You may be on a subway platform, passing through airport security or in line to check out with your groceries. As you wait, though, you notice someone else nearby with an eye-catching accessory. Dangling from their neck is a practically unmissable green lanyard emblazoned with bright yellow sunflowers. But this person isn’t wearing the item as part of a new trend or simply to look good. There’s actually a powerful hidden meaning behind this lanyard – and you need to know what this is.
Folks started showing up with these lanyards around their necks back in 2016, when they appeared at Gatwick Airport in London, England. And the design was certainly unique and bright enough to grab people’s attention. But that’s for good reason. Those buttery yellow sunflowers popping against the green background send an important message to anyone around the wearer.
Yes, the sunflower lanyard is intended to be a subtle way of telling you something. And because the scheme was so effective in its mission, it began to spread. From the U.K., it made its way overseas to the U.S., where today you can find people nationwide donning the green-and-yellow neckwear.
However, while these arresting items are meant to send a message to airport employees, it’s also important for other passengers to know what their significance is. And when you spot one of these accessories on your next trip to the airport, train station, hospital or any other public space, you’ll then be clued in – and can act accordingly.
There’s a good reason why the lanyards took off at Gatwick Airport, too: it’s often chock-full of people. A whopping 46.6 million folks passed through in 2019 alone. Apparently, Gatwick also has flights to more destinations than any other airport in the country. And maybe because they see such an incredible number of passengers, the Gatwick staff started thinking about how they could better serve their customers.
So, in 2016 workers cottoned onto the idea of lanyards covered in sunflowers that passengers could wear as a discreet symbol. Of course, the airport staffers would be briefed on the accessories and what they meant. That way, they could best serve wearers without drawing attention to them.
And after the sunflower lanyard scheme proved a success at Gatwick, it soon spread to other airports. Every single major flight hub in the U.K. eventually adopted the colorful accessories, as did rail stations, grocery stores, leisure centers, businesses and the police force. An international expansion took place, too.
Yes, nearly 5,000 miles away from the British capital, the lanyards came into use at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 2019. At the time, Sea-Tac was the first U.S. airport to bring out the sunflower-covered neckwear. And according to statistics, Americans could really use such a resource. That’s all down to the hidden meaning behind the lanyards, of course.
The number of people who could benefit from such a scheme is considerable. In 2018 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that one in four American adults would qualify to wear a sunflower lanyard. That figure doesn’t even factor in the children eligible, either.
And given those astonishing numbers, it’s no surprise that the idea has continued to spread. In early 2020 New York City’s JFK Airport – specifically terminal four – became the first in the northeast to bring in the sunflower lanyards. Travelers passing through could request one of the items to wear as they journeyed to their planes.
JFK’s CEO Roel Huinink was understandably pleased by the update, telling the International Airport Review in February 2020, “At T4, we are always looking for ways to better serve our passengers, and we are proud to be the first air terminal in the northeast to participate in the… lanyard scheme.” He also hoped that adding the sunflower lanyards to at least part of JFK would “help to make… customers’ [journeys] as seamless and comfortable as possible.”
In January 2020 Copenhagen Airport joined the scheme, too, as staffers knew that bringing in the lanyards would help alleviate the major anxieties that come with air travel. That’s a small clue to what the items actually symbolize. In a statement at the time, the airport’s team said, “Procedures such as check-ins, security checks and boarding the aircraft can be a stressful experience for all travelers.”
For those eligible to wear the sunflower lanyards, however, getting ready to fly can be even more difficult. That’s why implementing the neckwear program has proven to be a boon to the airport. And the scheme has not just been a help to the passengers who use it. The Copenhagen-based staff have found it to be beneficial to them, too.
The airport has actually trained approximately 25,000 employees from the 1,250 businesses that operate out of the terminals. And while lanyard-wearing passengers have complimented these workers’ skills following the coaching, the program has also started a conversation among the staff members themselves. In January 2020 service excellence director Stine Marsal told Flight Chic that the scheme “has had an incredibly positive effect internally between colleagues.”
There were the personal ramifications of the program, too. Marsal went on, “[People who need the lanyards] are not just our customers. They are also ourselves. They are our families and those closest to us.” And that’s precisely why the brightly colored items have started to pop up in more places around the globe.
