Traveling can be stressful for anyone, but especially for those who have hidden disabilities that may not be immediately apparent to others. That’s why some travelers are opting to wear a sunflower symbol to discreetly indicate that they may need extra support, help, or time in airports and other public spaces.
The sunflower symbol is part of the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower initiative, a global movement that aims to make the invisible visible and to create a more inclusive and accessible society for people with non-visible disabilities. The initiative was launched in 2016 by London Gatwick Airport, and has since expanded to include nearly 200 airports worldwide, including 77 in the United States, as well as other sectors such as retail, health care, education, and sports.
The sunflower symbol can be worn as a lanyard, button, or other accessory, and is intended to let staff members and fellow travelers know that the wearer has a hidden disability and may need extra assistance or understanding. Hidden disabilities can be temporary, situational or permanent, and can affect people’s daily lives in various ways. They can include neurological, cognitive and neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism, dementia, anxiety, ADHD, and dyslexia, as well as physical, visual, auditory and sensory impairments, and chronic health conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, chronic pain and sleep disorders.
“Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it is not there,” says the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower website. “As diverse as these conditions are, so are your individual access needs and the barriers you face in your daily life. So you can opt to wear the Sunflower to discreetly be seen in shops, at work, on transport, or in public spaces.”
One of the sunflower lanyard wearers is Tessa Watkins, a parent and traveler with autism and anxiety. Watkins says that wearing the sunflower lanyard helps them communicate their hidden disability without having to explain themselves. “I think it’s really important for people to understand that not all disabilities are visible,” Watkins says. “Sometimes people just need a little bit of extra help or patience or understanding.”
Many organizations and businesses have joined the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower initiative and offer support to those who wear the sunflower symbol. For example, Walmart Canada provides priority checkout lanes, quieter shopping hours, and staff training on hidden disabilities. Ottawa International Airport Authority offers pre-boarding assistance, quiet rooms, and sensory kits for sunflower lanyard wearers. The Special Olympics World Games Berlin 2023 will be the first Games to feature the sunflower symbol as a way to promote inclusion and accessibility for athletes and spectators with hidden disabilities.
“The Sunflower lanyard is a simple tool that helps us identify those who may need extra support,” says Paul Davies, president and CEO of Walmart Canada. “It also helps us to provide a more inclusive experience for our customers.”
The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower initiative hopes to raise awareness of hidden disabilities and to encourage people to be more respectful and compassionate towards each other. The sunflower symbol is a way for people with hidden disabilities to feel more confident and comfortable when they travel and go out.
“The Sunflower lanyard is a way for me to communicate that I have a hidden disability without having to explain myself,” says Jasmeet Kaur, a sunflower lanyard wearer with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (PoTS). “It makes me feel more confident and comfortable when I go out.”
– Sunflowers are a hidden symbol for travelers with disabilities, The Washington Post, March 9, 2023
– Hidden Disabilities Sunflower, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, no date
– The Sunflower Lanyard for Hidden Disabilities, Sunfield Center, March 28, 2022
– TIL: Sunflowers (lanyards, buttons, etc) are a universal sign for those that have hidden disabilities and there’s a massive network that supports this signage., Reddit, November 28, 2021