by Richard Stradling, The News & Observer/TNS | August 30, 2022
MORRISVILLE, N.C. — Getting to the airport, through security to the gate and on the plane can be stressful for anyone. But it can be especially challenging for people with dementia, autism or other disabilities that may not be apparent to those around them.
To help, Raleigh-Durham International Airport is introducing the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Program. Developed in the United Kingdom, the program uses lanyards, pins and bracelets decorated with sunflowers to discreetly indicate that a person may need special assistance or is ready and able to provide that assistance.
More than 160 airports around the world have adopted the Sunflower Program, but it’s relatively new at airports in the U.S. That puts RDU ahead of most, said Teepa Snow, an occupational therapist in Hillsborough who founded Positive Approach to Care, an organization that seeks to make it easier for people with dementia to function in the world.
Airports and particularly security checkpoints, with their crowds, noise, rules and the need to keep moving, can be challenging places for people whose brains work fine under calmer circumstances.
“It may not be evident to you, but inside my brain I’m starting to get overwhelmed. I can’t understand what you’re saying anymore. I don’t understand what you want me to do,” Snow said, speaking for someone who has dementia or another disability affecting the brain. “It’s truly an invisible condition.”
There are several strategies to help keep a person in that circumstance from freezing up or becoming agitated, Snow said. Slow down, talk less, make eye contact and use gestures to show what you want. And if someone needs more time, give it to them.
Under the Sunflower Program, people can wear a green lanyard, pin or bracelet covered in sunflowers to indicate they have dementia or other hidden disability. RDU will make them available at the customer service desks in both terminals.
Meanwhile, RDU has trained its guest services staff and some other employees to help people with hidden disabilities. Those who have been trained will wear a white lanyard with sunflowers. Those lanyards also are available for a family member or caregiver of someone with a hidden disability, as a signal to security checkpoint officers and others at the airport.
The Transportation Security Administration also has a program to help passengers with physical and emotional disabilities get through security checkpoints smoothly. TSA Cares provides a number travelers or their caregivers can call 72 hours in advance of their flight to arrange for someone to help them through security, said Jennifer Gordon, TSA’s federal security officer at RDU.
“Let us know. Call the hotline in advance, and we will make sure someone’s there to assist you,” Gordon said. “And if you get to the airport and you realize, ‘I need that special assistance,’ just discreetly let one of our officers know and they will get you to the right passenger support specialist.”
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