The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower has been implemented at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Travelers passing through the airport now have the option of wearing a lanyard with sunflower logos to indicate to airport security and others that they have a “hidden disability” such as vision or hearing impairment, autism, epilepsy or post-traumatic stress disorder.
MSP is among seven other airports in the U.S. to join the global Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program, thanks in part to the efforts of the Dementia-Friendly Airports Working Group. The Twin Cities-area group advocates for policies to make air travel more accommodating for people with dementia and their caregivers.
Wearing a hidden disabilities sunflower is a way for people with disabilities to keep their independence, and not a pass to skip security lines, said Sara Barsel, the group’s project leader.
“If I have this symbol on, and you understand what the symbol means, you may be a little bit more civil, gentle, patient,” she said.
Noise and activity around airport security can cause increased anxiety for people living with dementia. The best practices document advises TSA agents to give instructions in a calm manner using simple words and to avoid separating individuals from their travel companions, among other recommendations.
The program started in 2016 at an airport near London before expanding to more than two dozen airports. The logo also is recognized outside of airports in the U.K., such as in shops, clinics and stadiums.
The local group collaborated with the federal Transportation Security Administration to develop a list of best practices for screening passengers with dementia. The recommendations were shared with TSA agents nationwide over two weeks in fall 2020.
The working group collected first-hand stories about travel difficulties in a survey conducted in 2019. Barsel said the best practices document also was informed with input from John-Richard Pagan, a Virginia man with Lewy Body Dementia. An essay he wrote — “In the Words of an Individual Living with Dementia – What He Would Like You to Know” — was distributed by TSA as part of the October training.
The group is interested in helping other airports in the region implement dementia-friendly policies and broaden adoption of the hidden disabilities sunflower program. Those interested in championing initiatives can contact Barsel at DementiaFriendlyAirports@gmail.com using the subject lines “hidden disability sunflower” or “dementia friendly airports.”
There are no prerequisites or documentation required to wear a hidden disabilities sunflower lanyard, which are available for free at MSP pre-security Travelers’ Assistance booths.
“Without revealing the nature of the disability, the sunflower lanyard is a simple way to signal to airport staff that someone may need more help, more time or more patience through certain travel processes at the airport,” said Phil Burke, assistant director of customer experience for the Metropolitan Airports Commission.
The program was endorsed locally by the MSP Travelers with Disabilities Advisory Committee.
“The Sunflower program is a wonderful addition to MSP’s already stellar lineup of programs that increase equitable access to the airport for people with disabilities,” according to committee chairman Andrew Palmberg. The list includes communication assistance, relief areas for service animals and inclusive restroom design.
For more information on MSP accessibility services, visit www.mspairport.com/airport/accessibility.