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YVR support for hidden disabilities reduces 'explanation stress'

A Richmond advocate is optimistic about programs improving accessibility but thinks more consistency is needed.
The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Program aims to help travellers who may need a little more help or time while going through the airport.

Richmond resident Dave Thomson, who suffers from a rare form of fibromyalgia, avoids travelling "like the plague" whenever it's possible. 

Travelling can be challenging at times for Thomson, the community outreach coordinator at the Richmond Centre for Disability, who lives with chronic pain and fatigue caused by post-traumatic hyper-irritability syndrome.

The most stressful thing is the constant explaining, or the "explanation stress" as Thomson calls it.

"I have very unique behaviour that sometimes can be looked at very strangely in an airport situation... I can break out into a full sweat. I can be very, very fidgety," he explained.

"In a travel situation, you could be running into so many different entities in such a small period of time, and it gets tiring having to explain it again.

"And it gets so tiring, and sometimes you don't end up doing it very well at times. And that might end up being a problem."

Hidden disabilities can include conditions such as autism, chronic pain, epilepsy, low vision and anxiety disorders.

"If I say I have a disability and the person can't see it, their brain just doesn't compute," Thomson explained, adding that is where the need for explaining comes in.

He told the News he has heard "lists and lists of horror stories," including his own experiences, about travelling with hidden disabilities. Initiatives such as the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Program at Vancouver International Airport (YVR) can be "great" for reducing travel stress.

"If it saves me from explaining it one less time than I have to, it is great," he said.

The sunflower program, which began as an initiative at the London Gatwick Airport, offers lanyards and stickers with a sunflower to serve as a discreet indicator for airport staff that the traveller might need a little more help or time to get through the airport.

YVR adopted the program in 2022 as part of its commitment to improving accessibility at the airport.

"While we had been making good progress on people with visible disabilities, frankly, we hadn't made as much progress for serving the unique needs of people with less visible disabilities," said YVR CEO Tamara Vrooman, who added the airport was the first in the world to be certified gold by the Rick Hansen for accessibility.

To date, 4,000 lanyards have been handed out and all YVR staff are fully trained to recognize them and offer support.

"It's quite a popular program in our terminal," said Vrooman.

Consistency is key

"One of the many things we learned through the (COVID-19 pandemic), when we couldn't travel, is how important air travel is for not only the functioning of our economy... but also for our society," said Vrooman.

"And so we really believe that our service is an essential one, and we need to make sure that we're making the changes and introducing the supports that make it equally accessible for everyone."

In addition to the sunflower program, YVR also recently launched a series of interactive travel training videos to help individuals prepare for different travel processes ahead of time.

The videos are created in partnership with the Pacific Autism Family Network and AIDE Canada and offer a simulation of the travel experience "from the curb to cloud," such as check-in, security screening and aircraft boarding.

Staff are also receiving training to learn best practices for supporting those in the neurodiverse community.

Two years into the sunflower program, Vrooman said the biggest takeaway is "everybody's unique needs are a little bit different and unique."

While it is important to offer a comprehensive program that is welcoming to everyone regardless of their needs, it is also important to bear in mind that one size does not fit all, and it is "vitally important" to tailor services and supports for each individual.

The program has also helped those at YVR develop "more awareness and curiosity about the little things that we can do that can make a big difference to each passenger that's travelling through the terminal," Vrooman added.

Although Thomson is optimistic about the sunflower program and the training videos ("Knowledge is power, right?"), he thinks consistency is something that needs to be worked on.

"If you get that consistency throughout the whole trip, then that would be great," he said.

He recalled speaking with a community member who travelled with a family using the sunflower lanyard for their autistic son.

"But as soon as they got to Mexico, no one knew what the hell it was," said Thomson.

The same concern also applies to travel processes, where some rules, such as what is allowed in carry-on luggage, may not always be enforced consistently.

"And of course, that just takes time," he said.

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