Perhaps you’re standing on a train platform, passing through airport security or in line to check out with your groceries. You then notice someone else nearby with an eye-catching accessory – a sunflower-covered lanyard dangling from their neck. And as we’ll find out, they’re wearing this for a very important reason.
It all started in 2016 at Gatwick Airport in London, England, when passengers started showing up with these lanyards around their necks. The design was unique and bright enough to grab people’s attention. The buttery yellow sunflowers popped against the green background and it sent an important message to those around the wearer.
Its creators had devised the sunflower lanyard as a subtle way of sending a message about the wearer or someone with them. And because the scheme was so effective in its mission, it began to spread. From the U.K. it made its way overseas to the U.S., where you can find people nationwide donning the green-and-yellow neckwear.
But what do the sunflower lanyards mean? They’re meant to send a message to airport staffers, but it’s important for other passengers to know what their significance is, too. So, read on to find out – and keep an eye out for these accessories on your next trip to the airport, train station, hospital or other public space.
London’s Gatwick Airport said that it saw a whopping 46.6 million passengers pass through in 2019 alone. Furthermore, it has services from the U.K. capital to more destinations than any other airport in the country, according to data flight information company OAG. Perhaps because they see so many people, the Gatwick staff started thinking about how they could better serve their customers.
Workers then cottoned on to a big idea in 2016 – lanyards covered in sunflowers, which passengers could wear as a discreet symbol. Of course, airport staffers would be briefed on the accessories and what they meant, so that they could best serve wearers without drawing attention to them.
The sunflower lanyard scheme proved to be a success in Gatwick, and it soon spread to other airports. Every single major airport in the U.K. eventually adopted the flowery accessories, as did rail stations, grocery stores, leisure centers, businesses and the police force. An international expansion took place, too.
Nearly 5,000 miles away from the British capital, the first lanyards came into use at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 2019. At the time, it was the first U.S. airport to bring out the sunflower-covered neckwear. And, according to statistics, Americans could really use such a resource.
Sea-Tac began to use the lanyards in October that year, and the number of people who could benefit from such a scheme is considerable. In 2018 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that one in four American adults would qualify to wear one. As such, a major portion of the population could benefit from having these accessories, especially considering that one-in-four figure didn’t even factor in the children eligible to don one.
In early 2020 New York City’s JFK Airport – specifically in terminal four – became the first in the northeast to bring in the sunflower lanyards. Travelers passing through could request a lanyard to wear as they made the journey to their planes. Meanwhile, the airport’s CEO Roel Huinink was pleased by the update.
Huinink told the International Airport Review in February 2020, “At T4, we are always looking for ways to better serve our passengers, and we are proud to be the first air terminal in the northeast to participate…” On top of that, he hoped that adding the sunflower lanyards to at least part of JFK would “help to make our customers’ journey as seamless and comfortable as possible.”
And in January 2020 Copenhagen Airport joined the scheme, too. Staffers knew that bringing in the lanyards would help alleviate the major anxieties that come with air travel. In a statement at the time, the airport’s team said, “Procedures such as check-ins, security checks and boarding the aircraft can be a stressful experience for all travelers.”
But for those eligible to wear the sunflower lanyards, the experience can make it all the more difficult, the statement went on. That’s why implementing the neckwear program has proven to be a boon to the airport. And it’s not just to the passengers who use it; the Copenhagen-based staff have found it to be beneficial to them, too.
The airport has trained roughly 25,000 staffers who come from the 1,250 businesses that operate out of the terminals. Lanyard-wearing passengers have complimented their skills post-training, but the program has also started a conversation among employees. Service excellence director Stine Marsal explained to Flight Chic in January 2020 that “it has had an incredibly positive effect internally between colleagues.”
The sunflower lanyard program doesn’t just provide representation that’s passenger-centric, however. Marsal went on, “We have also noted that it has had an incredibly positive effect internally between colleagues. People with hidden disabilities and diagnoses are not just our customers. They are also ourselves. They are our families and those closest to us.” And that’s precisely why the lanyards have started to pop up in more places globally.
As previously mentioned, the U.K. especially has seen the sunflower lanyards appear in more than just airports. Two years after the launch at London Gatwick Airport, the country’s rail system also became part of the green neckwear scheme. At the same time, national supermarkets and hospitals tried them out, too.
In 2019 the U.K. saw sports venues, shopping centers, banks and insurance companies join the scheme. The sunflower lanyard-making organization also opened up a website so people could purchase the neckwear, too. Its Facebook page raked in 25,000 fans within days, and that’s how they started garnering international attention and intrigue for the program.
And, now, as we know, the sunflower lanyards have made their way out of the U.K. and into countries in Europe and across the pond. As of May 2020 they are also in Australia, Argentina and South Carolina, U.S. There are 991 sunflower-recognizing locations in Europe – with spots in Spain, Italy, Sweden, Lithuania and the Netherlands.
Still, all of the aforementioned information leaves out the most important part of the sunflower lanyard scheme. More than one million of the accessories have been doled out by businesses and the organization itself. As such, you should know what they mean before you come across one.
The sunflower lanyards stemmed from a conversation at London Gatwick Airport which took place in 2016. According to the program’s founders, they wondered, “How can we recognize that one of our passengers may have a non-obvious disability?” And, from there, the discreet symbol was born.
