Ian Sherriff holding sunflower lanyard
I’ve been working to improve air travel for people with dementia and their carers for many years. As Chair of the Prime Minister’s Dementia Air Transport Group, I know that every step taken at local, regional, national and international level has been important. But my work with Gatwick Airport started something really special – and developing the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower has been one of my proudest achievements to date. 

Airports can be large, busy and overwhelming places, with staff seeing thousands of people every day. So how could they tell if someone had dementia and might need additional help? 

Working with Ruth Rabét, Sunflower Business Director for Hidden Disabilities, and Samantha Saunders from Gatwick Airport, we considered that it’s hard to tell at a glance – and important not to assume – so the person with dementia would need a discreet symbol.
We talked about it needing to be something colourful to stand out, so discussed a number of different flowers and symbols. Then we came up with a sunflower – bright, recognisable, universal and positive – so that became the direction of travel. Wearing the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower would be a sign that the wearer required extra time, patience and understanding when travelling through the airport and onboard the aircraft. 
Aeroplane in flight
unbranded sunflower lanyard
Little could we have known quite how far the symbol would have travelled, and how widely it would be adopted to indicate other hidden disabilities. 
The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower lanyard has been recognised as influencing the lives of millions of people living with a hidden disability around the globe.

As a result of the work that we started at Gatwick, the Sunflower is now in more than 230 airports, in over 30 countries, and there are currently 15 airlines that recognise the symbol internationally. 

Brazil has even passed legislation making the sunflower their national symbol of disability – which is just incredible given that the whole idea came from a brief conversation from our little group.
In the UK, as most people know, the sunflower came to the fore as a symbol during the COVID-19 pandemic, with Hidden Disabilities Sunflower lanyards now recognised in most settings as a way for the wearer to subtly indicate a hidden disability or need for additional support. Far from taboo, it’s come into common usage, which was the best thing we could have hoped for. 
As a result of my work, every airport in the UK must meet measurable yearly standards so that people living with a hidden disability can continue using air transport. Coupled with continued work in many other spheres – including dentistry and local government – we’re gradually changing the world for the better for people with dementia and their carers.

The Sunflower is a big and impactful step, and I’m looking forward to making more strides with, and for, this wonderful community of people.  

Miniature aeroplane model placed on a map of the world, over the North Atlantic Ocean. 

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