The U.K. especially has seen the sunflower lanyards appear in more than just airports. Two years after the launch at London Gatwick Airport, the country’s rail system also became part of the green neckwear scheme, while national supermarkets and hospitals similarly tried the lanyards out at the same time.
In 2019 U.K. sports venues, shopping centers, banks and insurance companies all followed suit. That same year, the organization responsible for making the sunflower lanyards also opened up a website so that people could purchase the neckwear. And an accompanying Facebook page raked in 25,000 fans within days, bringing the program further international attention.
Now, as we know, the sunflower lanyards have made their way out of the U.K. and into countries in Europe and across the pond. As of May 2020, they are also in Australia, Argentina and South Carolina. And there are 991 sunflower lanyard-recognizing locations in Europe, including spots in Spain, Italy, Sweden, Lithuania and the Netherlands.
Currently, in fact, more than one million of the accessories have been doled out by both businesses and the organization itself. And as the lanyards are becoming increasingly common in our public spaces, you definitely ought to know what they mean before you come across one.
Well, originally, the sunflower lanyards stemmed from a conversation at Gatwick Airport in 2016. Back then, the program’s founders wondered, “How can we recognize that one of our passengers may have a non-obvious disability?” And from there, the discreet symbol was born. It’s simple but effective, and it lets you know at a glance whether someone may need extra care and consideration.
You or someone you know could benefit, too, as the World Health Organization estimates that around a billion people across the planet live with some form of impairment. Another survey conducted in the U.S. found that nearly three-quarters of Americans have disabilities that don’t come with a visual signal – such as a wheelchair.
Many public spaces are already equipped to deal with the challenges that people with more noticeable disabilities may face. Airports will be wheelchair-accessible, for instance, and have signage available in braille. However, it’s not quite as simple to design a user-friendly system for those with so-called “invisible” conditions such as chronic pain or fatigue.
And 88 percent of those with invisible disabilities have shied away from sharing their struggles with others, according to a 2011 Canadian study quoted by the BBC. In 2017 disability charity service manager Guy Chaudoir explained to the British broadcaster, “People worry about being labeled. One of the hardest things is putting pressure on yourself to achieve and being afraid to ask for help – to say, ‘I can’t do this today.’”
The sunflower lanyards aim to remove that stress from travelers, though, as it’s a discreet symbol that airport staffers will instantly recognize. And either the person in need or another member of their party can wear it to signal that someone in their group has an invisible disability.
In that way, the lanyard gives airport staff a chance to ask travelers how they can assist them to their gates in a comfortable manner. And Sea-Tac spokesman Perry Cooper expanded on this in a 2019 interview with U.S. News & World Report, saying, “Maybe this customer needs a little more help. Maybe this is why they’re speaking slowly or reacting in a different way. This is for those people who need some extra help that is not readily recognizable.”
Also speaking to U.S. News & World Report, Gatwick’s accessibility manager Jack Bigglestone-Silk explained that staff had chosen the sunflower because it would be instantly recognizable to those who know of the scheme. And those airports participating in the program will have a full roster of employees who see the flowers and know what to do.
Bigglestone-Silk added, “We now provide free training on accessibility to all organizations on the airport campus to ensure consistent standards all the way through the airport journey. This includes training on how to recognize our lanyards and what to do if you see someone wearing one [who] needs a little extra help.”
Prior to the sunflower scheme, such instant understanding would be hard to come by. Talking to U.S. News & World Report, mom of three Jennifer Vertetis recalled a particularly stressful journey with her autistic son Peter, who was then aged 16. On that occasion, a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official had tried to pull her into a private room for a more thorough search, which naturally jangled the mom’s nerves. Peter was alarmed at the situation, too.
Vertetis claimed that she had then begged the TSA agent to allow her son in the room and had tried to explain why Peter had become distressed. She had also needed the search to happen quickly, as it was important that she keep her family’s travel schedule on track for take-off.
Vertetis said to U.S. News & World Report, “People with autism often need more time and coaxing to go through the expected tasks while in an intense environment with new rules. As parents, we find ourselves in constant battle mode to get through the airport.” And the mom claimed that such struggles didn’t start and end with the TSA.
According to Vertetis, families containing a member with an invisible disability can take longer than usual to get prepared for a security scan. They may also need to stagger their line-up through the body-scanning device, as a child with a condition such as autism may panic if going last or run away if they’re first through the gate.
