03:29 AM

Sunflower Lanyard Program brings hidden disabilities into focus at TPA

The noises, the crowds, the lights, the signage, the enclosed spaces … all of these things can be overwhelming to travelers who have autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, epilepsy or other conditions known as “hidden disabilities.”

In recent years, Tampa International Airport’s Guest Services staff – along with partners such as TSA, the Airport’s Police Department, airlines and others who assist passengers – have made great strides to accommodate those who need a little more compassion and assistance along their journey. Then in November, TPA took another step and became one of only a few dozen U.S. airports to launch the Sunflower Lanyard Program as another way to help guests with hidden disabilities.  

The Sunflower Lanyard, adorned with a globally recognized symbol that helps people in transportation hubs and other public spaces discreetly identify themselves as having hidden disabilities, was first adopted in the U.K. years ago and is more familiar in Europe than in the United States. But the program is quickly gaining recognition in the U.S., and soon after TPA began making the free lanyards available to customers, they started seeing more and more requests for them along with the more screening-friendly sunflower stickers.

“We’ve now given out close to 75 lanyards,” said Christine Phillips, TPA’s Senior Manager of Guest Services. “They seem to be requested by primarily families with autism, and they’ve been very well received.”

British travelers are more likely to request the lanyards, being more familiar with them and how they work, though Guest Services Representatives don’t ask questions or require any info to be shared.

“You ask, we give you them,” Phillips said.

Prior to launching the program at TPA, the Guests Services team along with representatives from the Tampa International Airport Police Department and TSA, had an educational session with the University of South Florida’s Center for Autism & Related Disabilities and learned more about autism spectrum disorders and the various ways travel can be difficult for those with hidden disabilities. They also shared stories of guests they’ve encountered and the helpless frustration of trying to help from the beginning to the end of their airport journey when so many different agencies own different parts of the experience such as ticketing, screening and boarding. This week, TPA will be joining a roundtable discussion with 33 other U.S. airports who use the Sunflower Lanyards.

TPA for years has offered pre-flight tours and assistance for those unfamiliar or uncomfortable with airport travel, helping guests of all ages prepare for riding shuttles and escalators, going through TSA checkpoints and even boarding the plane when an airline is willing to accommodate.

Last month, a very nervous mother contacted TPA, worried about her first time traveling with her autistic daughter alone. TPA Guest Experience Rep Donna Saxer met the mother and daughter prior to their travel date and walked them through the process from curbside to check-in to screening to the departure gate, thanks to help from TSA and United Airlines. Then on the day of travel, all three organizations worked together once again to create a patient, caring and seamless experience for the mother and daughter.

While this kind of service is available to anyone who needs it – lanyard-wearing or not – the Sunflower Lanyard Program makes it easier for employees to identify those who have hidden disabilities and need more patience or explanation as they encounter different parts of the airport.

“TSA has been great working with us,” Phillips said. “They have just done an awesome job when there has been someone challenged coming through Tampa International Airport.”

The Sunflower Lanyards are available on Level 3 of the Main Terminal at the Information Kiosk near Starbucks. For more information on accessibility services, visit this page on TPA’s website, or call Guest Services at (813) 870-8759. To learn more about TSA Cares or request special support through screening, visit https://www.tsa.gov/travel/passenger-support.