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How the sunflower lanyard helped me travel with invisible symptoms

Manisha Chandarana

I find travelling stressful. Having to deal with invisible symptoms from MS has made it harder. I worry about being judged by other people if I need assistance when I may look fine.

The sunflower lanyard scheme, being used across UK airports, has improved my confidence in air travel.

Making hidden disabilities visible

Wearing a sunflower lanyard is a visible but discreet way of alerting staff that you may need extra assistance or have a hidden disability. The scheme was originally launched at Gatwick Airport and has now been adopted by most major airports in the UK. Work is being carried out to expand its reach further.

You can request the lanyards for free at airport customer service desks or order them cheaply through the Hidden Disabilities Store website. 

The things that worry me when I travel

When I travel by air, I worry about punctuality, having the right paperwork, remembering all my belongings (I once burst into tears at the check-in desk when I realised I'd left the keys to my locked suitcase at home!), and that's all before boarding!

Additionally, my MS fatigue, bladder and bowel anxiety, and hidden discomfort from sensory symptoms can make the experience overwhelming.

I'm not confident in public spaces and I don't like making a fuss. The possibility of being confronted by a fellow traveller over whether they need a seat more than I do fills me with dread, especially because outwardly I may look absolutely fine.

I'm reluctant to ask people for help because I'm scared they'll think I'm taking advantage of their good nature or just making things up.

Help that suits my needs

I don't think I need the full service of special assistance which airlines offer. I can walk from check-in to the gate without assistance. And I like having the freedom to browse the shops, instead of being whisked from point-to-point in a wheelchair or motorised buggy.

So when I heard about the sunflower lanyard I thought it may suit my needs better

How the scheme has changed my travel experience

I was still nervous when I used my sunflower lanyard for the first time, wondering whether people would stare at me or whether staff would be aware of the scheme. But I didn’t have to worry.

I travelled through London Heathrow with British Airways this summer and the lanyard was recognised by check-in staff immediately. Without any questions, they opened a new check-in desk for me so I didn't have to stand and wait.

At the gate, I sat in the disabled area and I was given priority boarding so I could take my time without feeling crowded or rushed.

I was amazed at the confidence it gave me knowing the staff were there to assist me without having to explain anything.

It also gave me confidence among my fellow travellers. It meant I was able to sit comfortably in a seat at the gate without worrying that someone would challenge my right to use that seat.

More support for people with hidden symptoms

I would like to see this scheme expanded to all public places including public transport, shops, theatres, museums and concert venues.

There are many illnesses which causes hidden symptoms so increasing visibility of the scheme would help many people.

Eventually, I'd also like to see the scheme recognised internationally. Airports are a good starting place because people from all over the world go through them every day.

So if you visit an airport and you think they would benefit from such a scheme, send an email to their customer services and see where it goes!

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