All of the aforementioned issues could annoy other passengers who also have to get through TSA checkpoints, Vertetis added. An invisible disability may also make it harder for a child or adult to get through the whole process quickly, as staff won’t immediately know that they have a condition. That sunflower lanyard, however, could provide a crucial visual signal.
And Vertetis foresaw big changes as the sunflower scheme became more prominent. She said, “Really, I think that is the most impactful thing the sunflower lanyards will do. It will make people aware. There is genuine compassion from other passengers, airline staff, security and TSA once they understand [that] they are working with someone who has a disability.”
And for some organizations, the lanyards were just the beginning. In 2019 U.K. grocery chain Sainsbury’s introduced a special shopping period for people with autism and their loved ones. During Autism Hour, the company will remove or reduce any background noise to help create a more calming environment.
This considerate move showed that sunflower lanyards are just one piece of the awareness-raising puzzle. In a Sainsbury’s press release, the National Autistic Society’s Tom Purser was quoted as saying that the Autism Hour event was “an opportunity for businesses and the public to learn about the small things they can do to help create a society that works for autistic people.” He added, “It’s often the smallest change that makes the biggest difference.”
So, while the sunflower lanyard may seem simple enough, it has the potential to make someone’s day that little bit easier – especially in stressful public situations. Those in need of a lanyard can typically get one from an airport assistance desk, although they can also be found elsewhere. At Sea-Tac, for example, there are helpers called Pathfinders who wear teal and dole the items out to flyers.
Participating grocery stores will probably have some lanyards on hand at their customer service desks, while smaller shops will have them on hand at the checkout lanes. If you can’t find a lanyard in person, though, then head to the Hidden Disabilities website, where they sell them along with other sunflower-covered accessories.
And even if you don’t need a sunflower lanyard, it’s important to know what it symbolizes – and be understanding of those who may need a little more time or attention. After all, doing so will continue the program’s mission, as Hidden Disabilities’ CEO Paul White told the International Airport Review. White said, “We believe this system will create a more comfortable and positive airport experience for people who have disabilities that might not be visible.”
There’s been some success, too. So far, fans of the scheme – including advocates for those with autism and other conditions – have found that the lanyards do boost awareness. And they haven’t just made folks realize that others may need extra time in certain situations. The lanyards also bring attention to the fact that people with invisible disabilities often face a slew of challenges – even if they’re not obvious from the outside.
And Lene Andersen said it best when she spoke to U.S. News & World Report. The blogger and health advocate explained, “Other passengers can be helpful by being more aware that invisible disabilities happen. [Then], once you know that anyone could need help, you become more aware and more generous with offering [it].”
Now you know exactly what those can’t-miss-them lanyards actually mean. But there’s actually another symbol out there – one that’s less noticeable than the sunflowers but just as important. And if you spot a visible black dot on someone’s palm, here’s what you need to recognize. You may even have to take action.
If you just so happen to see someone with a black dot on their hand, there’s something important that you must know. You see, back in 2015 a social media campaign encouraged certain individuals to identify that they needed help by drawing dark marks on their palms. And the reason for the gesture is incredibly serious, too – certainly enough to get the cops involved in many cases.
Word has also spread about the black dot – mostly thanks to engagement online. And the web has undoubtedly benefited in boosting the profile of campaigns or movements that otherwise may have gone unnoticed. At the very least, it required more work to get your message out there before the dawn of the internet.
Then, of course, social media has played a big role in circulating information worldwide. In fact, if a cause is promoted on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, it has a real chance of reaching millions of people across the globe – just as the Black Dot Campaign did.
But what exactly is the Black Dot Campaign? Well, it started life in September 2015, when a Facebook user from the United Kingdom created a page for the initiative on the social networking site. There were explanations, too, as to why the black dot was necessary and what it would be signifying. Yet this fledgling movement didn’t arrive without sparking some controversy.
And, in fact, the Black Dot Campaign isn’t the only initiative to use the idea of body modification in order to signify personal struggles. Project Semicolon had a similar idea when it emerged back in 2013 in order to help those who were tackling mental health issues.
