Traveling with Hidden Disabilities: The Sunflower Lanyard

Traveling with Hidden Disabilities

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Travel can be stressful for anyone, but particularly for travelers with disabilities, including hidden disabilities, such as chronic pain, autism, severe allergies, asthma, OCD, dementia, epilepsy, and others. While a traveler in a wheelchair or with a cane or a guide dog has a visible disability that is hopefully met with compassion by airport and airline staff and fellow travelers, it would be helpful if travelers with hidden disabilities who need additional time, support, or assistance could indicate this in a visual way that can also transcend language barriers. Fortunately, there is: the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Lanyard.

Launched in May 2016 by London's Gatwick Airport (LGW) to better support passengers with hidden disabilities. Over the next couple of years, it was rolled out to other major UK airports, and expanded in 2019 to a number of other UK venues, as well as international airports.

The concept is simple: wear the sunflower, whether as a lanyard, bracelet, or pin, in order to make one's invisible disability visible while at a member airport. Airport staff, who have been trained to recognize the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower, can then ask if the wearer needs assistance. While it isn't required to explain one's hidden disability, it can be helpful to have a placard that indicates via an icon the kind of assistance that would be helpful.

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Examples of Hidden Disabilities

Here are just a few examples of hidden or invisible disabilities:

  • ADHD
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Autism
  • Chronic pain
  • Dementia
  • Epilepsy
  • Long COVID-19
  • Lyme disease
  • Migraines
  • Narcolepsy
  • PTSD
Hidden Disabilities Icons

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Airports and Airlines That Recognize the Sunflower Hidden Disabilities Lanyard

So far a number of airports in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Europe, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand recognize hidden disabilities via the sunflower lanyard. See the list of member airports, (those with asterisks will be adopting it soon). To date, only three airlines recognize the Hidden Disabilities lanyard: British Airways, Air New Zealand, and Turkish Airlines.

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Improvements Needed

While we applaud this initiative, there's more work to be done. Particularly for severe allergies, whether food-related or animal-related, airlines need to be contacted in advance and passenger requests diligently actioned in order to truly provide support to passengers with hidden disabilities. As we covered in Nut Allergy? Don't Fly Turkish Airlines, Turkish Airlines is notorious for displaying callous disregard for passengers with anaphylactic nut allergies, even when they inform the airline in advance. That's not something that will be remedied by wearing a sunflower lanyard at the airport and on the flight, since catering the flight to exclude allergens requires at least 48 hours of advance notice, preferably more.

We'd like to see the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower membership require airline members to provide a consistently reliable support hotline for those with hidden disabilities that have deadly consequences (such as anaphylactic allergies) that entail advance planning on the part of the airline.

Have you or someone you know traveled with a Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Lanyard recently, and if so, what was the experience like?

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