by Crystal Vaughan-Gagnon, student at St. Cloud State University
“I want to leave a legacy, and this is how I do it.”
“Plane,” was Ron Pettit’s second word. When he was little, he would go over to his grandmother’s house and watch the airplanes from the nearby airport. He loved that he could hear and watch them take off. His happiness in watching planes when he was so young was just the beginning of his passion for travel. It wasn’t until Ron was about 3 years old that he found out he was hard of hearing.
After Ron’s parents made this discovery, they took him to a doctor to find out what they could do to support him. The doctor told them that Ron may need to go to a school for the deaf and that if he went to public school the best he would be able to do was be a “C-Student”. Instead, Ron said that his parents gave him the opportunity to be whomever he wanted to be. Ron went to public school and earned all A’s and B’s.
Ron moved often when he was younger, referring to himself as an “Army Brat”, eventually he settled in Worcester, MA. When he was growing up, Ron wanted to work with an airline saying that he was a bit of an, “airline geek.” His passion for planes and travel had always been a constant in his life. Ron went to Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts because they had an aviation program. For Ron to major in airline management, it was required that he got his private pilot license. Because of hearing loss, Ron felt he was unable to fulfill this requirement, so he changed his major to communications. It wasn’t until he was in his senior year of college that he found out that that pilot license requirement could have been waived. This was when Ron realized that he would need to self-advocate, he said, “I should have spoken up for what I wanted and said, ‘This is what I want to do, how can you help me achieve this?’” It was around this time that Ron said he started to understand that even though he didn’t identify as a person with a disability in the past, he began to realize he was a person with a disability. Ron says that his hearing loss is a part of who he is today, because of what he has had to adapt to and overcome.
Toward the end of his senior year, Ron applied to work at Northwest Airlines. He started in Worcester, Massachusetts and worked at a small station to load luggage, then he moved up in the company and began checking people in, before he was relocated to Boston and Minneapolist/St. Paul and worked there for 17 years. Half of his time spent there was working the Northwest Airlines Headquarters where he was involved in accessibility for airlines and travel. He created the industry leading Customer Advisory Board on Disability. Ron realized that he had a deep passion for this work and helping others with disabilities because he believed, “Everyone should get a vacation.”
This drive and passion made Ron realize he wanted a career that focused on accessibility full-time. Ron saw a job opening for Access Manager on the Royal Caribbean Cruises. He read the job description stating that the Royal Caribbean was seeking someone to be a leader for cruise travel for people with disabilities and looking for someone who was innovative, bold, and would take initiative. This position was perfect for Ron. He applied and was hired 3 months later.
Ron is now the Director of Disability & Inclusion and ADA Compliance for the Royal Caribbean Group, “What excites me in my role is the ability to
make travel accessible for everyone everywhere including people with disabilities. I can help make their vacations effortless and easy so they can focus on having a great, and accessible, cruise vacation experience and making those wonderful memories with their families and friends.”
As the Director of Disability and Inclusion, Ron consults with other departments and senior leaders, and leads a team of people to provide accessibility on the high seas in a variety of ways. In 2014, Royal Caribbean International became the first Autism-friendly cruise line. Every year since has doubled the number of guests with autism on the cruise lines. They have also hosted full ship charters where deaf and hard of hearing guests were the majority rather than the minority. Sign language interpreters were provided for equal access to onboard entertainment and activities, hearing accessibility kits were included in rooms, where if someone knocked on the door an alert would signal.
Two-story urban Loft suites were made accessible and 90% of the time these suites and accessible staterooms are booked by someone with a disability who need these accessible accommodations. The Flow Rider, a surf simulator on the ship, allows staff to work with people one on one and give additional time to those who need it. The ice-skating rinks, rock climbing walls, and carousels at sea are each additional examples of accessibility that the cruise line provides. Ron finds this career rewarding.
Ron is constantly asking himself how his team can make the ships and the experiences on the ships more accessible and more inclusive and focuses on how to make the impossible possible. Ron shared, “It’s important to be more inclusive because it makes it a better world, a better place for us to live in, and makes us relate to each other on a more human level. When we’re more inclusive, we can celebrate the similarities as well as the differences.”