Students share their experience of the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower initiative

6 November 2023
Supporting disability awareness.
We spoke to Khanh Tran, Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws student and a Disabilities and Carers Officer at the Student Representative Council, and Gemma Lucy Smart, PhD candidate and Disability Equity Officer at the Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association, about what the Hidden Disability Sunflower means to them and how you can show your support.

The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower.

One in five people in Australia have a disability and it's estimated that 80–85 per cent of these are invisible. Hidden disabilities are diverse: they can be temporary, situational, or permanent; neurological, cognitive, physical, visual, auditory, or sensory; or involve health conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, or chronic pain. People living with disabilities can also have different needs at different times, meaning their assistance requirements may fluctuate day to day.

The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower provides a simple, internationally recognised symbol for people with non-visible disabilities to voluntarily share they may need a helping hand. By wearing a bright green lanyard, lapel, or wristband with yellow sunflowers on it, people can discreetly flag their hidden disability so that members of the public can identify they may need additional support as they go about their day, such as when they are at work, or while on transport.

Sunflower lanyards are available for free from Inclusion and Disability Services (IDS). Head to the IDS webpage to find out more information and where you can collect a lanyard from.

Gemma Lucy Smart, PhD candidate and Disability Equity Officer at SUPRA.

Gemma, a PhD candidate at the University and Disability Equity Officer at Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association (SUPRA), wears the Sunflower to let the people around them know they have a condition that requires understanding and support.

“I wear the Hidden Disability Sunflower to let the people around me know that I have a condition which may impact the way I am able to navigate and use spaces, particularly during an attack,” Gemma said.

“It's a way for me to be able to express my needs without having to disclose my disability verbally.”

What should people know about hidden disabilities? 

Wearing the Sunflower makes a real difference to the lives of people with hidden disabilities by improving accessibility, removing barriers to understanding and building confidence in public spaces.

“Although very common, hidden disabilities can pose a challenge when it comes to comprehending and acknowledging the legitimate need for support in individuals with such conditions,” Gemma said.

Khanh Tran, current student and a Disabilities Carers Officer at SRC.

For Khanh, current student and a Disabilities and Carers Officer at the University’s Student Representative Council (SRC), the Sunflower initiative is shifting the understanding of disability in Australia and globally, challenging stereotypes and allowing for greater awareness of the multifaceted nature of disabilities.

“As an indicator of invisible disabilities, the Sunflower can help with reducing feelings of judgement and discomfort where you feel a need to 'explain' your hidden disability to others,” said Khanh.

“Hidden disabilities are, by nature, never monolithic and cover a wide range of conditions that affect how a person navigates the world.”

In Khanh’s experience, there remains a persistent, narrow understanding of disability, that presents people with a disability as either sufferers of a personal tragedy, or aligned with what is known as a supercrip identity, someone who must overcome their disability and inspire others to do the same. 

“The Sunflower helps to challenge these stereotypes along the way by highlighting the vast diversity of hidden disabilities,” Khanh added.

The global network also provides a sense of pride and community for those living with a hidden disability.

“Disability is something someone can be proud of, as a member of a rich and diverse community,” said Gemma. 

“For some of us, we view disability as a core part of our identity and our sense of self. Being kind and open-minded to the diversity of the human experience includes understanding that disability is part of the human condition, and using the Sunflower is a great way for people with disabilities to have confidence in expressing their needs,” Gemma added.

How can others support those who wear the Sunflower? 

If you see someone wearing the Sunflower, it’s important to take in your surroundings and consider the situation before feeling compelled to immediately intervene. 

“If you're passing someone in a public area, it may not make sense to do anything at all. However, if you're in a service or front-facing role, being proactive about talking to folks about their Sunflower is a good start,” said Gemma.

“Pay close attention and take cues regarding the support that is required. Avoid inquiring about their specific disability or making assumptions about their abilities or needs. Instead, focus on offering solutions (if they want them) and be considerate. If the person has a caregiver present, address the individual with the disability directly,” Gemma added.

If you see someone wearing a Sunflower lanyard, lapel or wristband who may need support, here are six easy steps you can take:

  • Ask if you can help
  • Be kind
  • Listen closely
  • Have patience
  • Do not judge
  • Show respect

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