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Masks may be going, but hidden disabilities aren’t so easily cast aside

Ahead of the possibility of masks no longer being obligatory on July 19, CEO of the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower team, Paul White, talks about the effect of the pandemic on those with hidden disabilities.

After almost a year of mandatory use on public transport and public indoor spaces, face masks could become a choice from July 19, rather than an obligation. There have been exceptions for some throughout the pandemic — for young children, disabled people and those with breathing difficulties — but, for those with hidden disabilities, the choice to not wear a face covering is not always understood by other members of the public.

The Hidden Disability Sunflower scheme has seen an increase in interest in their sunflower lanyards in the last year. The organisation has been providing lanyards since 2016 for users to signal that they are affected by a condition others might not be able to see but need to be aware of. 

Paul White, chief executive of Hidden Disabilities Sunflower team, explains: “The sunflower is a choice, it’s a way to demonstrate to others that you might need that little bit more time, and a way to demonstrate that although we are all equal, we are not all the same. You may feel you might need to wear one one day, and not wear one the next.” 

The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower team launched in 2016 in London Gatwick airport as a way of informing airport staff and other passengers that someone may require extra time or assistance. Since then, it has been seen globally in airports and other venues, including supermarkets and small businesses. 

Businesses which opt into the scheme receive lanyards they can then donate to colleagues and customers. The organisation does not require proof of a disability, and no special rights are granted by the lanyard, it is simply a subtle signal that the wearer may require extra assistance. 

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According to latest the Family Resources Survey, 14.1 million people reported having a disability in the UK, amounting to 24 per cent of females and 19 per cent of males. Among all disabilities, mobility, stamina and mental health were the most reported. The survey indicates, however, that it is impossible to split these statistics into visible and invisible disabilities. 

For certain disabilities, such as asthma and anxiety, face coverings are not an option. If a disability is not visible however, choosing not to wear a mask in public spaces while it is a legal obligation could lead to hostility from other members of the public. 

“No one could have predicted face-coverings and the extent that the UK has changed over the past 15 months,” said White. “We started receiving messages that people were being abused, verbally and physically because they weren’t wearing a face-covering, which is why we produced a face covering exemption card.

“We do not ask for proof of a person’s disability because there are a number of people whose condition is yet to be diagnosed, or for whom a diagnosis isn’t available, such as with anxiety. Of course, that opens the scheme up for abuse. But the sunflower doesn’t offer anything apart from the ability to demonstrate that you have an invisible condition. 

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“If a business decides that because of the sunflower, you shouldn’t be standing in a queue, or if the general public see it and offer you a seat, then that’s fantastic but of course, we do rely on goodwill. We repeatedly say that if you don’t have a hidden disability then the sunflower isn’t for you.”  

While regulations surrounding the pandemic may have made things more difficult for those with hidden disabilities, the situation itself has equally raised awareness of those disabilities. 

White said: “The pandemic has changed the world so much. It was always quite challenging to try and get businesses to become diverse. There were always barriers whether it was cost or difficulty to implement. Then overnight we pretty much all went from working in an office to working from home. That really demonstrates the ability for organisations to change and for organisations themselves, it has highlighted what people’s different conditions are.”

“The sunflower was here before the pandemic, and we will be here after the pandemic. The sunflower will be even more necessary in the post-pandemic world. As people return to work, there’s going to be a lot of anxiety, people will also be suffering with long-Covid. So we will continue to be here, and our core messaging will stay the same.”

Face masks may soon be optional, but signalling hidden disabilities could continue to have benefits for users after the pandemic.

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