The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower symbol could be of use to a billion people worldwide. The World Health Organization estimates that this is the number of people who live with some form of impairment. Another survey conducted in the U.S. found that nearly three-quarters of Americans have disabilities that don’t come with a visual signal – such as a wheelchair.
Many public spaces have already considered the challenges for people who have visually signaled conditions. For example, airports will be wheelchair-accessible, and they’ll have signage available in braille. But it’s not as easy to design a user-friendly system for those with invisible disabilities such as chronic pain or fatigue.
Furthermore, 88 percent of those with invisible disabilities shied away from sharing their struggles with others, according to a 2011 Canadian study quoted by the BBC. Disability charity service manager for Scope Guy Chaudoir explained to the British broadcaster in 2017, “People worry about being labeled. One of the hardest things is putting pressure on yourself to achieve, and being afraid to ask for help, to say, ‘I can’t do this today.’”
The sunflower lanyards aim to remove that stress from travelers, though; it’s a discreet symbol that airport staffers will instantly recognize. The person in need can wear it, or another member in the party can don the lanyard to signal that someone in their group has an invisible disability.
The sunflower gives airport staff a chance to ask travelers how they can assist them through to their gates in a comfortable way. Sea-Tac’s airport spokesman Perry Cooper put it simply in a 2019 interview with U.S. News & World Report. He said, “Maybe this customer needs a little more help. Maybe this is why they’re speaking slowly, or reacting in a different way. This is for those people who need some extra help that is not readily recognizable.”
Gatwick’s accessibility manager Jack Bigglestone-Silk explained to the magazine that they had chosen the sunflower because it would be instantly recognizable to those cognizant of the scheme. And those airports participating in the program will have a full roster of staffers who see the flowers and know what to do.
Bigglestone-Silk said, “So we now provide free training on accessibility to all organizations on the airport campus to ensure consistent standards all the way through the airport journey. This includes training on how to recognize our lanyards and what to do if you see someone wearing one [who] needs a little extra help.”
Prior to the sunflower scheme, such instant understanding would be hard to come by. Talking to U.S. News & World Report, mom-of-three Jennifer Vertetis recalled a particularly stressful journey with her autistic son Peter, who was then aged 16. A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official had tried to pull her into a private room for a more thorough search, which triggered the mom’s nerves – and her son’s, too.
Vertetis claimed that she begged the TSA agent to allow her son in the room – trying to explain why he had acted the way that he did. Plus, she needed the search to happen quickly, as she needed to keep her family’s travel schedule on track for take-off.
Vertetis said, “People with autism often need more time and coaxing to go through the expected tasks while in an intense environment with new rules. As parents, we find ourselves in constant battle mode to get through the airport.” And the mom-of-three said such struggles didn’t start and end with the TSA, either.
Vertetis added that families might take longer to get prepared for a security scan, removing belts and unbuckling coats. Or, they might need to stagger their line-up through the body-scanning device, as a child with an invisible disability might panic if going last or run away if they’re first through the gate.
All of the aforementioned issues could annoy other passengers who also have to get through TSA checkpoints, Vertetis said. An invisible disability could make it harder for a child or adult to get through it all quickly, because staff don’t know that they have a condition. However, sunflower lanyards could provide that visual signal.
Vertetis foresaw big changes as the sunflower scheme became more prominent. She said, “Really, I think that is the most impactful thing the sunflower lanyards will do. It will make people aware. There is genuine compassion from other passengers, airline staff, security and TSA once they understand they are working with someone who has a disability.”
And for some organizations, the lanyards were just the beginning. U.K. grocery supermarket Sainsbury’s implemented a disability awareness program in 2019 in conjunction with one for autistic customers especially. The company called it Autism Hour – cultivating a calming environment by removing or reducing any background noise.
Autism Hour showed that sunflower lanyards were just one piece of the awareness-raising puzzle. The National Autistic Society’s Tom Purser told the website B31 Voices that the event was “an opportunity for businesses and the public to learn about the small things they can do to help create a society that works for autistic people.” He added, “It’s often the smallest change that makes the biggest difference.”
The sunflower lanyard is a small, but impactful change. Those in need of one can typically get it from an airport assistance desk, although each one will vary. At Sea-Tac, for example, there are helpers called Pathfinders who wear teal and have sunflower lanyards that they dole out to flyers.
Participating grocery stores will probably have some lanyards on hand at their customer service desks, while smaller shops will have them on-hand at the checkout lanes. If you can’t find one in person, then head to the Hidden Disabilities website, where they sell them and other sunflower-covered accessories.
Even if you don’t need one, though, it’s important to know what the lanyards symbolize – and be understanding of those who might need a little more time or attention. Doing so will continue the program’s mission, Hidden Disabilities’ CEO Paul White told the International Airport Review. He said, “We believe this system will create a more comfortable and positive airport experience for people who have disabilities that might not be visible.”
So far, fans of the scheme – including advocates for those with autism and other conditions – have found that the lanyards do boost awareness. It’s not just for the fact that people need extra time, though. Others now realize that invisible disabilities face a slew of challenges, even if they’re not obvious from the outside.
Lene Andersen – who is a blogger and health advocate – said it best when she spoke to U.S. News & World Report. She highlighted how everyone can help, saying, “Other passengers can be helpful by being more aware that invisible disabilities happen. Once you know that anyone could need help, you become more aware and more generous with offering [it].”