double-check, ‘Will you have wheelchair assistance?’ There are folks who show up at a hotel and they had requested an accessible room, but there’s a bathtub that’s difficult to get into. As an industry, we still have a long way to go to make sure that’s a much smoother process and that folks with disabilities don’t have to do so much of their own groundwork.
“Long lists of flights or hotels not personalized for you can be exhausting for anyone, let alone someone with cognitive impairments,” said Lieblich. “So one of our next phases as we upgrade our tech across the board is to start to get a lot more personalized with more nuanced recommendations.” 
That brings up questions about corporate travel policy and procedures. George Kalka, vice president of business travel at Deem partner Fox World Travel, addressed the topic during the November GBTA convention.
“Corporate travel is designed to have policy and control,” Kalka said. “Travelers with a physical or neuro disability are sometimes met with red tape, obstacles and challenges. We, as an industry, don’t make it easy for someone to get through a policy exception, for example. The ADA requires one out of 100 rooms to be accessible, with a roll-in shower. If that hotel is sold out, can the traveler choose somewhere else? If they are granted that exception, how easy is it? Are they met with policy exceptions and approval processes, or are they met with a defined program that shows thought and care for that traveler and scenario? There are thousands of scenarios that could occur like that.
“It’s important for us to talk about that as an industry and bring more awareness to it because it will take all of us to come together to set the right policies and for suppliers to work with that type of traveler who has that need,” said Kalka.
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Jay Campbell in 2004 created travel business newsletter The Beat, in 2006 co-founded Travel Procurement magazine and in 2010 integrated them with Business Travel News. He served as editorial director until 2013. Jay made his travel industry media debut in 1993 at the Air Travel Journal of Boston while earning his undergraduate degree in journalism at Boston University.
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