• Matt T

Help for Hidden Conditions and Disabilities at the Airport

Going through an airport can be a stressful time, especially if you or someone in your family has a hidden disability.

Airports can be sensory overload for many of us. Then there is the navigating, planning and organising involved in making your way through the airport with your belongings and the correct bits of paper! There’s even quite a lot of physical activity required in an airport, from removing bits of clothing or footwear at security, moving bags and belongings around, to following instructions on where to stand and where to go.

Now airport travellers of all ages have a way of letting staff know they may need additional help and patience, without having to ask: the sunflower lanyard.

The scheme was started by Heathrow Airport, which is where I first gave it a try myself. Although it is Heathrow’s own scheme, airports I’ve been to in the UK seem to recognise it, although not abroad. I’ve found it wasn’t recognised on the flights themselves, which is a shame as flights can be as tricky as the airport itself with putting baggage into overhead lockers, navigating small spaces and managing the flight itself.

Nevertheless, I would highly recommend getting a lanyard if you are flying with a hidden condition. About the lanyard itself. I was initially concerned that it might look a bit weird or stand out in some negative way. Actually it is pretty unintrusive. It’s green with sunflowers on it, which may not appeal to some people, and has a clip on one end. I’m not sure what you are supposed to attach to the clip. I attached a zip-up pouch to mine, which I put my passport and boarding pass into. This was fantastic. My passport and boarding pass remained safely around my neck at all times. Whereas normally I would be either:

  1. panicking throwing items out of my bag onto the floor trying to find them buried at the bottom, or

  2. leaving them at security, on a desk, or in the toilet (!)

now they were attached to me, in their own home. An unintended bonus of the lanyard!

As for the scheme itself, I really couldn’t praise it highly enough. I don’t need any specific assistance but I do find airports difficult for all the aforementioned reasons. All the assistance I had was done discreetly with no mention of the lanyard at all. I had visions of staff approaching me and shouting in a loud voice ‘hello traveller, what is wrong with you?’ or following me around asking me repeatedly what they could do to help. In fact, no-one else would have known that I was being treated any differently from any other traveller. I don’t know what training the staff have, but it was a perfect balance between being helpful and being discreet, which can be a hard balance to strike with hidden conditions.

It definitely made me feel a lot better knowing that staff were aware I may take additional time to do things or find things difficult to do. Previously I’ve found airport staff really impatient when I’ve been struggling to get all of my belongings into the security tray and get coats, shoes, belts, etc off whilst standing up in the queue. I’ve ended up in a complete pickle, often with various belongings in other people’s trays and feeling stressed by loud sighing and eye-rolling. I think people tend to think I am either totally incapable or acting for dramatic effect. But obviously I don’t want to keep saying ‘I’m sorry I have dyspraxia’, and then having a 30 min conversation about what that is, with every member of staff. This way I didn’t have to.

...and relax

In terms of the actual help itself, it was great. Someone came over to check me in on the machine for me. Each person I came across gave me clear directions or showed me where to go next. They helped me organise my stuff at security and didn’t hurry me at all. They checked I had my paperwork and belongings with me before I left each desk. They sent me to queues which were shorter or less busy. They didn’t ask me to take off every single item of clothing and footwear at security.

I didn’t directly ask for any additional help, although knowing you could without having to explain yourself is great, and I’m sure given my experience that it would be patiently and helpfully delivered.

The whole process went from a usually stressful one, to something that was manageable and stress-free. Thank you to Heathrow Airport for its fantastic scheme for travellers with additional needs!

If you would like to find out more about the scheme or order a lanyard, please look here.

Dr Emma Tremaine trained as a medical doctor and psychiatrist before starting up a social enterprise specialising in comprehensively supporting adults and young people with Dyspraxia (The Dyspraxic Doctor). She also provides regular emotional and social skills therapy for children and young people who have a neurodevelopmental diagnosis (including Autism/Aspergers and ADHD). Dr Emma has Dyspraxia herself and is a passionate writer and speaker about neurodiversity, mental health and her own experience becoming a doctor with a hidden disability. She also enjoys horse riding, yoga, amateur sewing and making people laugh.

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