What Is A Hidden Disability And Why Is The Subject So Important?
In recent years, the topic of hidden disabilities and awareness surrounding them has become more and more prevalent, and rightly so.
According to Disabled World, a “hidden” or “invisible” disability is one that is not immediately apparent, and includes autism, dementia, chronic back pain, joint problems or visual and auditory issues.
Whereas, for example, somebody that is blind or in a wheelchair is easily recognisable as disabled, it is much trickier to establish somebody’s disability if they are suffering from chronic pain or anxiety.
If you are somebody that suffers with an invisible illness, navigating the world of air travel can be complicated, from raising the issues with staff beforehand, the journey throughout the airport, and feeling comfortable on the flight itself. But you should know that everybody, whether able-bodied or disabled in any way, has the same rights to enjoy air travel, and that those rights are enshrined in EU law.
In this article we will outline measures that airports have taken to make the airport experience as dignified and easy as possible.
An Urgent Need for Improvement
In 2018, The Guardian reported that the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) found four major UK airports needed to urgently improve their treatment of disabled passengers.
Stansted, Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester were all subjected to a scathing report from the aviation watchdog, with Manchester Airport being the only airport to receive a “poor” rating in terms of accessibility, for the second year in a row.
Everybody, whether able-bodied or disabled in any way, has the same rights to enjoy air travel, and these rights are enshrined in EU law.
The CAA consumers and markets director stated his concern: “There are still too many occasions when things go wrong. Where we see examples of bad practice, we will not hesitate to hold airports to account and take the necessary enforcement action.”
Since the negative report against Manchester Airport, it has stated its dedication to making improvements in order to reach acceptable standards.
Discretion Is The Name Of The Game
Nobody wants huge and unnecessary attention placed upon them, especially when it comes to sensitive matters such as a hidden disability. With this in mind, airports in recent years have unveiled numerous subtle aids to improve communication between airport staff members and passengers, without having to state anything out loud.
One of those initiatives is a butterfly voucher, implemented at Liverpool John Lennon Airport. In 2015, the airport brought in a discreet butterfly card, which is handed to people that may struggle to have a seamless airport experience. Pat Broster, of Liverpool Dementia Action Alliance said: “This scheme will provide people living with dementia and their carers the assurances and confidence of being supported by airport staff when travelling through the airport.
“LJL Airport committed to work with the Liverpool DAA transport group to contribute to Liverpool becoming a dementia friendly city.”
On June 12 2018, the CAA published an encouraging report, in which twenty-nine airports were surveyed on how they had helped those that suffer with hidden disabilities, such as autism, dementia and hearing loss.
From the report’s participants, 19% of people had a disability, and out of this demographic, 40% of conditions were non-physical, highlighting the need for accessibility improvements for those with invisible illnesses.
Measures taken to improve user experience include providing designated spaces for those in need of it, improving signage and routes around airports, boosting awareness training and consulting with prominent disability organisations.
The CAA’s Guidelines For Airport Staff Regarding Hidden Disabilities
The CAA has set out guidelines for airport staff, including security, to follow in order to be as informed as they possibly can be surrounding the subject of hidden disability.
In 2014, Manchester released specific autism wristbands, and in 2015, Gatwick collaborated with OCS and the Alzheimer’s Society with its special “sunflower” lanyard.
The CAA’s recommendations include:
- ensuring that all staff members have informative awareness training to allow ease of communication with passengers
- never separating somebody with a hidden disabilities from their family, friends or whoever is accompanying them during a security search
- familiarising passengers with the airport prior to travel, such as accessible videos and photos, in order to ease anxiety and stress
airports should provide a quiet area to wait for flights, and quiet routes, such as bypassing the retail area. This is particularly beneficial for those with a cognitive impairment
In 2016, Heathrow Airport became the first in the world to become “dementia-friendly”. The airport’s admirable work largely revolved around launching a training programme familiarising all of its 76,000 staff with the illness.
Further aiding progress was Gatwick Airport – in 2018, it was the first airport in the UK to open a sensory room, which aids passengers that have dementia, autism or a cognitive impairment.
The ‘chill out zone’ is designed to be calming, with floor cushions, bean bags and digital display panels that create colourful visual wall features.
Passengers wishing to use the facility can book a 45 minute session by visiting the special assistance reception in the departure lounge.
The Popular Use of Lanyards
In recent times, airports have utilized lanyards as a discreet way of signalling that somebody has a hidden disability. Giving passengers this choice serves as a sensitive way to subtly alert airport staff to somebody who may need extra assistance.
The CAA report found that all twenty-nine airports surveyed had implemented the use of lanyards as a popular way of communicating disability.
They have been particularly well-received by security staff, who welcome the knowledge that someone may need help and the improvement in queue times.
The CAA findings highly praise Manchester and Gatwick Airports as the instigators of the lanyard approach; in 2014, Manchester released specific autism wristbands, and in 2015, Gatwick collaborated with OCS and the Alzheimer’s Society with its special “sunflower” lanyard.
All of these things help everybody with a hidden disability to feel included and welcome, rather than anxious and ostracised.
As the sunflower lanyard proved to be a popular initiative, other airports quickly followed suit.
Hidden Disability Awareness Days
Gatwick Airport held an accessibility day in April 2018 during Accessibility Week, to bridge the gap between disabled travel and fear.
More than 40 local families attended the event, which was a resounding success.
Airport routines were simulated to mimic the environment on a day to day basis, families were talked through the check in process, introduced to the Special Assistance Services team and Border Force officials introduced them to some of their search dogs.
Maria Cook, Gatwick’s Autism Ambassador said “I am extremely proud to be involved in events like these and to have played a part in helping Gatwick to become the first UK airport to be accredited as Autism Friendly.”