The nature of a hidden disability is that there are no obvious signs that this person is disabled or in any way different to anyone else. This in no way should belittle the disability or the individual. Their lives are impaired to the same extent as those who suffer from physical disabilities and are therefore entitled to the same level of respect and support. With the introduction of the Sunflower Lanyards, individuals with hidden disabilities are able to signal to others that they may require extra assistance when they are out and about.
The Sunflower Lanyard have proved to be a lifeline to those with a hidden disability. These people have spent years being looked up and down in all types of environments. They have been judged for not having a physical problem when requesting help and support. Retail and Hospitality workers have been trained to recognise these lanyards and how to behave towards the customer. However, before coronavirus, these lanyards were rarely seen out in public.
One hidden disability that is covered by the lanyard is Autism. Having lived with someone who is autistic, I have witnessed the judgmental looks, the whispers and the stares when that person goes into meltdown in public. I have listened to the stories of the bullying that goes on schools, dealt with the aftermath when their peers ostracise them due to a lack of an understanding of the condition. An autistic person may require extra time to process a request when in a shop, they tend to not like jostled in crowds in the supermarkets, they will avoid eye contact with the cashier and could be blunt when answering a question. None of these things make them any less of a valued customer than anyone else or any less of an individual. The lanyard allows for staff to give them the extra support required when carrying out their shopping if required.
Another service that can be availed of is the the Special Assistance in airports, in which case the airport provides you with a lanyard. Hidden disabilities are accepted as a reason to request this service.
On a recent trip, we, as a family, used this service. Crowds of people cause anxiety and stress for an autistic person. Our destination was one we had not been to before and change and the unknown causes a severe amount of unease. Being allowed to board first, without the huffing and puffing of impatient holiday goers brought an element of calm to the start of the holiday. We were escorted to the gate before everyone else, to allow for enough time to board, as is part of the service. On arrival, the air steward was informed of the assistance that was required and to board us immediately. Her reaction was one that will never leave me. She outwardly scoffed and asked, “What is wrong with them?” She looked our group up and down, obviously expecting to see some form of physical disability despite this the presence of a Sunflower Lanyard, a specific symbol of a hidden disability. The lack of understanding of these types of conditions despite initiatives like the lanyard is evident by this woman’s reaction and caused offence and embarrassment to our family. It makes the person feel like they owe an explanation of their condition, which the lanyard is supposed to prevent from happening.
Flash forward to March 2020 and Coronavirus hit. All of a sudden, the wearing of masks became mandatory in shops in an attempt to reduce the transmission of the virus. Wearing a mask proves to be difficult and can be unbearable for those with sensory issues. However, the government have stated that individuals with health conditions are exempt. There is a special, separate lanyard for those are not wearing masks due to these medical conditions. Although, it should be common knowledge by now that those wearing the Sunflower Lanyard do have a health condition that makes them exempt. If you were to compare the number of lanyards that were seen in a retail environment between the implementation of compulsory masks and before, an increase can be blatantly seen.
There is a large number of individuals who are using the lanyard as a get out of jail free card. These people do not have a hidden disability, they do not have a medical condition, yet they have decided that they are going to use this lanyard as a loophole to avoid wearing a mask as they deem it an inconvenience to them. Having been there to witness evident lack of understanding that a person with autism goes through on a daily basis, it is deeply upsetting to watch this mockery and misuse of the lanyards.
There are many individuals who suffer from sensory issues who do their best to wear masks. There are countless videos, photos and posts across social media from these individuals, demonstrating ways that they have found to cope. They are wearing masks through nine, hour shifts in retail. They are dealing with backlash from customers during these trying times and watching with disgust as those who have self-diagnosed themselves with conditions defy the law, while they battle with their anxieties.
I find it ironic that people could not find the time to enlighten themselves about the Sunflower Lanyard in order to make the lives of those with a hidden disability easier before Coronavirus. These people who roll their eyes if someone is brought up the queue or if they are taking too long to process what the cashier has asked them. People who have never taken the time to understand what goes on inside the head of an autistic person, who disregard their disability because it is not physical, are now taking advantage of a service that was created to help those who needed it. If a person who has a legitimate condition can bring themselves to do their best to adhere to the law, is it too much to ask from everyone else?
Emma Lockhart is from Ballymena. She has just graduated from QUB with a degree in French.