Even when she's excited about a trip, Monique Hammond feels an almost unbearable tension at the airport.
A native of Luxembourg who followed her husband to various stops on his international business career, Hammond is a seasoned and, formerly, a cheerful traveler. But since losing the hearing in her left ear in 2005, she's come to dread being in airports.
"Airports have so much background sound, with people talking and all the reverberations and echoing. And there's always construction work. It's so hard to keep my focus," said the Minneapolis pharmacist.
The trickiest part comes at the TSA security gate.
"It can land you in trouble if you misunderstand their questions. I look OK, so they don't understand what's going on if I don't follow what they tell me," she said.
Hammond is hoping that wearing a simple badge with the image of a sunflower will ease her way.
The badge is part of an international program to give travelers a way to signal that they live with a hidden disability, such as autism spectrum disorders, dementia, cognitive and intellectual disabilities, PTSD, learning differences and speech, vision and hearing disorders.
Wearing the badge and lanyard alert airport staff members to travelers who may require additional time or assistance as they traverse the concourses and make their way through security and customs.
The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program started at London's Gatwick Airport in 2016. Last fall, Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport joined the partnership, making it one of only 19 U.S. airports that have joined — or are in the process of joining — the global movement.
"It's a great tool, very simple, for those who choose to use it," said Phil Burke, assistant director of customer experience for the Metropolitan Airports Commission. "It's a discreet way for travelers to send a message to the people who need to know about their hidden disability. It lets everyone know this passenger might need a little extra support."
At MSP, travelers can request a free sunflower badge and lanyard at one of the information booths.
Local TSA and airport employees have undergone training to recognize the badge and its implications. Some airlines also have provided educational updates on the sunflower program for their staff.
Seniors and companions
Wearing a hidden disabilities badge doesn't allow a traveler to whisk through security. It does, however, help staff identify people who may need help or a bit of patience and understanding.
"What's great for the people with hidden disabilities is that they don't have to justify the request for the lanyard," said Sara Barsel, a Roseville aging advocate and member of the MSP Travelers With Disabilities Advisory Committee, which endorsed the program. "You just put it on."
Barsel said the badge and lanyard clearly benefit older travelers.
"As our society is aging, more people will want this," she said.
The badge is also proving to be a boon to caregivers and travel companions of people with hidden disabilities.
That's Carol Giuliani's business. The Eden Prairie resident, who owns and operates Senior Travel Companion Services, regularly escorts older people who are relocating or attending weddings and other family functions.
Giuliani not only offers the lanyard to her clients, but wears one herself.
"When going through security, it allows me to stay right by my clients; they tend to get nervous or even panic when they separate us," she said. "The clients don't object; they know they need the extra help."
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 26% of all Americans, or 65.5 million people, experience significant limitations due to a disability or medical condition.
The Open Doors Organization, a Chicago-based nonprofit, has commissioned various Harris Polls on the disability travel and tourism market. Its most recent survey (conducted in 2019, before the pandemic cut flights), found that 15 million people with disabilities traveled by air that year, spending about $11 billion.
Yet 7 of 10 travelers reported facing obstacles at airports.
"Anything we can do to reduce anxiety is meaningful. The lanyard is purely voluntary; it doesn't stick a label on anyone," said Laurel Van Horn, director of programs for Open Doors. "It's simple and it makes good business sense. The amount of money these travelers spend is huge. The easier we make it, the more they will travel."
Since its beginnings in London, the program has broadened, establishing a presence at airports in Europe, Australia and Canada, as well as the United States.
In Great Britain, the hidden disability badge is showing up in other public places, where it's proving its value beyond travel.
"In the course of researching this, we learned how this is being disseminated in every sector of society in the U.K.," said Barsel. "People wear the lanyard and are recognized at stores and on mass transit, where they also need a little extra consideration. We heard about fans who wore it at a soccer stadium.
"We'd like to see that here," said Barsel. "It's a magnificent way to expand civil behavior."
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.