Sunflowers Shine Bright for Travelers with Special Needs

Decorated lanyards identify passengers with ‘hidden disabilities’ for airport staff

By Eric Heyl

Published April 3, 2023

Read Time: 3 mins


When 7-year-old Mia Naismith put her sunflower-dotted lanyard around her neck before her recent flight to Costa Rica, she became a Pittsburgh International Airport pioneer.

Mia, who has autism, was the first airport traveler to wear one of the special lanyards, now available at the airport, that quietly telegraphs that a person has a disability or special need that might not be readily apparent.

Most travelers may not even notice the lanyards. But airport staff have been trained to recognize that those wearing them might need gentle assistance during their time at the airport.

“Every little bit helps,” said Mia’s mother, Andrea Castro of Blackridge, who first brought the lanyard idea to the attention of airport officials. “It’s nice to know that some additional assistance is available—if needed—for people with hidden disabilities.”

Airport employees have long assisted travelers with visible disabilities, such as passengers in wheelchairs. But there are less-apparent afflictions that can make travel challenging, such as autism, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder and dementia.

The sunflower lanyards allow people to voluntarily display that they have such a disability and may need extra help during their airport experience.

The Hidden Disabilities Program, which provides sunflower print lanyards to passengers with special needs, was launched at Gatwick Airport in 2016 and is now in place at more than 180 airports worldwide. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

The Hidden Disabilities Program began at Gatwick Airport in Great Britain in 2016 and has grown steadily since then.

“It’s in more than 180 airports in the world, and we’ve already received a good number of inquiries asking if we participate,” said Elise Gomez, PIT’s Manager, Customer Experience. ”We’re happy to be able to tell people ‘yes.’”

Gomez said the lanyards are available at the information desks in either terminal and that the sunflowers also are available in pin and bracelet forms. The items also can be shipped to a special needs person prior to travel day by contacting the airport.

Gomez cautioned that the items do not provide a shortcut through TSA security checkpoints.

“They will help us identify the person who might need assistance, provide that assistance if necessary, and steer people to the resources that we offer,” she said.

The sunflower lanyards are the latest development in PIT’s continuing efforts to be proactive when it comes to making special needs passengers as comfortable as possible.

In 2019, the airport opened a sensory-friendly space for individuals with autism and other neurodevelopmental challenges and their families. The sensory room, which has received national recognition, features private and soundproof spaces, as well as a realistic airplane cabin experience area.

Castro said Mia has visited the sensory room several times.

“It’s really nice, really quiet in there,” she said. “My daughter loves it. After the commotion of getting through security, it’s nice to be able to go there.”

Gomez said the sunflower program complements the airport’s ongoing efforts to meet the needs of passengers with physical, mental or emotional concerns. Castro added that “the airport is really receptive to meeting the needs of my daughter and people like her.”

The sunflower is a good choice, Gomez said, adding that sunflowers will brighten the moods of those wearing them.

“The sunflower is a discreet symbol that will make airport employees aware of a person that might need assistance,” she said. “It’s a symbol of growth and positivity.”

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