Talking disability with Frances Wilburn
Tell us a bit about yourself. What's your story, what do you do at Virgin Atlantic?
I am passionate about travel and a secret plane geek (I even have an aircraft window at home from GVAST). I have worked for VAA for just over 21 years and started as Cabin Crew, a job I loved, but following a change in my health, I was fortunate enough to be successful in moving to roles on the ground into Crew Training then Crew Management where I am today. My role is one of support and welfare for our huge team of cabin crew, and I often help them when they are away from the business for health reasons. It is an incredibly rewarding, busy and varied role where no two days are the same.
What does the DEN network mean to you? / Why did you join the DEN network?
The DEN is a family, we are a group of caring people who want to support change in our organisation and the wider community. Following becoming disabled myself, I quickly realised how underrepresented people with disabilities are in the workplace and felt I wanted to support change. I am a champion for people with hidden disabilities and those who develop a disability like myself. These people often struggle most with such massive changes in their lives. Here at DEN, we aim to offer a supportive helping hand to those in our business who just need a little help and guidance to access the correct help for them.
How do you find working at Virgin Atlantic? / How well supported to you feel in your working environment?
Virgin is my work husband! And like my real husband is a massive part of my life. I love working here. I love the company ethics and who we are. The staff travel is great 😊 and mine are well used.
There are always areas we can improve on and being part of the DEN helps me to be part of creating valuable change for all both passengers and employees.
When I was first diagnosed, I didn't always have the support I needed. My condition was not understood by my then management. Still, I spoke up for myself, which was hard at times, and it led me on my journey that resulted in me feeling that if I could help someone else find their voice to speak out when they needed it most, then this I could do. It's why I became part of the DEN.
What can others do to be a good disability ally?
For me, the best way you can be an ally is to ask questions and educate yourself. If you come across a disability, you know little about look it up.
Be aware that many ( if not most) disabilities are invisible, so always ask 'how can I help' and 'what do you need' then listen and consider a person's needs rather than assume.
Remember the person before the Disability, remember we are amazing and often our Disability is our superpower, not our weakness.
Who has inspired you?
As corny as it sounds, Richard Branson was and still is an inspiration. I come from a family of neurodiverse people, and to be able to share him as a role model to my children is inspiring.
Geraldine Lundy is also an inspiration. I have had the pleasure of working with her. The changes she has made with her work on disability travel and hidden disabilities is so impactful and one of the reasons I feel so passionate about helping with the DEN to continue with this.
Why are days like International Day of People with Disability so important?
The importance of days like this is that they are the key to driving change. They raise awareness and focus to a wider audience, educate people, and share the stories of challenge and triumph.
We live in a world where 20 % of the population are affected by Disability, and as a group, we have the least support and representation in the workplace. Days like this help to change this.
What barriers have you faced due to your Disability or health condition?
My life has changed so significantly, and daily due to my Disability, I have faced challenges accessing medical help. I have to consider what I can and cannot do each day, and I need to look after myself and be selfish in doing so that I can function the next day.
I have been questioned and harassed for parking in a disabled spot ( because I look normal!) But my focus is a positive one. I try and consider all the positive things in my life. By trying to educate and give back, I gain a sense of perspective and take the wins, big or small, where I can.
Life is a journey and like travel, sometimes exciting and sometimes you get stuck in a queue waiting for change.
What's it like to fly Virgin Atlantic with a disability? (staff travel)
I have flown with and without a disability. I am fortunate that I am comfortable with the whole travel experience from airports to planes and far-flung places, but having to think about how I now have to navigate places that were once easy but now have barriers has caused me some anxiety.
I have found wearing my sunflower lanyard helpful, especially in our destination airports. I have used ground assistance in many airports, and honestly some are better than others. Onboard though, our crew are second to none, and my experience is that if you need that little bit of extra TLC to make you comfortable and confident when you travel, speak any of the team.
We are lucky that we have an excellent special assistance team at Virgin for both our passengers and us on Staff travel which also really helps before you travel.
More needs to be done, though and often, fellow operators at LHR or other airports let things down. This is an area our DEN is paying great focus on, and we hope to make things a little easier for our Staff and travellers very soon.