This lanyard facilitates easier travel for people with disabilities

The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower has become a recognised resource for people with invisible disabilities. Photo: Instagram/Invisibledisabilityire

The experience of modern air travel is so nightmarish that many families who have children with disabilities forego flying entirely, trading the speed of flight for multiday car rides to avoid the many pain points associated with planes and airports.

This had long been the case for Americans Ryan and Erin Kinder, whose son Kasen is on the autism spectrum and did not fly until he turned 14.

“It took us a long time before we were actually willing to go through with this,” Erin said.

The crowds, noise, security and cramped spaces of air travel can overwhelm the senses, which can cause distress for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities that are often not visible.

For the Kinders, who live in Kentucky in the United States, and have two other sons under 13, the decision to fly to visit a relative was made easier because of New York’s Albany International Airport’s Hidden Disabilities Sunflower (HDS) programme.

Living with hidden disabilities can make daily life more demanding for those with learning difficulties, mental health and hearing impairments. Photo: Instagram/ChangiairportLiving with hidden disabilities can make daily life more demanding for those with learning difficulties, mental health and hearing impairments. Photo: Instagram/Changiairport

The programme, which dates to 2016 at Gatwick Airport in London and was implemented at Albany International in 2022, allows travellers of all ages with unseen disabilities to pick up lanyards that smooth the entire experience from check-in to departure.

The lanyard alerts airport personnel that a passenger might need a bit more time, space and patience as they travel. They can be picked up at airline check-in desks or the airport information desk.

The Kinders’ dread disappeared the first time they used the program.

“The weeks leading up to flying you can see the anxiety starting to build a little bit but when we arrived at the airport it was just a seamless transition,” Ryan said. “And when we arrived at the gate the attendant there saw the lanyard and we were able to board very early on, which was very helpful not only for Kasen but for his mother and I and his two little brothers to just get settled in. We were stress-free and ready to go.”

Boarding early, being able to stay close to his parents and sitting together as a family was hugely important to Kasen, who is now 15.

“When people are getting on, I could be separated from my parents and that would have made (sensory difficulties) worse, not knowing what was happening or not having someone there to help me through it,” Kasen said.

The programme is doubly important to Ryan, who is a senior manager at Transitions, an organisation that provides educational and job training programmes to teens and young adults with learning differences including autism.

Ryan and his staff are often tasked with helping one of their students fly unaccompanied to visit relatives. Sending one of their students alone into the world to travel hundreds or thousands of miles away is a daunting prospect for his team, the students and their families.

The HDS program gives everyone involved enormous peace of mind. “It has allowed us to have peer mentors that work closely with our students to be able to go through security and right up to the gates so that students are comfortable when they’re able to fly home to see family,” Ryan said.

“Just being able to to give them the security of knowing that someone’s there right before the flight is about to take off has been very helpful.”

Now that the sky, literally, is the limit for the Kinders, Erin said they are making plans for future travel.

“We’re hoping to go to Hawaii, eventually.” – Times Union/TNS

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