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New initiative aims to make Moncton airport more accessible

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Starting Tuesday, passengers inside the Greater Moncton Romeo LeBlanc International Airport will see more than just boarding passes and luggage thanks to a new worldwide initiative aiming to put accessibility at the forefront.

The airport has opted into the hidden disabilities sunflower lanyard program, an initiative that started in England in 2016, and officials are hopeful it will make a big impact for people travelling with hidden disabilities.

“Everybody’s coping with something, but we can’t always see what somebody’s dealing with on the inside so this is that subtle way for someone to communicate, ‘I may be going through something or I may have a condition that you can’t see,’ but it creates maybe additional anxiety or exceptionalities as they go through the airport," explained Courtney Burns, president and CEO of the Greater Moncton International Airport Authority.

The bright green and yellow sunflower lanyards are more than just a visual reminder.

A collection of hidden disabilities sunflower lanyards. (Alana Pickrell/CTV Atlantic)

Burns says airport staff went through training with Accessibility New Brunswick before officially launching the program on Tuesday.

“If you see somebody with the lanyard on maybe they do need some help and support, they might need help navigating their way through the airport, they may need something explained to them in a different way than others, the accommodation that they may want is going to be different from person to person,” she said. “So what we learned is that it’s important to just ask, how can I help you? Do you need any help today?”

She says the Romeo LeBlanc is one of the first airports in Atlantic Canada to adopt the initiative, but it is spreading quickly amongst airports and airlines and she expects other Maritime airports will ask questions about jumping on board.

“I think any symbol that can help somebody that does have a hidden disability just have a better experience through their airports is a good thing,” she said. “As we know, airports and your travel journey is a series of interconnected stops, an ecosystem, and if it’s in more airports, your travel experience can feel more consistent from place to place.”

Shelley Petit, the chair person with the New Brunswick Coalition of Persons with Disabilities, says this launch is an important step forward for the Maritimes and she’s been advocating for something like it for several years.

“35.3 per cent of New Brunswickers 15 and over, based on the latest census, have a disability and out of that, 70 per cent of those are invisible, which means you can’t see it, but it doesn’t make the disability any less real for us,” she said.

She hopes this visual initiative means people with invisible disabilities — such as autism, dementia, MS, hearing loss, and many others — won’t have to continually explain their situation.

“The trauma it takes away, that’s what it is, there’s no more re-traumatization over and over and over because we feel like we have to defend, non-stop, our disability and we shouldn’t have to do that,” she said.

Years ago, she travelled from Saint John to Fort McMurray with her two children — one of whom lives with autism — and her sister.

She says the sunflower lanyard program would have made a huge difference for her family.

“There was just basic things that were just so difficult to do and there were people getting upset because she would repeat things on the plane, but it’s who she is,” she said. “There’s nothing she can do about that and something like that would have just gotten a little more help from the stewardess.”

While Petit calls this a step forward, she says it will only be effective and have a positive impact if staff have the proper training and everyone is on the same page.

She says this could look like working with people and asking them directly how they need help and making sure everyone is using the same appropriate language.

“Things like, don’t say to someone, because we will hear this, ‘but you don’t look disabled.’ […] My go to answer now is what does a person with a disability look like and then we get a lot of stammering. You cannot make assumptions,” she said.

Passengers looking for a lanyard for their next trip can either pick one up at the volunteer desk directly across from security or they can call ahead and request one from reception staff.

For more New Brunswick news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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