A sunflower lanyard indicates in a subtle way that the wearer has an invisible disability, something that is unseen, for example, autism, anxiety, or in my case, schizophrenia. When the opportunity arose for me to go to New York, I was immediately concerned about how I would handle the travel aspect of it, specifically the airports. Airports had always made me feel stressed and nervous but the biggest difference in this trip is that I would be taking it alone. I wasn’t sure this was even something I was capable of.
Listed on both websites of the two airports I would be navigating was the recognition of sunflower lanyards and what they represent. I opted to take advantage of this. When first arriving at the Calgary airport, I headed to the information desk to pick up a sunflower lanyard, as was instructed on the website. Once I was donned with the lanyard, I headed to check-in. At this point, my parents were still with me, but once I got to security, they would not be able to accompany me any further.
I had a detailed document in my phone that I had written a few days prior to the actual travel day. I had a step by step explanation of each individual thing I would have to do in the airport. Overall, I managed through the Calgary airport pretty well. When it was time to board the plane, I opted for pre-boarding, explaining that I had a disability and needed to get on. This request was granted.
Arriving in the JFK airport in New York City was stressful and this is where I experienced my first meltdown. I was overwhelmed and didn’t know where to go or what to do. I was openly crying and pretty frantic. Eventually, a friend in the city came to the airport to get me, because I couldn’t seem to be able to find my way out of there on my own. A couple days later when it was time to leave New York City and head back home, I was pretty freaked out about having to go to the airport again but was anxious about getting home. This is where the sunflower lanyard comes into play.
Up until then, the sunflower lanyard had mostly been a personal comfort. I hadn’t really needed to utilize its subtle indicative meaning. On the day I was due to depart, I once again arrived at the dreaded JFK airport, tired, nervous, and way too early. I was so early that I couldn’t even check in yet. Now, I had actually already checked in on the app which as I understood it, could be done within a 24 hour window. However, I still wanted to check in with a real person.
Then it was time for security. I hadn’t gone through security in this airport before since last time I was simply getting off of a plane. I approached security and remember feeling confused and the overwhelm from two days ago threatened to overtake me again. There seemed to be a lot of different lines that were all labeled in different ways. I had to ask for help.
I approached the nearest worker I could find. I was just going to ask for clarification of directions, but clearly, she noticed my lanyard and jumped in to help as much as she could.
“Excuse me,” I said, “could you direct me—“
I didn’t even finish asking my question when she responded. “OF COURSE! Come with me!”
She motioned for me to follow her and I did. She took me away from the hoard of airport goers and to an area that was empty besides just the two of us. I didn’t realize at first what she was doing, I just blindly followed.
“Are you traveling alone?” she asked.
“Yes, for the first time,” I told her, somewhat meekly and nervously.
As I continued following her, she verbally ran through the next steps with me. She reminded me about what I would do at security, how I would take my shoes and sweater off and place them in the bin, and made sure I didn’t have any liquids or anything sharp that wouldn’t get through security.
We came upon another lady who was friendly and even joked with her coworker about “where her boarding pass was.” I showed her my boarding pass and asked for confirmation about my gate number. The lady that I had followed was still there with me and she went through each section of the boarding pass and told me what it meant and how I would use that information. It was then that I realized why I had followed her. She had taken me right to the front of the line.
I confirmed with her that I felt okay from there. “You sure?” she asked. I told her yes and thanked her sincerely for her help. Once I started the security process, I noticed that she had stepped back from the situation, but hadn’t left completely. The people working at security had obviously noticed her walk me up there deliberately and even though I had to take my lanyard off briefly and send it through the security scanner, they were gentle and deliberate with me there too. They explained what I had to do and also what they were doing. I didn’t take my iPad out of my bag and they wanted to run it through the scanner again. A man explained to me why he was doing that, didn’t criticize my mistake, and after it had gone through a second time, he handed my stuff right back to me.
I headed to my gate and again took advantage of pre-boarding when it was time. I just said “I have a disability, may I get on?” And the request was granted without question or debate.
The flight was long and boring, but we landed in Calgary and I was one step closer to going home. I checked my step by step document to see what I had to do after landing. Then, it was the dreaded “customs” time. I followed the herd of passengers also making their way over to that area. As we all filtered over to customs, an employee pointed out which line I would head to, as there were two different ones. She had obviously noticed my lanyard and took the extra step to make sure I did things correctly. I thanked her and went on.
At customs, there were individual kiosks. Again, an employee noticed my lanyard and pointed me in the direction of an open kiosk for me to go to. I started to go through the steps on my own until it wanted me to scan my passport. “May I do that for you?” asked one of the nearby employees. I allowed her since I was sure I would have had trouble with that step anyway. Once she helped with that, I was able to go through the rest of the questions on my own and take the printout slip the kiosk gave me.
Next, I left the kiosk area and came upon baggage claim. This wasn’t relevant to me as I only had carry-ons for the trip. At that point, I remember being a little confused about where I would find my mom, who was meeting me at the airport to pick me up. A man at a security desk called out to me specifically as I walked past him. “Need any help, ma’am?” he asked. I let him know I was looking to meetup with my mom and he was quick to tell me exactly where I needed to go. I gave my printout slip to a customs agent on my way out. Once I was through the customs exit, all the hard stuff was over.
I followed my mom into the parkade where her car was parked, thankful I wasn’t running around desperately looking for a Lyft or asking random people in cars if they were there ‘for Gillian’. I sat down in the passenger seat, and finally, relaxed.
Overall, the lanyard was definitely noticed by airport staff and it made a true difference. I hadn’t noticed even a single other person wearing one during the entire time so I am glad and thankful that staff had the training and knew to look out for it. I think after sharing this experience, some people might read this and think I got special treatment for no good reason, especially since none of the staff asked any questions about my condition or why I wore the lanyard in the first place. To them, I would say that, yes, at times perhaps I took advantage of supports that maybe I didn’t fully need, such as skipping the security line, but to a young woman traveling alone for the first time who deals with symptoms that flare up in times of stress which can often be disabling, it meant the world to me to have that help and know there was a support system put in place for people in similar situations as me. What I took away from this whole experience is that if I do further solo traveling in the future, I plan to have the sunflower lanyard on me. If I get to a point where I have done it enough and feel like I no longer need the extra assistance, then maybe I’d just keep it tucked away in a bag or something. When traveling with others, I do not feel that I would need to wear the lanyard as I don’t ever expect to be traveling with someone who isn’t already aware of my condition and how they can be a support themselves, and I also believe I’d already be less stressed and more confident traveling with other people anyway. The staff in the JFK and YYC airports did their jobs fantastically and I give credit to them for me getting through this experience in one piece.
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