“You don’t look blind!” is something I’ve heard more times than I remember. Let’s put aside how it makes me feel and how I should respond – that’s a blog post for another day! For now, let’s look at what it tells us. I think it means people are surprised to learn I’m legally blind. Blindness is invisible. If I don’t tell you I have a visual impairment or you don’t notice my cane, you just wouldn’t know. ‘Clumsy’, ‘rude’ and/ or ‘drunk’ are conclusions people jump to long before they reach ‘blind’. If you get stuck behind me as I take longer than everyone else at airport security or the supermarket checkout, maybe you wouldn’t say anything, but you might feel annoyed or at least impatient or confused. What if there was a way you could tell I need a bit more time or a bit of assistance, or even that I might behave differently to how you would expect? What if there was a symbol that indicates I have a hidden disability? Not a huge embarrassing sign pinned to my baby’s pushchair saying “Beware, Blind Mum” (which I have come close to implanting at times of frustration!), but a discreet, universally acknowledged symbol that I have a hidden disability? Well, there is one! We just need to work on the ‘universally acknowledged’ part of it.
I have a green lanyard with sunflowers on it. I wear it to let people around me know I have a hidden disability. It is a simple way to alert staff at airports that I may need a little assistance. And you know what? It’s really effective.
Airports are a particularly difficult place to navigate when you can’t see much and when staff see the lanyard they offer to help me find my way. It also helps when my cane is being x-rayed and I bumble through the security gate with my arms outstretched, trying not to walk into anything. People don’t just think I’m being weird, they offer to help me. The thing is, I only use my lanyard at the airport. When I get home from my trips, I put my lanyard away, feeling a bit sad that I can’t use it in my day to day life. I can’t use it because very few people know what it is, so it doesn’t have the desired effect..
There are so many people for whom the sunflower lanyard could make a huge difference, if only more people were aware of its meaning. There are countless sensory and cognitive impairments that impact peoples’ lives in so many different ways. They may be diverse in their nature, but all have one characteristic in common – they are not immediately obvious. The lanyard could be useful for someone with autism, epilepsy, dementia, hearing loss, brain injuries, chronic fatigue, and so many other conditions I couldn’t possibly list them all here. The lanyard would be useful to all these people in many environments including schools, offices, restaurants, shops, hospitals, transport, museums, festivals and events and pretty much anywhere where they encounter other people. Not all people with hidden disabilities need help, but it’s good to have the option to discreetly let people around you know about your disability, if you choose to.
In addition to the improvement to daily life for individuals, there is also a massive impact this lanyard could have on how our society treats those with hidden disabilities. I really believe the majority of people are good. If they are aware someone has a disability that affects their behaviour, they would not judge them for it and they would offer to help if it was appropriate. Since I started using my cane (a pretty universal symbol in itself), I have witnessed so much kindness, it has confirmed my belief in people around me. A simple lanyard, if used correctly and understood by all, could pave the way for a lot more kindness in our society.
As brilliant as I think the lanyard idea is, the only way we can maximise its effectiveness is to work together to help raise awareness. We need more organisations to pick up on it, educate their staff and offer lanyards to their customers. As far as I am aware, a number of organisations have piloted or introduced the lanyard scheme including a number of airports, two supermarkets, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, train operator LNER, some shopping centres, cinemas and a few NHS hospitals. It’s a great start but there’s a way to go. I’d encourage all organisations to seriously look into the possibility of introducing the scheme, or at least to raise awareness by ensuring staff are aware of the meaning of sunflower lanyards. The lanyards are inexpensive and low tech, which makes them very accessible. If organisations offered sunflower lanyards to their customers and the relevant training to employees, I think the relatively small financial and time investment required, would prove to be extremely worthwhile.
I’d like to see the sunflower lanyard become common place. Imagine if all those in the retail, transport, cultural and entertainment, health, education and professional services sectors recognise the sunflower lanyard and provide training to employees on appropriate action to take when they come across someone wearing one. Imagine if everyone knew about sunflower lanyards. I mean all the other passengers in an airport, the other shoppers in the supermarket, all the children in the playground and the neighbours on your street. I’d like us to reach a point where everyone knows what a sunflower lanyard means, where strangers quietly and respectfully acknowledge each other’s differences and offer to help if they feel someone needs it. It seems like a mammoth task, doesn’t it? But I don’t really think it is. In this fast moving world where it’s never been easier to share information, it should be easy. Tell your family, colleagues and friends. Share it on Facebook, tweet about it and tell your LinkedIn network. Businesses, share it with your employees and clients, teachers, tell your class, news channels, You Tubers and bloggers, tell your followers. As usual, I’ve probably written more words than I need to, but in reality it can be a short message. “If someone is wearing a green lanyard with sunflowers on it, it means they have a hidden disability. Maybe ask them if they need a hand with anything. Be inclusive. Be yourself, and let them be themselves”. Imagine how many people we can reach if we all just share this message with our own network. Whether that’s 5 people or 5 million, every time you pass it on, it matters. At some point in history not everyone knew what a long cane was, now it’s common knowledge – sunflower lanyards can also become common knowledge if we all pass on the message.
Sometimes I ask you to share my blog posts when I think the content might be useful, but this time I ask because I think the message is important. I ask because I think we have a very real opportunity to make a very tangible difference. It’s simple. We just need to spread the word.
You can get a lanyard from any participating airport or store. Alternatively, visit the Hidden Disabilities website. They sell lanyards, lapel ribbons and ID cards from as little as 40 pence. This website is also the starting point if you want to find out how to get your organisation involved in the scheme.
If you have experience of using the lanyard or your workplace supports the scheme, I’d love to hear from you. Friends from countries outside the UK, I’d be really interested to hear if there are similar schemes in other parts of the world and how successful they have been. Please do let me know in the comments.
As always thanks for reading, and remember to tell someone about the sunflower lanyard today!