Travel is chaotic enough without throwing a disability in the mix, but not all impairments are visible. I recently found out about the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Program which allows those with a wide range of invisible illnesses to wear sunflower branded products like lanyards, wristbands, pins and hats in a discreet way so that others can more easily identify those who may need extra time, understanding, compassion or assistance throughout their journeys. This video gives a good summary of the program. I love that the sunflower embodies positivity and hope for those whose daily lives are difficult in ways that those around them may not often recognize.
The range of invisible illnesses is quite broad, ranging from things like hearing loss, autoimmune disorders, dementia, fibromyalgia, sjogren’s syndrome, and chronic fatigue to PANS, mental illness, autism, digestive disorders, sleep disorders and dysautonomia, just to name a few. As someone who has multiple family members who are affected by several of these disorders, I truly appreciate this program and how it will forever change the accessible travel landscape.
More and more airports and businesses are now participating in the Hidden Disabilities program which started in 2016 at London’s Gatwick airport and now expanded to airports in 20 countries, including 35 airports in the US. This program trains employees to offer extra assistance and understanding to those wearing sunflower branded items. In North Carolina, both the Charlotte and Raleigh airports are now participating in this program and those traveling with invisible disabilities can visit the information desks to request free sunflower items to wear. This extra assistance is also available at TSA checkpoints. You can identify TSA staff who have been trained by this program by the blue TSA card they wear. If an airport doesn’t have the free items on hand, you can also purchase your own here.
From the Hidden Disabilities Store website:
“Awareness of the Sunflower continues to grow across North American where it has been adopted by 35 US and three Canadian airports. The US airports have formed a Sunflower group that shares ideas on how to implement, train, and distribute the Sunflower to travellers. Notably, Jet Blue airlines is the first US based airline to purchase and support the program with a full roll-out planned during the first quarter of 2022 and in Pennsylvania, an Amazon fulfilment centre now supports their employees with the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower.
The US also has three Sunflower-friendly US cities: Visit Mesa AZ, Visit Visalia CA, and Visit Vacaville, CA. In these cities, the Sunflower is distributed at the visitor centre and select local shops and is recognized at hotels, museums, attractions and parks.”
As more people become aware of this program, I hope that travel will continue to become more accessible and enjoyable to everyone. Whether or not you have a hidden disabiliity, you can advocate for this program and spread awareness – specific graphics and resources to help you do this can be found here.