The Sunflower Lanyard and the Hidden Disability Discourse It Highlights

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The Sunflower Lanyard Scheme launched in May 2016 at Gatwick Airport. The purpose of the scheme was to discreetly identify passengers with hidden disabilities who may need additional help while travelling. Since then, it has been used across all major UK airports, UK rail providers, major UK supermarkets and the NHS among other places. This scheme is now becoming global with its launch at airports stretching as far as Brisbane and Seattle, Copenhagen and Istanbul.

The charity behind the scheme define hidden disability as: ‘a disability that may not be immediately obvious’. The scheme offers users the ability to request a lanyard without having to provide evidence of their disability as this is often an area of difficulty for those with hidden disabilities who feel burdened to prove their disability which does not display obvious physical signs. They note that, ‘there is no qualifying list of hidden disabilities. If you have a hidden disability and feel that you would benefit from wearing a […] Sunflower product, please do’. They also note that the lanyard does not entitle you to anything, it simply allows ‘everyone with hidden disabilities to choose to be visible when they need to be’ but is not for fast-tracking or other benefits.

Recently, the lanyard has gained even more traction due to the Coronavirus pandemic and people being exempt from face coverings. Among the identification cards available on the Sunflower charity’s website is one which reads: ‘face covering exempt’, however, these cards appear only to be available on their website and the Lanyards themselves, which are distributed among major supermarkets, have no such identifying card unless an individual wishes to attach one. The use of the lanyard to symbolise mask exemption has become a difficult topic. Certainly, there are a number of people with hidden disabilities who are also mask exempt but the two are not mutually exclusive. In an Express article it was noted that the scheme could be misused during the pandemic and cited anonymous shoppers who had ‘reported seeing non-disabled customers exploiting the scheme in order to get away with not wearing a mask in public’. This troubled me. How could these shoppers determine that the people they saw were ‘non-disabled’ rather than ‘hidden-disabled’? This is exactly the issue that the lanyard scheme is trying to help. People without an obvious visual indicator being helped to make themselves known. 

The rest of the article descended into hearsay about people using lanyards to jump queues and asking how Morrisons would ensure the scheme was not exploited. Maybe I am too cynical. These people may genuinely just want to ensure that the lanyards are available for those who truly need it and it is true that the lanyards are disappearing from stores extremely quickly. But I still struggle because I feel that these people have somehow missed the point. While yes, because they do not ask for evidence of a disability before handing out the lanyards there is room for it to be exploited but this same system exists to help those with hidden disabilities not have to go through the burden of proving themselves to everyone. Yes, the lanyards are disappearing from shops extremely quickly and this could be a sign of abuse but also could speak of the scheme gaining traction and lend itself to one infographic on the Sunflower website which explains that one in five people in the UK have a disability and eighty percent of them are hidden disabilities. 

I suppose I’m frustrated because the language around hidden disability is already so muddy. When UCL rolled it out across their campus they did so under the name ‘invisible disability scheme’. Their explanation for choosing this over the nationally recognised ‘hidden disability’ name was because: ‘we are proud of the diverse make-up of our university and would not want anyone to feel they should hide who they are’. Which bodes the question, would you like them to be invisible instead?

This is still a very complicated issue but for now I firmly believe that the lanyard scheme is a hugely important step for raising awareness of hidden disabilities. I would pose the question that maybe what people are seeing when they say that they saw someone not disabled with a lanyard is that their idea of what disabled looks like is wrong.


Emma Ferguson

Image Source: The Grocer