Sunflowers have a hidden meaning for travelers with disabilities


Airports can be overwhelming for people with autism and other invisible disabilities. Sunflower lanyards aim to help.

Tessa Watkins poses for a portrait in Mount Lebanon, Pa. (Photographs by Michael Swensen for The Washington Post)


If you saw Tessa Watkins walking through the airport, you might notice the way their auburn ponytail reveals a shaved side cut, or that their 4-year-old daughter sometimes rides on a small suitcase that looks like a cartoonish dinosaur. What you’re less likely to notice is that both parent and daughter have hidden disabilities that can make traveling challenging.

That’s why Watkins, who is autistic and also lives with complex post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions, has started wearing a distinctive neck lanyard from the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program when they travel.

“I love the concept of the lanyard saying I am disabled,” said Watkins, a 32-year-old web developer. The yellow sunflowers on a green background are intended to be a signal covering all invisible disabilities, with a goal of alerting airport and airline workers that the person wearing it might need some extra time or assistance.

Launched in 2016 at Britain’s Gatwick Airport, the initiative has grown to include nearly 200 airports worldwide, including 77 in the United States. British Airways and four other airlines, along with a host of other businesses, have also signed on.

The success of the program for travelers with disabilities is difficult to gauge. When Watkins recounted their recent travel experiences, there are moments when staff clearly seemed to recognize the lanyard and scenarios in which it appeared they lacked awareness or proper training.

About 840 million people worldwide have some form of hidden disability, said Linda Ristagno, assistant director of external affairs for the International Air Transport Association, in a December presentation at the trade group’s Geneva headquarters.

IATA wants to see airports be more accessible and have better communication with passengers. It also champions spaces in airports to better suit the needs of all travelers. That includes quiet areas and multisensory stimulation environments, which contain equipment that can create light, sound and touch experiences that can help those with autism, dementia, brain injury and developmental disabilities.

For instance, the Pittsburgh International Airport, which will soon be joining the sunflower program, has a sensory room with tunnels, rocking chairs and visually stimulating lamps and wall displays, in addition to a traditional playground.

There are no statistics on how many passengers have participated in the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program. However, the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport gave out 600 lanyards in a year-long span.

Airports that participate commit to educating employees in the etiquette and skills to approach a person wearing one of the lanyards, although real-life experiences suggest training is scattered.

Last December, the Watkins family was at the Pittsburgh airport for a flight to London. Watkins was wearing their lanyard, and their husband, John, was wearing one that says, “I support the Sunflower.” An employee approached and asked if they needed assistance, then volunteered the location of both the playground and the sensory room.

“He had clearly been trained to recognize the lanyards,” Watkins said.

The day the family returned from their trip, however, the lanyards did not help them prevent a scene at Heathrow airport.

The parents had worked to keep their daughter sensory-stimulated while waiting for British Airways to open check-in. But walking, spinning and riding the suitcase eventually lost her interest, so they felt they needed to get to the airport’s only soft-play area, which was through security.

While the girl waited with her father, Watkins approached the ticket counter, then stood off to the side because initiating conversation is difficult for them.

Despite wearing the lanyard, Watkins said they had a torturous wait to be acknowledged. Once they finally got an agent’s attention, Watkins explained they wanted to get through to the play area because their autistic daughter was struggling, but the agent further delayed check-in by asking where the girl was.

Moments after Watkins pointed out their daughter, the airport environment triggered an autistic meltdown in the girl, who screamed and bolted. When Watkins was able to collect their daughter, they ended up sitting on the floor and holding the girl as she spat in their face and repeatedly bit their arms. Watkins recalled worrying that others would judge or offer unsolicited advice.

“I felt like this was traumatizing for me, my child and everyone around us, having to witness this,” they said.

When two British Airways employees approached to help, one crouched down and told the child, ‘Stop making mommy cry.” Then he addressed Watkins, who is nonbinary, and said, “Stop crying. You can be a big girl.”

Watkins found the remark inappropriate, saying they remembered thinking that “I’m not a little girl, and I’m allowed to f—ing cry because I’m in pain.” But they said nothing because they were shutting down from their own distress.

The girl’s outburst finally ended when the agent offered chocolate. Watkins remained emotionally dysregulated, even after a female employee offered a hug, they said. The act of deep pressure can help calm the nervous system of some with autism, though Watkins didn’t know if the woman was trained or just kind.

With Watkins still crying and unable to process complex sentences, the family was escorted to security and screened quickly.

Fortunately, at the gate, an agent made eye contact with Watkins, “There was this nod and she started walking towards me, which meant like yes, come to me,” Watkins recalled.

Whether the woman saw the lanyard or the girl, the message Watkins received was clear: “I felt like I was safe” and the agents were “taking care of me.” The flight was without incident.

Watkins was grateful for the staff that offered support, but feels the ordeal didn’t have to happen. “It was preventable because John and I could see the signs,” Watkins said.

Feedback and advice from lanyard users is welcome, a British Airways spokeswoman said, noting that they “recognize that more can always be done.”

A December visit to Denver International Airport illustrated how much the sunflower program is dependent on training, which was voluntary. The airport spent about $4,000 to launch the program last May, emailing the training video to staff who had contact with the public and to TSA agents, but not tracking how many actually watched it. Conversations with about two dozen TSA agents, civilian employees and a volunteer — as well as with gate agents and flight crew for United Airlines, which hasn’t adopted the program as a company — found only a handful of airport personnel were familiar with it.

In one instance, a box of sunflower lanyards was behind the counter at a ground transportation desk, but only one of two employees there was familiar with the program.

“With over 30,000 employees at DEN including airline staff, wheelchair personal and retail and dining staff, widespread education can be difficult, especially with high turnover in many of these areas,” said airport spokeswoman Stephanie Figueroa. “DEN is working on expanding the training and we will continue to work on how we can get more information to our airline partners.”

Having experienced the inconsistency, Watkins believes it is the greatest weakness of the program. But, they still said the lanyard program is a win.

“Once you know that someone has an invisible disability … you can start having those conversations and learning how to best assist that individual,” they said.

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