Traveling has always been a favorite activity of mine. My husband and I love exploring new places. He is a great source of support and assistance on these journeys with my learning disability. He provides me with transportation as I am unable to drive because my visual perception affects my reaction time, eye-hand coordination and distinguishing my right from my left.
The issue is not in my eyes but in my brain. Having this can make using escalators impossible and my husband is great at finding the nearest elevator.
In July, I decided to attend the Down Syndrome Convention in Orlando, Florida, after being unexpectedly invited. As I prepared for the trip, I was both excited and anxious. This was my first trip to a new state, and I was looking forward to the adventure that awaited me.
I was also anxious because this would be my first trip without my husband or family and friends to help. I had not taken a solo trip nor have I had much experience flying. I wondered if this would be possible for me. Processing new information and navigating unfamiliar environments can be difficult for someone with a learning disability. The opportunity, though, was too good to pass up.
Looking for the Sunflower
People with hidden disabilities may have difficulty with processing directions or understanding signage. I can hear someone giving me directions on how to get to a location and I can read the signs. However I have difficulty with how my brain processes information that others cannot see – new information is especially hard for me.
As soon as I decided to take the journey, I started researching what resources were available for travelers with disabilities. My research led me to the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Program and a flight ambassador.
The Sunflower program helps those with hidden disabilities get the services they need. The green lanyard with a picture of a sunflower signals that the wearer has a disability that others cannot see and may need help or extra time.
The program was launched in 2016 and can now be found globally in over 200 airports, railways, bus stations, and some retailers.
Unfortunately, that’s not every airport, bus or train station. I have a friend with hidden disabilities who is traveling to an event later this year where the program is not offered. Not having these types of services will make the trip more difficult for her and other travelers with them.
Getting around is often difficult
Transportation is an issue for many people, but especially those with disabilities. I have also struggled with using subway systems while traveling. Finding a working elevator can be difficult; many of them are frequently out of service. The station may also have one that is working, but the location may be hard to find. I have also struggled to use the turnstiles in stations. I have had difficulty with swiping the card in time to open the gate.
I also have difficulty with processing changing travel display boards. It is hard for me to visually track the time for my route, while seeing the other ones listed. Having my phone set up for alerts helps me to have information on my departures.
Another barrier for people with disabilities is driving. Some people with disabilities can’t drive, while others who have them can. I am not able to drive because of my disability and have few transportation options in the small town that I live in. I am lucky to be in the middle of a small town that does have a few stores, coffee shops, businesses and a gym. The city bus service is limited and only goes through the town. Fortunately, my husband can take me where I need to go.
Many people who live in the country or other rural areas do not have many options. Not having bus service was one of the reasons I decided to move out of the country area that I grew up in. I rode ParaTransit for people with disabilities but found the service to be more trouble than it was worth. I never knew what time the bus was coming, and they were either extremely early or late. There were also a few occasions when they forgot to pick me up and left me scrambling for a ride at the last minute.
I am fortunate to live in a walkable community so I can often get to where I need to on foot. Additional benefits to this are extra walking steps, and the chance to photograph beautiful flowers and other things in nature. I get to notice other details that other people may miss from driving. Sidewalks can be difficult to manage, though. Many of them are cracked and uneven and have caused me to trip and fall. In the winter it can be hard when snow and ice cover the walks to form a slippery sheet. Many times, homeowners do not shovel or clear their walks. Not having a clear path makes it difficult for me to walk in snow, and impossible for a person with a wheelchair.
I have learned how to navigate transportation and access my local community independently. I had concerns about whether I could do this in an unfamiliar location, solo.
Baggage claim confusion
Finding the Hidden Sunflower Program not only eased my concerns, but those of my family as well. My parents, while supportive of me traveling, also had concerns. Some of their worries were the same as mine with navigating the airport and transportation at my destination. Information about the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Program and the flight ambassador eased their fears somewhat.
The worry of a parent, especially of a child with a disability, never ends. My dad warned me not to talk to strangers and my mom told me that she will always worry about me. Hearing of this program and other services also gave reassurance to my husband.
My flight ambassador greeted my husband and me warmly with my lanyard and a bag of items. She assisted me with airport procedures and helped to navigate the airport.
Flight ambassadors are volunteers who help make the journey through the airport smooth and seamless. They not only help people with disabilities, but also celebrities.
My ambassador helped me check in with my airline and checked my bag. She explained the process to me and my husband. She was able to walk with us until I had to get in line for security. It was a sad moment to separate from my husband, but I felt confident with my lanyard and flight ambassador. She walked me through security. After security, we rode the tram.
At the gate, she helped me with my boarding pass by talking to the airline representative. On the plane, I struggled to fasten my seat belt. My issues with hand dexterity can make tasks like this difficult. I got the attention of a flight attendant and she was able to help.
When I arrived at Orlando International Airport, I was in an unfamiliar setting. My husband and I had watched videos on YouTube to get a general idea of the area. I also looked at a map of the airport several times to know where baggage, the gates and the food court were.
Having this knowledge beforehand was helpful.
I was confused, though, about how baggage claim worked because the last time I flew my husband and I used carry-on bags. There were multiple baggage claims, and I could hear a woman on the loudspeaker telling me where the bags were coming from. I asked a staff member if I was in the right area for the bags from my flight. A woman in a wheelchair understood and told me that it could be confusing and that I was in the right place.
The next task was to grab lunch while I was waiting for my friend, Jennifer, who was with All Abilities Media, the organization with which I was working. During lunch at the food court, I also got in contact with Jennifer, to finalize my pick-up arrangements.
A delayed, but happy, return
My trip home is where I saw the most benefit of the program. Jennifer helped with checking in and we parted at security. I was on my own again. When I went through security, I showed them my badge. I also showed my badge at the airline counter and was allowed to preboard first.
The flight departing home did not go as smoothly as my arrival. We had a few delays due to the weather. Once we got on the plane, we were delayed. I was anxious to get home but glad that they were taking precautions.
When I got to Pittsburgh International Airport, people were more helpful. I had staff members who saw my lanyard and asked how they could help. I was able to make my way to baggage claim where my husband was waiting for me. I was so happy to see him and could not wait to tell him about my trip. He helped me with my baggage and we made our way home.
Using the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Program helped me navigate my first trip solo. Most people understood that the sunflower badge meant that the person wearing it had a hidden disability and may need extra help. It can be frustrating when people cannot see my disability, and have no idea what I need.
Having this lanyard helped to give me an extra voice to advocate for myself. I hope more public places incorporate this program. There are many people who may have hidden conditions who wish to travel. I also hope that more people with disabilities will utilize this program and know that other resources are available for travelers who have them. Life is far too short to let a disability stand in your way of seeing the world.
Michelle Steiner is a disability writer, speaker, photographer and para educator with a learning disability. She has articles published on The Mighty, Non-Verbal Learning Project, Dyscalculia Blog, Imagine the World as One Magazine and Word Gathering. She has had her photographs featured in Word Gathering and Independent and Work Ready. She works as a paraeducator in a school with students with disabilities. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two cats and can be reached at www.michellesmission.net or Msteiner441@gmail.com.
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