Founded by a woman named Amy Bleuel, Project Semicolon had a clear aim going forward that it would ultimately share on its official website. And the message itself was incredibly powerful. The post began, “Project Semicolon is an organization dedicated to the prevention of suicide.”
“Our work is based on the foundation and belief that suicide is preventable and everyone has a role to play in preventing suicide,” Project Semicolon continued on its site. “Through raising public awareness, educating communities and equipping every person with the right tools, we know we can save lives.”
Founder Bleuel was no stranger to mental illness herself. In fact, the Wisconsin resident had gone through tough times from early on in her life – beginning with her parents’ separation when she had still been a young child. And even following her mom and dad’s divorce, there was still plenty of strife in her household.
Bleuel offered more insight into the situation in a detailed post on Project Semicolon’s website. She wrote, “At the age of six – two years after my parents divorced – I chose to go live with my father and his new wife. Living with my father was great until my stepmother began abusing me physically, mentally and even emotionally.”
Bleuel continued, “I endured [my stepmother’s] abuse until I was taken from my father and put into state custody. I remained there while I waited for my mother to come for me. This happened at the age of eight, marking the start of my journey into ‘the system.’” Unfortunately, though, this didn’t signal the end of Bleuel’s troubles.
You see, the abuse that Bleuel had suffered had made a real impact, leading her to sometimes make the wrong decisions. Then, when she was just 13 years old, Bleuel endured a truly horrific experience: she became a victim of rape.
Yet even after that, the young woman did not get the help that she needed. Bleuel continued in her post, “Rather than being reassured and comforted after the assault, I was held responsible for a crime I did not commit and put back into the system. The next five years of my life were spent in darkness and total solitude. I was even heavily medicated with drugs used to treat mental illnesses – despite never being diagnosed with one at the time.”
Bleuel added, “I fell victim to self-injuring behavior more than once and, on a number of occasions, even attempted to take my life.” There would be an overwhelming loss for Bleuel, too, as when she was 18 years old her father died by suicide.
Then, around ten years on from the death of her dad, Bleuel decided to do something to help people in a similar position. Yes, even though the intervening decade had not always been easy for her, she nevertheless knew that she wanted to make a positive impact on others – and she would do so through Project Semicolon.
Tragically, though, Bleuel’s own story would ultimately end in heartbreak. Less than two weeks after her post was shared on Project Semicolon’s website on March 10, 2017, the founder took her own life. Bleuel was just 31 years old at the time of her passing.
The project has continued after Bleuel’s death, and it spreads its message in a unique way outside of the internet. In particular, it’s been suggested that people who have battled their own mental health issues or lost a loved one to suicide should get a semicolon tattoo as a way of showing support to the cause. And a few famous faces have followed through in that regard.
Tommy Dorfman and Alisha Boe, who both star in the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, inked up in April 2017 alongside the show’s executive producer Selena Gomez. And perhaps because the show deals with the aftermath of a suicide, the trio decided to make a gesture of support towards Project Semicolon.
Dorfman even went on to share a photo of their tattoos on Instagram as well as a message of his own. He wrote, “Today was a magical day. Another day to be grateful to be alive. Alisha, Selena and I went together to get semicolon tattoos. The semicolon symbol stands for an end of one thought and [the] beginning of another.”
“Instead of a period, authors use the semicolon to continue a sentence,” Dorfman added. “For us, it means [the] beginning of another chapter in life in lieu of ending your life. If you’re struggling [or] if you feel suicidal, ask for help. Start a new chapter with the support of others. And RIP Amy Bleuel, who started the semicolon movement.”
And in the United Kingdom, a Facebook user may have been inspired by Project Semicolon to start up her own campaign in September 2015. The individual in question wanted to help people who were suffering from domestic violence, and in order to do so she took to the social media site.
Known as the Black Dot Campaign, the initiative would quickly attract attention online. And a post on the Black Dot Campaign Facebook page would go into further detail about the aim of the project, explaining, “The original ethos for this campaign was to enable a victim to put a dot on their hand around someone they trusted to enable a conversation to start.”
The post went on, “[From there, the victim] could open that door and hopefully start a process of seeking professional help. This is an idea [that came from] thinking outside of the box, [and it’s] trying to open up the world’s eyes and ears to what is going on in terms of abuse. The idea came from a former domestic violence victim.”
