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Sunflower lanyards - what are they for?

By Sarinah O’Donoghue // BBC The Social contributor // 8 April 2021

Have you ever seen someone wearing one of those sunflower lanyards when out and about and wondered what it’s for?

The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower also known as the sunflower lanyard scheme came about in 2016 after staff at Gatwick Airport realised that there wasn’t enough awareness of hidden disabilities among staff or passengers at airports. This made travelling by plane that bit more difficult, or inaccessible altogether, for some whose disabilities aren’t immediately obvious.

To tackle this, staff at Gatwick teamed up with national and local charities to design a lanyard, which would indicate that its wearer might need some extra assistance in certain situations. This simple idea had a big impact, and soon other companies and organisations caught on, so Gatwick gave permission to anyone and everyone to use it. Now, it’s recognised all over the UK.

What Is A Sunflower Lanyard?

Ever seen someone wearing a sunflower lanyard and wondered what it meant? Sarinah explains

People often think that the scheme came about because of coronavirus, as many people wear lanyards to indicate that they can’t wear a face covering for health or disability related reasons, or to indicate that they might need some extra distance because of their vulnerability to the virus. But that’s just one use for it.

The lanyard can be worn by anyone with a disability, illness, and/or chronic condition who feels like they may benefit from it, and can be acquired for free or bought cheaply online. Among those who wear it are those with sight, hearing, or other sensory impairments, people with mental health conditions, people with age-related conditions, those with brain injuries, and those with chronic health conditions such as IBS or chronic fatigue syndrome.

There is no requirement for people to disclose their condition – wearing one indicates that the individual might need a little extra help, patience, or understanding. Its creators emphasise one ethos above all: that of kindness.

I wear one because I’m autistic and type 1 diabetic. The reason it’s so helpful for my autism is because I’ve learned to ‘mask’ my autistic traits so well over the years that I often pass as neurotypical. This can put me in humiliating, or even dangerous, situations when I start acting in unexpected ways. For example, if I’m overwhelmed and I start stuttering or losing speech altogether, or if I start pacing or fidgeting, or if I have to leave a situation at an unexpected time. The lanyard takes a lot of pressure off, as I don’t have to worry so much about what people think of me and whether they assumed I was being rude, so I can just focus on getting myself to a place of comfort or safety.

My diabetes means that I have to constantly monitor my blood glucose levels, and control them using a little machine called an ‘insulin pump’, which acts as an artificial pancreas. In the most basic terms, type 1 diabetes means that your body doesn’t produce its own insulin, so you have to administer your own, either through injections or the pump.

If I give myself too much insulin, my blood glucose level gets too low, and I’m in immediate danger of passing out. I can’t walk properly, slur my words, lose vision, and tremble or break out in a sweat. The only way to remedy this is to consume food or drinks with high sugar content. I’ve been judged for seeming drunk and I’ve been laughed at by strangers but if I were to be in this situation while wearing a lanyard, it would bring more awareness to my condition and someone might think to check the emergency contact information on my phone or in my purse before dismissing my emergency as a drunken antic.

While the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower is gaining momentum all the time, we still have a long way to go to ensure full accessibility for disabled people, and it starts with removing the stigma associated with disabilities and health conditions of all kinds. I’m open about my disabilities, but I’m aware that not everyone is in a position to be.

I once spoke to someone my age who said he wouldn’t wear a lanyard because he was worried his friends might mock or judge him. I’ve seen workplaces implementing the scheme, but not following through with training, so no one was aware of its purpose.

On the other hand, I haven’t yet encountered a company or organisation that hasn’t been enthusiastic about embracing the scheme once they were made aware of it.

My best experience while wearing my lanyard was receiving a beaming smile from a parent of a young child who was wearing one in a busy shopping centre, which I interpreted as a nod to solidarity and community. As evident in this interaction, the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower doesn’t just provide practical support to people, but also helps bolster representation and visibility for the disability community, as well as normalising disabilities and health conditions of all kinds.

So what can you do to help ensure the ongoing success of the scheme? You can raise awareness on your social media platforms, share articles such as this one, and tell your friends and family about its purpose.

If you see someone wearing one, give them time, patience, and understanding. Ask your workplace to start using them if they aren’t already – they’ll probably be enthusiastic. And, above all, be kind.