The Black Dot Campaign’s creator would also come forward to talk with ITV News about her past struggles. And in the process, the woman – who remained anonymous – explained how her own experience of abuse had led her to conceive of the symbol.
The woman said, “For five years I experienced emotional, physical and sexual abuse, [and] it is the loneliest, scariest place to be. I had ample opportunities to seek help, but I never did. I wish I could have put something on my body so they can start that conversation with me. That’s where the black dot idea came from.”
And before long, the campaign page had reached around 40,000 likes on Facebook, while the message behind the endeavor had gone viral. Yet regardless of the good intentions surrounding the project, a number of people argued that it may actually backfire in practice.
You see, it was suggested that, as the campaign grew, an abuser may actually learn about the significance of the black dot. As a consequence, then, a victim could be placing themselves in even more danger by signalling to anyone who sees their hand that they need assistance.
The Black Dot Campaign founder had a response to these concerns, though. She wrote, “Any idea of ‘help’ in these circumstances [has] risks. That’s why we continue to invent new ways to help. The black dot is not the only way to access help, but it could be the one that could help a particular person. Each domestic abuse case is completely different.”
The Facebook user continued, “Each perpetrator behaves differently, with one thing in common: control. [The black dot] could [be a risk], but that person knows their perpetrator and what the triggers are – and what is safe and not safe to do.”
The anonymous founder then concluded her thoughts, writing, “Many are unable to speak out through fear, shame [and] unknown consequences if children are involved. Just because you are or have been a victim, it doesn’t mean [that] you are stupid and make stupid decisions. This [campaign] has helped many people already, and I thank everyone for their continued support.”
And while there may have been drawbacks to the black dot method, the campaign did receive some backing from the head of an important organization. U.K. charity Women’s Aid strives to eradicate all forms of domestic abuse, and its chief executive believed that the campaign did have potential.
In September 2015 Polly Neate told HuffPost, “It can be very difficult and dangerous for victims of domestic abuse to speak out about what is happening to them. [This is] due to fear of what the perpetrator will do [as well as] fear of not being believed. The black dot could help some victims to communicate their abuse.”
Yet although Neate could see the positives behind the campaign, she still noted that there could be risks to victims who choose to use the black dot method. Sandra Horley from fellow U.K. domestic violence support organization Refuge waded into the debate, too, and expressed the same fears. Regardless, though, the movement’s creator refused to budge from her stance.
The founder said on Facebook, “People are talking about domestic abuse. They are sharing my posts and opening up the world’s eyes to this issue. In two days we have reached 1.5 million people, and everyone is getting involved. People are thanking me, we have helped people access services they didn’t feel strong enough to access and we are raising awareness worldwide.”
In the end, the Black Dot Campaign was shut down on Facebook after less than two weeks – perhaps in part because of the objections that it had received. But in a surprising twist, the idea hit the headlines again a couple of years later.
Yes, in June 2017 an Irish modeling company called Size Gorgeous Management wanted to bring the campaign back into the public consciousness. Unsurprisingly, though, the same concerns about the black dot were raised once more, and yet again Women’s Aid stepped into the fray to comment.
Talking to The Irish Times, a spokesperson for the charity said, “We are surprised that the Black Dot Campaign is being taken up [in Ireland] given the valid criticisms of it when it started in the U.K. and U.S. in 2015. These led to the campaign dissipating very quickly.”
The Women’s Aid representative continued, “Encouraging people experiencing domestic violence to visibly mark themselves in this way could, unwittingly, lead to very dangerous situations. It could signal to the abuser that the person wants to leave and is asking for help.”
Yet those worries seemingly weren’t shared by Size Gorgeous Management, which was looking to spread the campaign’s message across Ireland. And Sharon McCarthy, who was coordinating the Irish project herself, revealed a bit more about the plan to The Irish Times.
McCarthy said, “We are the first body in Ireland to launch the campaign here in Ireland. We will launch on the streets of Dublin and in and around popular locations to highlight that the black dot on the palm of a hand is a silent cry for help against domestic violence – for both men and women.”
McCarthy further justified the decision by adding, “One of the models that we work with has been the victim of domestic violence, and we are doing this for her. We believe the black dot idea is a legitimate method of seeking aid. And by raising awareness, [the scheme] will help the most vulnerable victims of domestic violence.”